Now we’re in the throes of a second lockdown, I thought I’d encountered all the challenges that come with remote lunching; bad internet connections, differing technology, cameos from home-schooling kids.
But lunch with actor John Wood is the first to have been interrupted by a horse. We’ve tackled the tech issues and have settled into easy chat when Wood breaks off. “Oh, Christ, one of the horses has just galloped across the lawn,” he says.
He leaves to deal with the equine emergency while I top up my wine.
We had planned to meet at a restaurant, and when our plans changed, Wood thoughtfully sent me two bottles of wine — a 2005 tempranillo made from grapes he and his family picked, bottled at the Tokar Estate, and a shiraz made from grapes grown on his property — to enjoy with our lunch.
I’ve already opened the tempranillo when he reveals that he’s not drinking himself. I soldier on.
John Wood at his home in the Yarra Valley.Credit:Simon Schluter
Wood lives on a property in the Yarra Valley (hence the horses), where it’s not so hard to be in lockdown, but he misses his three grandkids (he’s reading them The Hobbit over Zoom every day, “the highlight of my day”) and “talking rubbish with other actors”.
Our homes are miles away from each other, so I’ve grabbed a local pizza and Wood has ordered from his favourite local, Benny’s, where his mate, Rafaelle, the chef, has opened up ahead of his usual evening hours especially.
“He’s in the local strip at Wandin,” says Wood. “He’s very popular and the food’s terrific.”
Wood has ordered fried calamari (Benny’s signature) and the veal scallopini, “big enough to feed half a dozen people,” Wood says. “His serves are always enormous — but great. This scallopini is lovely.”
We reconvene once he’s checked on the runaway horse, which has “left hoof-holes all over the place”. He was unable to wrangle it; horses are his wife Leslie’s thing. “Where were we?”
Wood had been sharing some great gossip about a couple of actors with “big egos”, ("just monsters!") but the specifics are best kept off the record. Sydney actors, he reckons, are often worse than Melbourne thespians, although he concedes “there’s a lot of egos in the business”.
“But funnily enough, I’m always surprised when I come up against an ego, because most of the people I know, including myself, have a bit of an inferiority complex.”
Wood has just published his autobiography, and there are a few anecdotes in there that I imagine kept his publisher’s lawyer busy, such as his recounting a certain TV executive calling one of the Blue Heelers cast members a “bitch” and Wood’s own observations on why the long-running series was cancelled.
But mostly How I Clawed My Way To The Middle is full of fond reminiscences of Melbourne’s theatre scene and his career across stage and TV; after more than 50 years in the business, Wood has seemingly worked with every actor in Australia, from his earliest days at NIDA, after he won a scholarship there in the late '60s, to his prime-time, Logie-winning TV years.
The fried calamari with chili.Credit:Simon Schluter
He’s best known, of course, for his epic 13-year stint as Sergeant Tom Croydon on Blue Heelers, and before that as magistrate Michael Rafferty on Rafferty’s Rules for four years.
Long before TV, Wood was a veteran of the stage, starting out in amateur theatre even as he worked day jobs as a bricklayer, a railways clerk and at the abattoir where his father worked.
The title of the memoir reflects Wood’s self-deprecating manner and candour, very much in evidence during our lunch.
“I don’t think there is much beyond the middle here — you’ve got to climb higher up the ladder and go to Hollywood or London and … I never wanted to do that,” he says.
“I mean ... there are times when I’ve regretted not having gone to the UK and tested myself against people like Albert Finney. I went through a period where I was the go-to person to do all the roles he did in London, so it would’ve been nice to see how I could’ve gone against someone like him.”
He can’t imagine, though, the route that many young Australian actors take these days, heading to LA for “pilot season”.
“The level of rejection would just cripple me. It’s very brutal,” he says. “One always feels quite dejected when you audition for something and don't get it. If I auditioned for 100 television shows and didn’t get any of them, I think I’d be suicidal by the end of it!”
Right now, of course, Wood, like most of the industry, is in a state of limbo. When the first lockdown began, he’d been starring David Williamson’s Crunch Time, the playwright’s final play before his retirement. The run at the Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli was cut short and plans for touring the work shelved.
The gig after that, too, in an arena show of The Wizard of Oz, was also put on the backburner. If it wasn’t for his memoir advance, he says he’d have no money coming in.
“Everyone’s in the same boat, of course. But I think the government’s been appalling in their handling of the theatre industry; it’s been ghastly. But then of course, we’re surplus to requirements to people like Scott Morrison — unless he needs you for an ad,” he says.
It’s depressing, he says, that the arts still have such a “minimal impact on politicians”.
The veal scallopini from Wood's favourie local eatery.Credit:Simon Schluter
“Particularly conservative politicians. They don’t see the arts as necessary at all, which is so wrong-headed.
"They think of something like painting as something for other people, but you know, every advertisement, every billboard and newspaper ad — they’re all made up by people who have some sort of artistic ability, that have started off doing art classes and become commercial artists. The arts inform everything about our life and our community.”
And giving money to international companies to make movies here, he says, isn’t the answer.
“Giving money to people from Hollywood? Here we go again, the great Australian cultural cringe,” he says. “Although I think I’m very much a product of the cultural cringe!"
By the time we’ve finished our respective meals, our chat has traversed everything from cars (“I like Jaguars - at the moment I have a 1965 Mark 19, which I found in a paddock”), his work as a TV writer (“I worked mainly on Cop Shop and Prisoner and a stint on The Sullivans. Once I walked into the lounge room and my youngest daughter, about eight, was watching Prisoner, and I said 'what are you watching this rubbish for' and she said, ‘well, you write it’!”), pets (he and his wife once had nine cats), voice-over work (“My most famous is the superannuation one, ‘compare the pair”) and reality TV.
“I find it totally unwatchable,” Wood says. “There’s nothing real about it! Even when I did Who Do You Think You Are, which was a wonderful experience, they wanted me to burst into tears.”
He’s dismayed by the lack of local drama, and has been using lockdown to work on a TV series, with actor and writer Linden Wilkinson.
“It’s a comedy, set in a retirement village for old actors,” he says. “We’ve worked our way through two episodes and we’re kicking around ideas.”
He’s also working on a play based on stories he heard from police consultants in his Blue Heelers days.
He hopes the planned tour of the comedy revue Senior Moments, in which he co-stars with Max Gillies, will go ahead in January, and that Crunch Time will get another staging.
Receipt for lunch with actor John Wood.
“I’m not sure what sort of roles, if any, are being written for people my age — it’s one of the reasons I’m writing the TV show,” he says. “I think I’m seen as a bit of a … thing of the past. I’m 74, although I don’t feel terribly ancient. And I have no intention of giving it away.”
How I Clawed My Way To The Middle (Viking), is available now.
THE BILL PLEASE
Benny’s Pizza, Pasta Bar and Grill.
9-11/2 Union Road, Wandin North. 59 060 403. Open for take-away only, Wed-Mon, 5pm-8pm.