Andrew Blackman starred as Dr Harry Morrison in A Country Practice from 1991 until the series ended in 1993, he also reprised the role for the Channel Ten version which aired in 1994. TV Flashback caught up with Andrew to find out about his time on one of the most successful and loved dramas…
1) How did you become involved with A Country Practice?
I was completing my final year at NIDA and had the good fortune to land a lead role in our graduating production. None of us knew what was going to happen, of course, we had just spent three years working closely together and we were acutely aware that the prospect of ongoing work in our chosen profession would always be slim. There was some interest from a couple of production companies that were working with Channel 7 and I became aware through one of our tutors that Shauna Crowley, the casting director at JNP Productions, was scouting for a new young doctor to join the cast of A Country Practice. Before we wrapped the year I was invited to audition for the role of Dr Harry Morrison. I knew things were getting serious when I was called back to work with Shane Porteous, who had played the immensely popular Terrence Elliott from the inception of the series. Nerves nearly got the better of me on the day and I remember coming away thinking, ‘Well, that was that’. I was setting tables at the Bennelong Restaurant at the Opera House when I got the call a few days later. That was the last day I worked in hospitality.
2) Did you do any research for the role?
The show had three full-time nurses who doubled as medical consultants. they worked closely with the script department as advisors on storylines to make sure that the appropriate procedures were followed. It was important that storylines reflected real medical situations. They would also be on hand during filming to make sure that the actors were following the correct medical procedures at all times. They were a valuable and accessible source of research on a day-to-day basis.
Part of my induction was a prearranged visit to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Maureen Edwards had just started as the new Wandin Valley Matron and together we were taken through each department to see how a functioning hospital operated. Visiting theatre during an operation was a completely fascinating experience but the most memorable moment was a trip to the City Morgue. I found it morbidly satisfying at first but had to quickly leave when I was shown the body of poor gentleman who had lost his life while attempting to board a train. For all the make-believe and storytelling that is part of my job, this was a sobering dose of reality.
3) What was it like joining a long running and very popular show?
Enormously exciting! Here was I, a drama school graduate in his mid-twenties, still very raw and green joining the most popular and respected long running television show of it’s era. I was excited and nervous all at once; all of a sudden it was very real. Questions of doubt crossed my mind, would I fit in? Would I make a mess of it and embarrass everybody? But, no. The cast and crew were absolutely welcoming. Many of the scenes on my first shoot day were with Lorrae Desmond, of whom I was in complete awe. She had such a long back catalogue of work, had lived in the UK, had her own TV and radio show and worked with some extraordinary people. I’ll never forget her generosity on that first nervous day.
Apart from a core cast, a series like A Country Practice relied on a revolving door of actors to play guest roles. One of the most enjoyable takeaways was having the opportunity to work with the best actors in Australia. Learning from actors whose careers began before television was invented, people like Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell, was a great joy. And those whose careers were just beginning, David Wenham and Jacqueline McKenzie spring to mind.
4) What aspects of Harry Morrison did you enjoy playing?
Harry took himself very seriously in the early days of his career but as he learned the ropes at Wandin Valley he loosened up and was happy to show more sides to his personality. He was very caring and empathetic; saving lives and the health of those he treated were his highest priority. He was a gun golfer, which I always enjoyed because I’m not. He was a country boy, as I was, and rode horses. When the producers realised that horsemanship was a particular strength of mine a whole lot of new storylines opened up. That was exciting. He was a romantic and a bit of a dag at times which allowed for plenty of comedy. Every week was conflict, drama and resolution. It was all enjoyable.
5) Some of the scenes in A Country Practice were horrific (car accidents, plus emergency operations etc), did you have any issues dealing with some of the more gory scenes?
No, I loved it. Car chases, being held hostage, shot in the leg with an arrow, an out of control hot air balloon and arriving late for my wedding on horseback. Much of it was challenging but in the end we are making drama. It is an actors dream to have such juicy stuff to work on.
6) Do you remember much about the shooting schedule? Doing so many hours of television a year must have meant long days?
The days were very long, 10 hours generally. We would shoot approximately 2 x 45 minutes of television each week for 44 weeks. A two week period would consist of 2 blocks, each block was made up of 2 x 45 minute episodes. We would shoot the OB (outside broadcast), now known as location, for Block 2 and film the indoor scenes in studio for Block 1 concurrently. So that’s 66 hours of content per year. It was a well oiled machine to say the least. The studio scenes were filmed on set at the Channel 7 Studios in Epping, Sydney. Three cameras filmed the action which was recorded and edited live to video tape. Cutting edge technology at the time. The work load moved around but being a member of the young cast we were granted the lions share.
7) What was it like working with a big ensemble? Was it a fun set?
It was hilarious, a wonderful environment to work in and a testament to the producing team to cast such a diverse range of personalities. From the infectious laughter of Georgie Parker and constant joking of Syd Heylan, to the quiet professionalism of Shane Porteus and gruff grandstanding of Brian Wenzel there was never a dull moment.
8) What was it like working so closely with Michelle Pettigrove (Kate)? Did you enjoy the pairing?
What a joy! Michelle is brilliant and her effervesce is contagious. Yes, we were very close and bounced off each other with ease. Like all married couples we had our moments, notwithstanding I’d love the opportunity to work with her again at this stage of life.
9) Did you have a favourite episode or storyline?
There were so many. Episode 1058, the climatic ending that saw Wandin Valley razed by fire has to be my favourite. It was such a well written, well produced episode full of symbolism.
A particularly emotionally challenging storyline involved a car accident and its aftermath.
Returning from a Harry and Kate send-off at the club, Esme comes across the accident scene. Harry, who was driving comes out of the accident with a collapsed lung, Kate with a fractured arm, but a new nurse, Jules Goodfellow is paralysed from the waist down. Over the ensuing episodes Harry, wracked with guilt and holding himself responsible for the accident, takes it on himself to be carer throughout rehabilitation. Spending more and more time with Jules, played by Loene Carmen, a romance develops that leads to a series of complicated outcomes.
10) Were you surprised when they announced the series was ending on Seven? What were the reactions on set?
I was on set the day that creator James Davern and the Channel 7 executives came in to give us the news. We were shocked, we all were. Georgie Parker had won Logies for the previous four years, we thought we might be immune. In many ways it wasn’t unexpected. 7 Media had just become a publicly listed company and the all important ratings were drifting sideways. The generation that had grown up with Molly had indeed grown up and the appetite for renewal at Wandin Valley was waning. The television programming landscape was evolving. There were plenty of tears but we still had a couple of months of TV to deliver and we made sure we went out on a high.
11) Ten created a new version of the show a year later, which you joined. Many feel this version never captured the magic of the Seven series. What were your thoughts on the new series? Do you think it could have grown into something special given more of a chance?
I agree, the Ten series didn’t ever capture the magic of the original series. Could it grown into something special? You know, I don’t think so. There was some crossover continuity in casting which you had to have; I came across as did Joyce Jacobs as Esme, Paul Gleeson as the Park Ranger and Joan Sydney returned as Matron but it was the locations that made it such a dramatically different show. Emerald, in the Dandenong Ranges is beautiful, as is the Yarra Valley but they were not Wandin Valley, the Hawkesbury River and the plains of Pitt Town, Wilberforce and Windsor. It was a different country. It rained constantly in the cold winter of 1994. It was a stab in the dark by Channel 10 to grab Channel 7 viewers but the loyal audience of old ACP weren’t buying it. They had already moved over to Mt Thomas and cops in the country instead. The baton was handed to Blue Heelers to pick up where A Country Practice left off and would run for 13 years creating jobs and careers and a whole lot of viewing enjoyment on the way. Everything has its time.
12) What will you treasure most from your time working on A Country Practice, from both a professional and personal perspective?
Working with such a brilliant cast and crew for a start. I forged life long relationship during my time on that show. It was a formative experience for me artistically and shaped my work ethic. There are many lesson I have taken forward into my career – to take the work seriously but not to take myself too seriously, egos get in the way of true creativity, always be prepared and ready to contribute to the ensemble, you know the old adage – the whole is worth much more that the sum of the parts.
13) What have you been up to recently?
My most recent work on screen was with Bloom Series 2, screening on Stan. I continue to work regularly in television and theatre, though the events of 2020 have made this increasingly difficult.
I am artistic director of Complete Works Theatre Company. The company produces educational resources through performance for the Victorian education sector and is increasingly moving online in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Thanks to Andrew for a wonderful look back at his time on A Country Practice. If you’d love to see Andrew’s arrival into Wandin Valley, you can now purchase the Season 11 boxset on DVD.
You can see Andrew Blackman in scenes from A Country Practice in the video below: