COOL INVESTIGATOR CAUGHT IN A SLING
THE AUSTRALIAN. 17th May 1995. By: SUE WILLIAMS
SCENE: the ethnic melting pot of Singapore. Character: John Stamford, a man who left journalism to become a private investigator, disillusioned by the devastation and corruption paraded before him in 20 years covering the post-colonial conflicts in South-East Asia. Theme: the intrigue and violence he uncovers in the penthouses, the boardrooms and the gutters of South-East Asia.
So far, so good, we murmur on reading the blurb on the latest of the series of telemovies to emerge from Nine. Singapore Sling, starring the redoubtable John Waters, sounds as if it has all the makings of tense, exciting drama, with the potential for fascinating character development and wonderfully compelling plotlines.
Then the show begins. And very soon it becomes completely bogged down in a mass of wordy exposition, convoluted plot twists and a stream of background information that makes the action almost impossible to follow with any degree of comprehension - or interest.
The only question left to be asked is, What's such an accomplished film, television and stage actor like John Waters doing in a mess like this?
"I'm maybe not the best person to publicise this," says Waters, quietly. "I do share some of your reservations.
In the first one, there is too much exposition. If you have to stop and explain to the audience what they have just been watching for the last 20 minutes or so, then you have got a slight problem. The first one does suffer a bit from that and with a lot of people going all over the world - to China and so on - it is quite convoluted. I feel that the other two basically follow the character rather more. Most people will find the next two flow a bit better."
The basic problem with this first of a series of three telemovies, subtitled The Road to Mandalay, is that far too much information is crammed in for the narrative structure ever to deal with. At one point, it seems nearly every character who speaks goes into a monologue about their character and background to explain what they're doing there and their links with other members of the cast.
Many of the problems, says Waters, have been ironed out in the following two, Midnight Orchid and Auld Lang Syne.
For him, though, the basic pull was always the character of Stamford he was invited to play, a role unlike anything he'd ever done before. "It's much more intriguing if you are going to have someone who solves mysteries and crimes by using his intellect, rather than simply being a macho gun-shooting, fast-car-driving sort of type," he says. "He has more in common with Sherlock Holmes than any archetype of a private investigator. He's quite intellectual, well read and speaks several languages. I certainly relate to more character-driven stories, especially with a character as fascinating as his. It gets better all the time."
The three Singapore Sling telemovies were shot back to back during an 18-week period from August last year on location in Singapore and in studios in Sydney.
Produced by Barron Entertainment in association with Nine and financed by the Australian Film Finance Corporation and the NSW Film and Television Office, it already has United States and overseas distributors. Whether Nine picks up the option to have more made, as it did with the series of telemovies Halifax f.p., will depend on how well the films are received here.
Waters, 46, certainly wouldn't mind doing more, in any case. Singapore Sling has been his first TV work for a while, after devoting much of his time and energy to his stage tribute to John Lennon, Looking Through a Glass Onion, which went to London's West End after touring Australia.
He had hoped to take it to Broadway too, but Yoko Ono eventually refused to release the American rights for Lennon's songs to be sung there, although she'd agreed for them to be played in Australia and Britain.
"I'd always felt New York would be the perfect place for the show and that audiences there would love it," says Waters.
"But who knows why Yoko refused us? She approves of the show - after all, we're the only ones to whom she's given a copyright licence for the last 15 years - and she's seen videos, heard CDs and read the script.
"But whether she throws the I Ching or reads goats' entrails to make her decisions these days, she just wasn't prepared to give us the right to perform his songs in New York. Of course, she could phone tomorrow . . . or never."
With that disappointment behind him, Waters is meanwhile busy preparing for a tour with his new show, Reunion, co-starring Jacki Weaver, a fictional tale about an old rythmn and blues player in the late 1960s who feels life is empty after he's topped the charts.
It began in Newcastle on Saturday and will travel to the Gold Coast, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, with possible dates later in Sydney.
"I'm opening myself up to accusations that I'm perpetually only entertaining baby-boomers or that I'm having a mid-life crisis and, rather than buying a HarleyDavidson motorbike, I'm playing all this 60s rock 'n' roll," says Waters, laughing. "My answer is, even if that is what I am doing, is that so bad? If it were, I'd stop doing it tomorrow." Waters plainly relishes the chance to switch from film to TV to stage and back again, moving from singer, musician and performer to straight actor by turn.
As one of the country's most versatile entertainers, with acclaim for his roles in Australian landmark productions like Breaker Morant, Nancy Wake, Jesus Christ Superstar and Which Way Home, what would he most like to be doing after Reunion?
"Well, I keep coming back to it, but I do like the character of John Stamford," he says. "He has a bit of me in him in that he likes to take a step back from things, to be a sort of cool observer of life from time to time. But in the chinks you can see he can be an emotional person. Apart from that, though, we haven't too much in common. It's more fun to invent a character that doesn't have the qualities borrowed from you, there's the challenge."
And while he might be far too polite to mention it, the challenge also lies in seeing whether the next two Singapore Slings make the whole venture worthwhile.