An interview with Melbourne actress Caroline Craig, currently in New Zealand performing the stage version of Yes, Prime Minister.
As Senior Detective Jacqui James in Underbelly, and Sergeant Tess Gallagher in Blue Heelers, Caroline Craig has portrayed enduring roles in two of Australia’s most popular TV shows. In Wellington for Yes, Prime Minister, the effervescent, good- humoured actress gives Alexander Bisley a spry interview. She talks about Roberta Williams, Jacki Weaver’s influence, and why the satirical approach to politics by the likes of The Chaser and John Clarke is important. Photography by Daniel Rose.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: After Tess’s Blue Heelers premiere, an angry old lady clobbered you on the noggin with a bag of frozen peas at the supermarket queue and said, “You killed Maggie Doyle!” How did you respond?
CAROLINE CRAIG: I apologised and let her go first. She was a pretty feisty, very tiny lady. I laughed. What was interesting was she thought: not only was I actually my character, but that my character had also murdered someone [laughs].
AB: Is that the most dangerous situation you’ve ended up in? You were the feisty cop Jacqui James on Underbelly who chased/caught Carl Williams in the first (and best) series. You authoritatively narrated the debut Melbourne series, and narrate the ongoing Underbelly series. You’re from St. Kilda, Melbourne, where it all began when Alphonse Gangitano pumped those bullets into Greg Workman.
CC: As soon as it came to air all these people came out in St. Kilda who knew someone and I’d get bailed up; at the supermarket by the security guard who’d go, “I know Roberta, she’s my best mate.” So everyone knows everyone. So I suddenly became very grateful that I wasn’t playing a real character. That I wasn’t playing Benji, or Carl, or someone like that. Roberta Williams did actually come to set one time and demand to meet Cat Stewart. We were sailing pretty close to the wind. Nothing really, really dangerous. You know what? It’s good to be playing a policewoman, because it’s good to have the Victoria Police on your side.
AB: What’s the edgiest thing that’s happened in your ongoing role as Underbelly narrator?
CC: Nothing really dangerous happened to me. I was pretty lucky. I’m a terrible driver, so I did get pulled over by the police once for appalling driving. They were very kind when they realised I was in Underbelly. No actual criminals have ever come and talked to me. They wouldn’t dare.
AB: John Clarke had a good line about Underbelly’s Victorian ban when we discussed it: “We’re allowed to dodge the actual bullets, but we’re not actually allowed to watch it.”
CC: It was a really strange time and I was working as a paralegal in a law firm before I got the job. I knew the judge, Betty King, who squashed Underbelly; the rumour was that her article clerks or her assistants were actually the ones who leaked the tapes. Everyone had an illegal copy from this gray market. I didn’t have a copy! I had to get a copy from the police. From the Victorian police [laughs]! I remember going on my bike around St. Kilda Road and having these unmarked DVDs tucked into my bag. It was a really exciting time to be part of that. True crime’s always a bit edgy, I reckon. Especially when it’s happening around you.
AB: Carl Williams was whacked in The Big House, so they’ll have to dramatise that for TV.
CC: That’s right. There’s lots more material, let’s put it that way.
AB: The Chaser and John Clarke are great on Australian politics.
CC: Yeah. I think John Clarke’s a genius, he and Max Gillies. I’ve worked with Max. I feel really lucky to have been part of this very satirical voice in Australian culture.
AB: John Clarke’s satirical news is an important influence on The Colbert Report, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, etc.
CC: If people can laugh about stuff, laugh about really serious issues, then they can engage them again in a fresh way. Especially if they’ve got politics fatigue.
AB: There was a strain of humour shot through the original Underbelly. Do you see a connection between Underbelly and Yes, Prime Minister? You’re here in New Zealand for a 2013 stage version of the British classic.
CC: I guess it’s all about archetypical power games. I think the characters in Yes, Prime Minister are more articulate and slightly less brutal. What I really enjoy about this play is that it’s really clever, these characters have minds like diamonds. It’s a battle of wits, which is really fun. Underbelly was kind of a battle of wits, but they had guns and drugs and quite a few other things [laughs].
AB: Australian politics is a bit brutal; so colourful and comic.
CC: It’s a farce. When you are doing a show something in art or life will always come crashing together. I watched the ballot the other night where Julia Gillard was voted out and Kevin Rudd was voted in, and it really was like watching a farce because everyone was running in and out of doors like they do on a stage in a Restoration comedy.
CC: I know, I know. I wish him luck.
AB: Did you see the musical Keating, satirising Australian politics? It’s the most live musical fun I’ve had, those hilarious numbers like ‘Power’, ‘The Mateship’, ‘Freaky’.
CC: My friend Mike McLeish was in it. We went to secondary school together. He’s born to play that role. He’s an amazing singer. Casey Benetto, the musician, is brilliant. So hopefully they’re going to be making something else. They were working on one about real estate last time I heard.
AB: It’s like Blackadder, the final scene with the song ‘The Light on the Hill’ goes serious. It’s a moving appeal to Australia’s best qualities: that debate’s still contemporary with John Howard’s heir Tony Abbott running dirty for PM.
CC: That’s right. It definitely is, and I hope the higher impulses win. It’s been a slanging match in Australian politics. People just ripping each other apart and not really appealing to higher causes, nobler aspirations and policies. Everyone’s just really hungry for power and that’s what Yes, Prime Minister really plays with: the power games.
AB: Tell me about Claire Sutton, your Blairite/Daveite character in Yes, Prime Minister’s lead quartet, along with PM Hacker, Sir Humphrey, and Bernard?
CC: There was a policy adviser in the original series. She was an absolute ballbreaker. My character’s more amoral. She’s Jonathan Lynn’s vision of a young woman in politics: she knows how to use her sexuality and she knows how to manipulate; she knows it’s all about spin. She’s more of a spin-doctor.
AB: When you perform on Wellington’s Opera House stage over there tonight, who will inspire you?
CC: Jacki Weaver. She’s hilarious, one of the funniest people I’ve worked with. She’s an absolute inspiration. She always has the audience in the palm of her hand: “What’s going to happen with her?”
AB: She went seamlessly from that singularly repulsive gangland matriarch in Animal Kingdom to the adorable, caring mom in Silver Linings Playbook.
CC: She’s an absolute character actor, completely transforms. In one show she tried to black out all of her teeth because she thought her character would have rotten teeth. [Laughs]. She really commits. She’s really playful. She’s got a wicked sense of humour. She has said a few things to me backstage which have definitely made me laugh just before I go on, and always made me feel really good. I always think of her whenever I’m nervous backstage. I remember one time before I went on stage I was absolutely terrified and she held my hand: “It’s magic time!”
AB: What’s your pitch, the magic of seeing you and Yes, Prime Minister live versus rewatching the DVD at home?
CC: I think anyone who knows what it’s like to try to get something done in the face of obfuscation and bureaucracy, will enjoy it. It’s much dirtier, more like Underbelly, much spikier. It’s been rewritten for now, it’s very relevant to what’s happening now. The series has a lot of relevance, unfortunately: there’s still global warming, stuff that they were talking about back in the ’80s. It’s much faster and it’s much fierier. The characters are much more scurrilous. And it is exciting to watch in real time. I would far rather go and see a theatre show. It’s much more theatrical and farcical.