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Interview: Shaun Micallef returns this week as The Ex-PM @ABCTV

InterviewsKevin Perry

Shaun Micallef stars as Andrew Dugdale in The Ex-PM.
image - supplied/ABC

This Wednesday night will see the premiere of a new comedy series from the creative mind of Shaun Micallef on ABC TV.

The EX-PM tells the tale of our third longest serving Prime Minister, Andrew Dugdale. Once a leader that changed the lives of millions of his fellow Australians, he’s now retired dealing with a family that has plenty of issues of their own, and an inquisitive and over enthusiastic ghostwriter who has an appetite for the truth.


“It's a long time in gestation this idea, it came about as result of a story I'd heard about John Howard,” Micallef explained to me when we caught up recently.
“He'd been out-of-office for about six months. Howard was off shopping with wife Jeanette and he was walking back to his car, both of them with their shopping, talking and getting along like a house on fire. Both of them got into the back seat of their own car, then twigged that oh that's right one of us has to drive!"
"I thought that was a lovely story, because he'd actually decided to move back into his old house and to his own electorate. It made me think about re-acclimatizing with the world after so long in office. You're almost institutionalized. You've got all these people around you who feed you and feed off you, then suddenly they're all gone, What must that be like?“


Watching The Ex-PM, it’s easy to pick which former leaders Micallef has been influenced by, the character of Dugdale regularly takes on mannerisms from Rudd, Howard and Keating. One Prime Minister that’s not part of Dugdale's makeup however is Tony Abbott.

“I think maybe if he'd been an Ex-Prime Minister while I writing this I might have put a bit more in there. Dugdale has a liking for clocks so there's a bit of a Keating reference there. He's got a relationship with Bush on the phone, so that's a bit of Howard.
It's the more recent ones that are probably embodied in the amalgam. I didn't want to make it a party political joke. I think I get to make those jokes on Mad As Hell."


The production of The Ex-PM combined with Government budget cuts impacting on the ABC’s bottom line, meant that the decision was made to produce only one season of Mad as Hell in 2015.

"It wasn't my decision not do the second one. The ABC decided they didn't have as much money, and needed to grow other programs. I'm certainly not complaining, because the time that I got to spend on The Ex-PM was very helpful.
It was six weeks shooting and then it was a little bit more in terms of post-production. In a way I'm sort of relieved that I didn't have to go straight into another season of Mad As Hell.
But it would be a lot of fun to be on air at the moment. Hopefully Malcolm Turnbull will still be Prime Minister next year when we come back, but who knows, it might be Wyatt Roy."


Micallef will return to Mad as Hell in 2016.
image - supplied/ABC

With Charlie Pickering’s program The Weekly scheduled to return for a 14 week season early in 2016, Micallef fans will have to make the most of his reduced screen time. “Mad As Hell will be on in about May next year. It'll only be one season again, running for about twelve episodes.”

Micallef hasn't given it too much thought yet on how he will portray the new prime minister, but is confident plenty of comedic material will present itself.

“I probably wouldn't worry too much about his money and wealth, I've never seen that as being particularly interesting. It's probably a very Australian thing to be slightly suspicious of somebody who's done well for themselves.
I suspect that given enough time, the process of being Prime Minister will render Turnbull amusing. I don't think he's very funny at the moment. I think he is naturally a very reasonable person so they're always hard to make fun of. But he'll have to compromise, and that's where the fun starts, seeing the divide between who he is and who he has to be in order to be Prime Minister. At the moment he's in a honeymoon period but I reckon that will probably last another week and then we'll start seeing some compromised principles.
I hope it doesn't happen for the sake of the country, but I suspect it will because it happens every time.”


The Ex-PM is very much a different style of comedy for Australian Television, rather than relying on slap-stick scenario’s or regularly repeated catchphrases, this is a program full sharp dialogue that moves at a rapid pace.

Each of the six episodes is a self-contained story. There’s an international diplomatic posting that depends on the success of a Dugdale dinner party; a long time feud with the Governor General; and the casting of an actor to play Dugdale in a screen adaptation of the autobiography.

“I wasn't aware of just how much dialogue I'd written when I wrote it, but certainly when we were doing the table reads I thought, wow I'm going to have to do this at a clip. There's a screwball comedy sort of approach to the dialogue so it feels a bit like those old 1940s films where everyone's speaking very quickly, if we did it at the regular rate, it would run an hour.”


Shaun Micallef and Francis Greenslade
image - supplied/ABC

When asked about his writing style, Micallef confesses it’s certainly not his favourite part of the creative process.

“The writing wouldn't be enjoyable to me unless I was knowing that I was going to be performing the role at the end of it. The knowledge that I'll be in it helps me get through the boredom, I spent a good six months writing this, That’s a lonely experience; I'd send it off and ask the director what she thought of it or the executive producer you know, "How's this? Let's have a bit of a chat," just so I'd get a little bit of feedback.”


Clearly more comfortable as a performer, Micallef is in his element when he feels he has the freedom to improvise

“When I perform other people's writing such as in ‘Mr and Mrs Murder’, I’d try to respect the writing. But when it’s my own stuff I feel like I can an ad-lib and cut and re-write the dialogue.
Hopefully the question a viewers asks when you watch The Ex-PM is ‘was that ad-libbed?' or was that an improvised moment?"


Of course it wouldn’t be a series starring Shaun Micallef if there wasn’t a role somewhere for perennial sidekick Francis Greenslade.

“I've known Francis since I was about eighteen. We met and did university reviews together. We have a very helpful shorthand way of communicating as performers. He knows how to perform my stuff and he and I have great timing together. We don't have to talk about it; I know he'll come along with something really amazing.”


While the series is focused around the life of a former Prime Minister, Micallef is hoping anyone who has experience considerable change in his or her lives will be able to relate with Dugdale.

"Keating was probably my age when he finished. When you're that age, you think, oh god I’ve achieved everything I wanted to achieve just a bit too early. Not everybody has the luxury of finishing up in old age, like Robert Menzies.
I know not everyone is Prime Minister but I think everybody who goes to work sometimes puts their family on hold to a greater or lesser extent and you never get those moments back. I think part of this series is about that."


The Ex-PM begins this Wednesday October 14th at 9pm on ABCTV