Sam Neill and Bryan Brown have teamed up for the ABC’s new comedy, Old School
When a heist backfires and Sydney detective Ted McCabe is injured in the shoot-out, he’s unaware that one of the crooks will reoccur in his life. Upon being released from prison, Lennie Cahill goes after his share of the money. And as the now-retired Ted feels he’s still got a case to solve, the pair team up to pursue their own versions of justice.
Seeing the oft-brooding Sam Neill in Old School as a pensioner with a penchant for beige slacks, sensible pajamas and hanging baskets is unnerving. Sure, we’ve seen him in a variety of roles, but he’s very convincing as someone a little bit more corrupt. (If you want more evidence, this September he stars in BBC series Peaky Blinders as a far more sinister policeman.)
Old School is a comforting, gentle kind of a comedy – even the names, Ted and Lennie, are non-threatening. Bryan Brown, as the latter, is a roguish ex-crim with well-worn flannies and the sort of mates who know about pensioner discounts at the local brothel. These days, Lennie’s more concerned about the plight of his bowels, however.
“They’re certifiable dags,” Neill confirms.
With the unlikely buddies having a warmly cynical rapport, did Neill have any classic celluloid partnerships in mind? What about Grumpy Old Men?
“No, but that’s a context I should have thought about; that’s a good model,” he concedes. “They’re competitive people – they loathe each other, but are forced into a reluctant partnership. Still, they’re more alike than they would care to admit.”
Neill and Brown have starred together twice before – in New Zealand film Dean Spanley (2008) and our own. Dirty Deeds (2002). Even so, Neill insists Old School wasn’t a vehicle specifically for the pair.
“This was conceived well before Bryan and I came on board,” he says, “but it’s also fair to say that there was a lot of revision within the script to adapt to us.”
There’s quite a team of writers involved, in fact, with credits including SeaChange, Packed to the Rafters, Underbelly and Two Hands. The location scouts have made the most of Sydney’s most iconic scenery (boo, hiss), which Neill feels is fitting, given the city’s convict history.
In many previews of the series, Neill is referred to as an Australian actor – much as we feel his fellow Kiwis Russell Crowe and Mel Gibson are, when it suits us. “I don’t worry about that,” he says. “I think if anyone wants to claim you, it’s flattering.”
It’s Neill’s feeling that Old School could lend itself to another series or two, but in the event that doesn’t happen, he won’t be twiddling his thumbs. As well as a busy acting schedule, he owns a winery with four vineyards back on home soil.
“I kind of learn on the job,” he says of getting his hands dirty with Two Paddocks. “I planted my first vine some 20 years ago and I now know a lot more than I did. What started as a hobby has now become much more important, as far as I am concerned. And now I’ve just exported to Australia. It’s a big deal. It is for me.”
Is there a healthy sense of competition between Kiwi and Australian winemakers?
“I’ve never seen it as a competition. My friend Nigel [Greening, from NZ winery Felton Road], calls it ‘a conspiracy of pinot makers’. It’s a rather elegant way of looking at it. We’re all running at the same pace and New Zealand winemakers have great respect for Australian winemakers and vice versa.”
Over on the isle, Neill was appointed a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit back in 2006, and had the option when knighthoods were reintroduced in 2009, to take on a loftier title. He declined – and isn’t surprise that there is similar controversy in Australia.
“It was contentious in New Zealand, but it was very surprising that it would happen in Australia, because I’ve always seen Australia as being much less tied to colonial things… I’d always thought that they'd obliterated that way of thinking a long time ago. Seemingly not.”
Old School begins on Friday May 23 at 8.30pm, ABC1