Hal McElroy: Water Rats

Hal McElroy developed Water Rats with John Hugginson and Tony Morphett. The show ran for 6 years on the Nine Network and was very successful overseas. Hal was executive producer for the first 66 episodes, TV Flashback caught up with Hal to find out how the series came together.

1) How did the idea for Water Rats come about?

When we started production on Blue Heelers in 1993, I’d lured as story/script editor a fine writer called John Hugginson. I then heard he’d written a spec script for a movie called Water Rats about the Water Police in Brisbane where he’d moved to from the UK. I read it, liked it, but said hey, it’s not a movie, it’s a TV series. So I got him together with veteran TV writer Tony Morphett (with whom I’d created Blue Heelers) and together we created Water Rats the series. As we were working together on Blue Heelers, it all came together very quickly and we went straight to series in 1996.

2) It must have been a coup to cast Colin Friels as Frank Holloway? Were you looking for a big star to cast in the role or was it just a case that Colin happened to fit the bill?

Networks are always looking for stars – the bigger the better – its all about creating promotion/publicity for the show. However Colin was (and is) a very serious actor committed to his craft with stage being the pinnacle, and TV well down his list of priority. Married to Judy Davis, they were acting royalty. Whilst Colin’s masculine quality was perfect, I knew it was a long shot, but… he loved the idea.

3) Colin and Catherine both clicked from the very first episode, did you see this happening before you started shooting? Perhaps in casting?

Colin didn’t do any testing. Catherine did test but by herself. It was just instinct really. You hope that the chemistry will be right. Initially she was a little unsure herself but we met and talked and crossed our fingers. Then boom.

4) Originally the senior boat member was Italian, but Jay Laga’aia was cast and the character changed to Samoan. If you were looking for an Italian how did you end up with Jay?

Gee, I’d forgotten that. To be honest, with hindsight an Italian would have been kinda predictable, but… So Faith Martin who did our casting went wide and found Jay – a Maori was different and boy Jay stepped up to the plate. He was a natural – grace and dignity – when he was standing on the prow of the boat he looked like he was born there – a Pacific Island Prince.

5) Did you feel it was important for Water Rats to have a gay character from the start? Especially one who held a senior position at the station?

No, we didn’t create a gay character per se, we gave the actor a blank page as regards their character’s sexuality. Which I’m certain was the best approach otherwise everyone writing and directing the scenes would be second guessing themselves as too authenticity. So it emerged organically and naturally and was better for it. Similarly on Blue Heelers we didn’t conceive of a romance between an older senior detective (Martin Sacks) and a young female recruit (Lisa McCune). We just watched as their friendship, affection and admiration for each other (as actors) slowly revealed itself to the audience and themselves! Then we capitalised on it Boy did that work out well!

6) Why did you decide to shoot the show on film? Did shooting on film change the way you approached the production process?

Back in the ‘90s there was a clear dividing line, particularly in regard to overseas sales. Videotape shows were quick, easy and cheap to produce so that we did 40/42 episodes of Blue Heelers every single year of its life. It was cheap and cheerful television, but in the beginning was slow to sell internationally. Film is slower and more expensive to shoot, so we only planned on a max of 26 episodes of Water Rats in the first season, which if I remember correctly, quickly blew out to 32 max. Water Rats was a big concept, and deserved a big, ambitious treatment. Whilst the production process was similar, film was like 3 times more expensive. So if you’re spending that sort of money it had better be good – so more stunts, more action, bigger sequences, etc. etc.

7) How did the use of Goat Island come about? Using an island in the middle of Sydney Harbour as your base must have created some serious production challenges?

As we prepared to shoot the first episode in 1995, we were going crazy trying to find a location. Think about it, an office building or warehouse by the water with wharves and parking, editing rooms and production offices ideally. That would be wonderful, but of course it was a dream. Nothing was available. So whilst I went to the TV festival in Cannes I told my Production Designer to just keep looking. Well a couple of days later he said – what about Goat Island, that funny little island just off Balmain virtually under the Harbour Bridge. I said ‘an ISLAND?’ He said yes, it’s not used much, mainly empty but huge with slips, boatyard, old heritage buildings and a vast toilet utility block for all the ship workers – now departed. Di said – do it. Flew back, we both went to the island that day and – it was everything we wanted. Except for one thing. I told the designer I would agree if he put a huge palm tree front and centre.

8) What sort of problems did shooting on water cause? How did you overcome those problems?

At the beginning we were all pretty concerned about physical danger – boat danger/loss/damage to equipment, reliance on good weather, blah blah. So we just gritted our teeth and did it. Great Aussie crew at every level just said okay, let’s do it – and we did!. Solved every problem, kept people safe, shot in all weather. Very professional crew with a real ‘can do’ attitude can do anything.

Ten years later we came up with Sea Patrol. We as Producers weren’t daunted at all by the huge amount of water shooting. The Network were. As it turned out, the Queensland crew weren’t and had a similar ‘can do’ attitude.

9) A lot of people felt the divers were underused during the series (especially later on), was this related to production costs with shooting under water? Or is it just harder to tell a story under water?

It was a mix of things. Everyone (including our writers) watch sufficient TV cop shows to kinda know how cops act, what their stories are, etc. even if they’re on water. So put 2 detectives in a boat and stories will flow. But divers – that’s way outside everyone’s experience. Yes it was expensive and difficult/slow to shoot as well, but perhaps most importantly they could never be central, as Frank and Goldie were so wonderful. So we shot the money.

10) Corruption played a big role in the first series, with dirty cop Knocker coming unstuck. For such a positive show about police why did you focus on corruption? Was it because it was topical at the time?

Knocker was a particular favourite of the writers because he was ‘dark’. Those characters are fun to write for so they generally prefer writing for villains rather than heroes. Yes, corruption was topical (always is) but what’s interesting drama is a show that is nominally a positive, exuberant celebration of policing on beautiful Sydney Harbour with a dark underbelly – if I can use the word a decade early!

11) When Goldie returns to work after shooting Knocker dead, she shows signs of post traumatic stress. Did you find it important to highlight that police shootings have a lasting effect on officers? How do you think Catherine played that vulnerability?

Well Catherine is a wonderful actor who gives enormous thought to everything she touches. She makes it look easy, natural and spontaneous, but… It requires concentration and commitment. She made sure in every scene that the audience never forgot what Goldie had been through.

12) Colin found out he had cancer during production of the third series and took time off – did this throw production into chaos – scripts changing, others characters having to step up? Did he consider leaving the show when he found out?

Yes it sure did. But Colin is a very stoic guy. Pretty quickly he came to the view he should get back to it, but after a period he stepped away. We all understood why.

13) Steve Bisley (Jack Christey) guest starred in one episode and later returned as a regular – why was he brought back? How did you feel about Steve replacing Colin full time?

Steve’s a terrific guy and a lovely actor, so he was already part of the family with his earlier role, so it was an easy, sensible transition. Steve did an excellent job.

14) Why do you think Water Rats was so successful (especially overseas)? Do you think the Sydney 2000 Olympics played a role?

There’s a long list of reasons. Uniqueness – no-one had done it before. Timing – Sydney was already famous but the Olympics (and all its preparation) took it over the top. Great cast, excellent writing and direction. Outdoor, action, gorgeous scenery, pretty girls, bad guys, good guys, terrific music. The list goes on!

You can purchase the complete collection of Water Rats on DVD.

Thanks to Hal McElroy for a great insight into Water Rats. You can see scenes from some of the action packed episodes Hal produced in the video below: