Geoff Morrell: Grass Roots

A few years after Murder Call finished on Nine, Geoff Morrell was cast as Col Dunkley in the new comedy series Grass Roots, created by Geoffrey Atherden (who had previously created Mother and Son). Geoff caught up with TV Flashback to look back at the two series of Grass Roots he worked on, undoubtedly one of his finest performances…

1) How did you become involved with Grass Roots and what did you think of this Col Dunkley character?

I actually auditioned twice for the role of Col Dunkley. I had completely misread the style of the piece and requested a second audition. Thankfully they agreed to test me again.

I had previously worked with the director Peter Andrikidis on the ABC TV series Fallen Angels, for which we were both nominated for an AFI award. We were both keen to renew the working relationship. I hadn’t read the script and I really had no idea how good it was, so I was thrilled when I got the role and was given the scripts to discover what a wonderful creation both the character and series were.

2) Everyone has some sort of dealings with the local council – but did you do any research before shooting the series?

I really didn’t do a great deal of research before the start of shooting. Sometimes all the research you need is in the script, and Grass Roots was definitely one of those.

I have been interested in politics all my life, so I had a pretty good understanding of the machinations in the political world. But one important piece of research was to watch Bob Connelly’s brilliant documentary Rats in the Ranks. It follows a year in the life of Leichhardt Council and its colourful Mayor Larry Hand. Some of that stuff you couldn’t write because no one would believe it!

3) Creator Geoffrey Atherden has said about Col Dunkley, that “He’s the kind of man who finds out what direction the people are moving in and rushes to the front to lead them.” – Do you think that’s a fair assessment of Col or do you think Col has more layers?

I think Geoffrey’s quote is pretty accurate. There are of course many layers to every character, and Col was no different.

I think he went into politics with some altruistic intentions, but as is always the way, the political manoeuvrings change the picture drastically. You can’t do anything if you’re not in power, and staying in power inevitably takes over the focus of most politicians no matter what their leaning. “Believe me, I can take care of the idiots” says Col in the series. Good skill to have in politics!

4) What aspects did you enjoy about playing Col and were there any negatives?

I loved playing Col. No negatives whatsoever. Usually the best things you do as an actor start with a good script, and I think Grass Roots is one of the best bits of writing for Australian Television I have ever read. The structure of the comedy over 8 episodes was extraordinary, and at a time when we had the budgets to do stories with many characters. And what a cavalcade of characters there were!

Geoffrey used to be an architect and I think he designed majestic building which began to live and breathe in the hands of the actors and creatives.

5) Grass Roots was a fast moving show with a lot going on from scene to scene and some scenes were shot from different perspectives over multiple episodes – was it hard for the cast to maintain that pace while shooting? And what was the shooting schedule like?

Technically, the making of Grass Roots was quite a challenge. It was very fast, and there were lots of words! Personally I don’t spend much time learning lines, as they usually seem to stick without much trouble. But because we’re shooting it in a film schedule, it was important to be on top of the lines before the start of each day.

We would often shoot scenes from all 8 episodes in one or two days, as a film schedule means you shoot out each location for the whole series. Nothing is in chronological order. But what a thrill when you get right.

6) Did you have any favourite moments or scenes from the show?

My favourite bits of the show were when Col was being pursued by a guy (Mike le Moignon) about the rejection of his development application for a garage. It was beautifully played by Rickard Healy (who is the son of my History Professor from University days!).

He would suddenly appear beside Col at the urinal, demanding his application be reviewed. When Col turns up in the final episode for an inspection it is revealed that Mike wanted the extra space to run a sweat shop!

Everyone was so beautifully cast, that it was a joy to be in a scene with each and every one of them! Honest.

7) What do you think led to the success of Grass Roots?

I think Grass Roots great success comes from its absolute recognisability and authenticity. It is the level of government that people have the most direct dealings with and I think it’s an accurate reflection of the frustrations we often have with our local council.

And as I said, great writing. That doesn’t always ensure success, but of course it helps. I have done many shows in the 20-odd subsequent years, some of them much lauded, but it is Grass Roots that seems be the one that most people remember best.

8) What will you treasure most from your time working on Grass Roots?

I have the fondest of memories from working on Grass Roots. I made some new friends, and was able to work again with some old friends, including the late great John Clayton, who won his AFI posthumously for his work on the second series.

9) It was reported that a third series of Grass Roots was in development, can you shed any more light on this?

Geoffrey Atherden was very keen to pursue the series, following Col Dunkley all the way through state and federal politics, largely so that he could aim his parody at all levels of Government. By now he would probably be Australia’s representative at the UN.

But the wheels of real government were turning. It was the world of John Howard’s Australia, and the pressure was on, with Howard’s personal pick Jonathon Shier at the helm, to make the ABC leaner and more commercially accountable. I personally think that was the reason that Grass Roots was never picked up for a third series.

Thanks to Geoff for a fantastic interview about a series that was cut short, which is often the case with Australian drama. Don’t forget to check out Geoff’s previous interview about his time on Murder call, where he also let us know what he’s up to these days.

You can see Geoff in some outstanding scenes from Grass Roots in the video below: