This week ABC screens the second season of The Ex-PM starring Shaun Micallef and, as fate would have it, the final screen performance of the late John Clarke.
Clarke died just days after filming wrapped in Melbourne, whilst bushwalking in The Grampians.
When I visited the ABC comedy in April, Micallef told me it was one of Clarke’s earliest characters that helped inspire his own career.
“I’ve been in awe of him for years. One of the reasons I thought comedy might be nice to get into was because of Fred Dagg,” he said at the time.
“I told him I had a Fred Dagg album and I was thinking of bringing it in to get him to sign it. But it’s too embarrassing. Maybe next series.”
Sadly that now won’t come to pass. But audiences will see much more of Clarke as Henry Coates, agent to Micallef’s ex-pollie Andrew Dugdale than in season one.
“John Clarke is not under home arrest talking by Skype (this season). Now he can walk and talk and move. So it’s really interesting seeing this new dimension to his character,” he explains.
“Before I was just acting with him through a television screen, which is nice and safe. But when he is only this far away from you, with those burning eyes.”
“That’s my Jimmy Stewart and old Capra films coming out…. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington!”
Season 2 sees Dugdale re-enter the political race, offered the chance to run for a relatively safe seat for his party in south-east Queensland.
“In the first series Dugdale didn’t really have anything to do other than wander around Curb Your Enthusiasm-style,” Micallef continues.
“This time he has to do things. The pressure is on and he has to undo the things he says and redeem himself. There’s also a bit of a tug of war because Ellen (Lucy Honigman), who was ghost-writing his book, is now his speech-writer. She’s always on his shoulder whispering to be principled.
“But Sonny (Nicholas Bell) and Henry (John Clarke) are on the other shoulder suggesting otherwise.
“I like the idea of him being a born-again idealist who actually wants to do some good. It’s nice that he’s trying to find that thing within him that’s not cynical. That’s my Jimmy Stewart and old Capra films coming out…. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington! It didn’t end well though.”
“I’m Harry Lime in The Third Man.”
Guest cast include Lisa McCune, Frank Woodley, Vince Colosimo, Bob Franklin, Emily Taheny and Ian Smith whilst returning cast are Nicki Wendt, Francis Greenslade, Kate Jenkins, Jackson Tozer, Ming Zhu-Hii.
As producer Nick Murray explains, “There’s an ensemble cast of 9 characters so it’s outside the norm of what people say you should have in an ensemble. They all inhabit their own space but it makes some of the scenes really unwieldy, when you have 9 people each with a line in 1 scene.”
“It’s really interesting to look at because everyone has a different agenda. But it also means it takes 9 hours to shoot it,” Micallef observes.
“Because they have something to do now, because this is goal-oriented, they have more lines than me. Which is great.
“So the great thing is I can still be talked about in other scenes, but I don’t have to be in them!
“I’m Harry Lime in The Third Man.”
Indeed the second season is so busy propping up the rejuvenated political aspirations of its title character, the location of his home, which underpinned season 1, won’t even appear in season 2. Instead, Dugdale is on the hustings with his family running his campaign office.
“It’s a bit like Robert Redford in The Candidate.”
“This time round he’s become relevant, which is always frightening for an ex-politician. Or at least he thinks he’s relevant,” Micallef explains.
“He’s running for office having been offered the opportunity of garnering a seat in a by-election. It’s not a safe seat but it’s likely to be successfully his, just on name-recognition alone. All he has to do is be there and just don’t say anything. So it’s a bit like Robert Redford in The Candidate.
“But of course it’s all being done on the cheap so the family are helping, which we saw in the last election with Malcolm Turnbull asking Lucy to be front and centre.
“Both Bill Shorten and Turnbull used their spouses in that way, which is a very Presidential, very Trump-like thing.
“There’s something about House of Cards that makes me think the idea of the President and the First Lady are now an important thing to sell the party. So we have Cathy in the form of Nicki Wendt.
“She is looking a little big glam, like Melania, but as with the first series it’s not specific about anybody or any time.
“(Dugdale) has to leave a good impression with people. He can’t not care what people think, anymore. As a performer, bunging on something and falling short, is my stock in trade. That’s all I can do.
“My persona over-estimates his ability, and as a human being I probably over-estimate my ability too.”
The Ex-PM returns 8:30pm Thursday on ABC.