AFTER more than a decade, Jack Irish has finally made his way to the small screen. Following several failed attempts, the laconic hero of Peter Temple’s crime novels makes his TV debut in two telemovies starring Guy Pearce and directed by Jeffrey Walker.

Bad Debts, written by Andrew Knight, and Black Tide, written by Matt Cameron, arrive accompanied by a desire from all involved to do justice to Temple’s books: to reflect their wry, sometimes blackly comic tone; to capture their distinctively terse, deadpan dialogue; to evoke their sense of a changing city – Melbourne – and the sometimes-corrupt forces that shape it; and to present a particular kind of protagonist, a man who tends to find himself investigating dirty deeds at the top end of town.

Jack Irish is many things: widower, former lawyer, trainee cabinet-maker, debt collector, follower of the horses and an almost accidental detective. ”He’s a reluctant hero,” producer Ian Collie says, ”who gets caught up in what happens because he’s trying to find a missing person or to help someone out.”

When we meet Irish in Bad Debts, based on the first of Temple’s four Jack Irish novels, Collie says he’s ”a former high-flyer gradually reconstructing himself after 10 years of booze and self-pity”.

The plot conjures an unholy alliance of big business, police, politicians and the church. Jack’s investigations, driven by a desire to right a past wrong, involve his sometime boss, racing identity Harry Strang (Roy Billing), and his right-hand man, Cam Delray (Aaron Pedersen), as well as journalist Linda Hillier (Marta Dusseldorp).

Pearce likens his character to ”a sort of a pinball that’s being bounced around from one ridiculous situation to another and trying to maintain his composure throughout”.

”You know, sometimes you find yourself in a situation and you think, ‘How the hell did I get here?’ That was how I saw Jack. There was something pushing him forward and something deep underneath, whether that was a sense of justice, or a need to redeem himself, or a quest to answer questions that he’d buried years before.”

Dusseldorp, who appears in both films, describes Pearce as ”a total gentleman, fiercely intelligent and really instinctual. There’s never a compromise on a scene; it just crackles. It’s been amazing – a real pleasure.”

It’s customary for people to say nice things about their colleagues to a journalist visiting a set. But with the Jack Irish films there’s a genuine enthusiasm about the project: about the wit and dexterity of the scripts, the composure and competence of the director, the affability of the producer and the talent and commitment of the star.

The glowing praise and general good vibes are particularly noteworthy given the pressures on the production. The telemovies were filmed over 42 days from October last year, following a five-day delay when Pearce was unexpectedly rushed to hospital for kidney-stone surgery. They were shot concurrently to maximise savings on the tight shooting schedule required by a relatively modest budget of $5.6 million, which Knight, also an executive producer, reckons ”is like trying to make two films for the price of one low-budget Australian feature”.

So a morning on set might require a scene at a racetrack, a pub or a mansion for Bad Debts, while in the afternoon it could be the discovery of dead bodies in a deserted farmhouse for Black Tide.

”Every day we’d be driving to some other house in Melbourne and I’d be working with a different actor and then never see them again,” Pearce says.

An impressive array of actors was keen to be involved, with some – Colin Friels, Steve Bisley, Shane Jacobson, Diana Glenn, Don Hany, Emma Booth, Lachy Hulme, Rhys Muldoon – appearing only for a scene or two. Pearce credits the director with helping to attract such a fine cast and enabling him to navigate the dense plots and myriad characters. He says Walker’s involvement was a key factor in his decision to return home to appear in his first Australian TV production since Neighbours in the 1980s.

Walker, a former child actor whose nickname on set is ”Boy Wonder” or ”Boy Genius”, inspires unreserved admiration from his cast. ”He’s my favourite type of director,” Dusseldorp says. ”Very quiet, just watches and then says one thing and the scene opens up: he’s given me some jewels. He’s talented, focused and very clear.”

Pearce credits the director with creating a respectful, collaborative working environment in which an actor feels trusted and free – the kind of atmosphere in which he feels he can do his best work.

”This is what you look for in a director,” he says. ”You want a director to say, ‘I trust you, I trust that you’ll do what instinctually feels right. And if it doesn’t, I’ll certainly say something. But I just need you to know that I trust you.’ Jeffrey is very aware of the power of those words and he said those things to me at the very beginning.”

Even though Walker believes Temple’s novels were screaming out to be adapted for the screen, Knight describes the process of translating the novels as ”a real wrestle”, requiring the condensation of plot-packed, heavily populated books into trim 90-minute telemovies. ”It’s achingly hard because you’re stuck in this compression chamber where you’re trying to distil the very best of the writing and the plot without losing the essence of it,” he says.

”For me, the tone was more important than the plot. The world of Jack Irish is this world of racing and old men in bars. That’s the sort of stuff that, frankly, you’d normally cut out on television because it doesn’t have a plot value. But I thought, if I do that, I’d destroy it. I’m hoping that the films will increase Peter’s book sales and that people will think that they honour the books in character and in tone.”

Many of those involved hope the telemovies will become the foundation of a franchise, to be followed by Dead Point and White Dog. If viewers share their enthusiasm, Jack Irish could continue to grace our screens for some time.

Jack Irish: Bad Debts

Sunday, ABC1, 8.30pmGreat adaptations – from page to screen

Literature is a rich source of material for television drama. Here are 10 notable examples.

Brideshead Revisited (1981)

Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, which examines an aristocratic family through the eyes of an outsider, became one of the great British serials and launched the career of Jeremy Irons.

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

All six of Jane Austen’s novels have been adapted for TV, some several times, but the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, is the stand out.

Bleak House (2005)

Charles Dickens’s novels, first published as periodical serials, were the soap operas of their day, so it’s no surprise so many have been adapted for TV. There have been three adaptations of Bleak House but the 15-part 2005 version is the definitive one.

Dexter (2006-present)

Showtime’s successful series is based on Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels, although the TV show and books diverged significantly after the first season.

True Blood (2008-present)

When Alan Ball picked up one of Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mystery novels, he was struck by its televisual potential. HBO agreed and the show has become one of its biggest hits.

Justified (2010-present)

A short story by Elmore Leonard provided the inspiration for this superb crime drama about US Marshal Raylan Givens. Its success inspired Leonard to write a new novel, Raylan.

The Walking Dead (2010-present)

The success of this post-apocalyptic zombie drama, based on Robert Kirkman’s comic series, marks the coming of age of the graphic novel.

The Slap (2011)

Christos Tsiolkas’s novel of contemporary Australian manners, told from the perspective of different characters, screamed out for a TV adaptation and Matchbox Pictures delivered eight episodes of unrivalled excellence.

Game of Thrones (2011-present)

When HBO announced it was adapting George R. R. Martin’s mediaeval fantasy novels for TV, eyebrows were raised, but the result has been a triumph, introducing a niche genre to a mainstream audience and winning a swag of awards.

Puberty Blues (2012)

Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey’s 1979 novel inspired a landmark movie in 1981 and this year provided the raw material for a thoughtful, sophisticated eight-part series from the team behind Love My Way and Tangle.

Greg Hassall


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