Peter Mochrie: Water Rats

Peter Mochrie played John “Knocker” Harrison during the first series of Water Rats. His character was a fan favourite and his betrayal of the Rats will go down in history as one of the biggest and best storylines in Australian drama of the 90’s. TV Flashback caught up with Peter to discuss his very fond memories of working on Water Rats…

1) How did you become involved with Water Rats?

I became involved through a gruelling audition process that saw a huge amount of local actors put through their paces at Faith Martin’s casting studio in North Sydney. Water Rats was the hot new local drama to be produced by Hal McElroy / Southern Star and Channel 9 in 1995. I auditioned 5 times, originally for the role of sergeant Hawker but ended up with John ‘Knocker’ Harrison.

2) What attracted you to the role of Knocker?

There wasn’t much information to begin with about Knocker. Hal and the great producer John Hugginson told me that Knocker’s story arc would be quite something, so I was very curious to know more.

3) Did you enjoy playing Knocker?

“Knocker” was a watershed for me. I had the opportunity to put my method training at NIDA into good use and create a very watchable character. I was able to learn first hand with a Detective unit for 3 months the ins and outs of actual policing. To go to a crime scene and learn from the best was a boon. Firing a Glock 9 millimetre at a range for a month and writing actual reports is enormously essential to being able to replicate authenticity. The story telling was credible and the feeling in the cast was palpable. We had some outstanding talent really pushing the boundaries, and Colin Friels and Catherine McClements were outstanding. The Gods were with us on Water Rats.

4) What were your initial thoughts working on an island and on boats? Did you think this could easily go wrong?

Hal is a great communicator and was exceptional at planning as well as surrounding himself with ‘can do’ professionals. We had the best of everything on that series and Hal and his team made sure the morale and support was the finest.

The producers had a blueprint and a vision and created a real dynamic and buzz about the project. The support from the Water Police was inspiring and every effort was made to make the show as authentic as possible. It was a real thrill to go to work on Goat Island on the boats in the morning and rarely did a mishap occur due to the Producers preparedness, knowing and doing their jobs.

5) What was it like being part of a big budget action series?

Initially we didn’t know how big the show would become. We were just an ensemble cast working our way through the scenes each day trying to do our best. Little did we know how popular Water Rats would become. Luckily there was a real sense of camaraderie, chemistry and competitiveness in the cast that transferred beautifully onto the screen.

Water Rats was highly original and cutting edge for its time and this helped it gain a momentum in terms of reputation to work on, and with the general public.

6) Did you try and convey a dark tone in your performance from the start or did you let it build up over time?

The scripts are always the key indicator of how things will flow. An actor on series television doesn’t really have more than a vague idea of how it will all turn out as you get the scripts weekly, so with Knocker I just trusted the process, made no judgements about his behaviour and simply played the objectives I set for him.

I was very lucky that the writers knew exactly what they were doing. People liked Knocker because he was good at his job and always simply shrugged off the innuendo.

7) What was it like working with Colin Friels and Catherine McClements?

Working with Colin and Catherine was a joy and a huge learning experience. I learnt more in a year with these two consummate actors than anything in my career, including 3 years at drama school. The chemistry with Catherine was a gift, a real competitiveness and a drive to do better.

Colin has an enviable technique that I quickly tried to emulate. He would usually just do one take and it was always insightful and natural, this was down to his knowledge of the craft but also a preparation second to none. From the first rehearsal to the actual take was always a slow build and then whammo. He taught me about trust, belief and awareness and I will always be grateful for his generosity. The guy is also extraordinarily talented which is always a boon. Work with the best and hopefully some will rub off on you.

8) Your character had a long standing relationship with Frank Holloway and this was obvious when you were working with Colin, did you get together before filming started to make the relationship seem authentic, or did it happen naturally?

The funny thing, preparing with Colin usually involved throwing a football around, just talking, and being natural. We would run the lines just once and the key was listening and trusting and hopefully a little magic would appear.

9) You weren’t worked as hard as the regular cast, did that give you a chance to flesh out Knocker more?

The key to all things in life I feel, is a certain amount of creative preparedness and knowingness. All the actors wanted to be giving an A grade performance in that environment, especially after we went to air and were a success. Knowing your character and their dialogue in types of situations was paramount. Needless to say when it was my turn I was ready.

10) Knocker was great at manipulating people and situations, did you find that easy or hard to show?

The objectives one sets in a scene, and then the entire episode, informs the outcome. Thus with Knocker the exceptional writing from Tony Morphett, Anne Brooksbank, Denise Morgan, Peter Gawler and indeed many others really helped set the parameters and I just played the actions to the best of my ability.

I also absolutely loved working with that cast and crew and that plays a huge part in going the extra mile in episodic television. We had the best time and created something to be proud of.

11) Knocker was a popular character – did you ever think maybe they should turn him into a good guy and keep him on the show?

Yes that was the thought at the time but Knocker’s fate was sealed from the start, when he started killing people.

The audience were astounded by Knocker’s death and that was the morality tale in that first season. Irony is always valuable in story telling, and showing that things aren’t always as they seem inform us all, especially these days. In every 12 disciples there is always one Judas and this time it was Knocker.

12) You were in the moment – so do you think if Goldie hadn’t shot you, you would have shot her? Or was Knocker just looking for the easy way out?

That was the beauty of that moment. Goldie got him first. Knocker turned to run and she pulled the trigger.

Goldie was the first woman he trusted and thus why he didn’t kill her first.

13) What will you treasure most from your time working on Water Rats, from both a professional and personal perspective?

Water Rats was a one off. The story telling, acting, procedures and quality decision making have informed my life and teachings to this day. It was a watershed moment in Australian Television Drama and I am enormously grateful for being chosen to be a part of it. I hope that producers and writers continue to have the temerity and vision to keep producing quality Australian Television Drama as we sink hopelessly further into the abyss of Reality TV.

Thanks to Peter for a great interview about his time on Water Rats. Following on from this interview, next week we’ll be continuing this great insight as Peter tells us about his time on Murder Call.

Don’t forget to check out Peter’s website:

You can also buy the Water Rats the complete collection on DVD.

You can see Peter in scenes from Water Rats below: