AFTER more than a decade, Jack Irish has finally made his way to the small screen. Following several failed attempts, the laconic hero of Peter Temple's crime novels makes his TV debut in two telemovies starring Guy Pearce and directed by Jeffrey Walker.
Bad Debts, written by Andrew Knight, and Black Tide, written by Matt Cameron, arrive accompanied by a desire from all involved to do justice to Temple's books: to reflect their wry, sometimes blackly comic tone; to capture their distinctively terse, deadpan dialogue; to evoke their sense of a changing city - Melbourne - and the sometimes-corrupt forces that shape it; and to present a particular kind of protagonist, a man who tends to find himself investigating dirty deeds at the top end of town.
Jack Irish is many things: widower, former lawyer, trainee cabinet-maker, debt collector, follower of the horses and an almost accidental detective. ''He's a reluctant hero,'' producer Ian Collie says, ''who gets caught up in what happens because he's trying to find a missing person or to help someone out.''
When we meet Irish in Bad Debts, based on the first of Temple's four Jack Irish novels, Collie says he's ''a former high-flyer gradually reconstructing himself after 10 years of booze and self-pity''.
The plot conjures an unholy alliance of big business, police, politicians and the church. Jack's investigations, driven by a desire to right a past wrong, involve his sometime boss, racing identity Harry Strang (Roy Billing), and his right-hand man, Cam Delray (Aaron Pedersen), as well as journalist Linda Hillier (Marta Dusseldorp).
Pearce likens his character to ''a pinball being bounced around from one ridiculous situation to another and trying to maintain his composure throughout''.
''You know, sometimes you find yourself in a situation and you think, 'How the hell did I get here?' That was how I saw Jack,'' he says. ''There was something pushing him forward and something deep underneath, whether that was a sense of justice, or a need to redeem himself, or a quest to answer questions that he'd buried years before.''
Dusseldorp, who appears in both films, describes Pearce as ''a total gentleman, fiercely intelligent and really instinctual. There's never a compromise on a scene; it just crackles. It's been amazing.''
It's customary for people to say nice things about their colleagues to a journalist visiting a set. But with the Jack Irish films there's a genuine enthusiasm about the project: about the wit and dexterity of the scripts, the composure and competence of the director, the affability of the producer and the talent and commitment of the star.
The glowing praise and general good vibes are particularly noteworthy given the pressures on the production. The telemovies were filmed over 42 days from October last year, following a five-day delay when Pearce was unexpectedly rushed to hospital for kidney-stone surgery. They were shot concurrently to maximise savings on the tight shooting schedule required by a relatively modest budget of $5.6 million, which Knight says ''is like trying to make two films for the price of one low-budget Australian feature''.
So a morning on set might require a scene at a racetrack, a pub or a mansion for Bad Debts, while in the afternoon it could be the discovery of dead bodies in a deserted farmhouse for Black Tide.
''Every day we'd be driving to some other house in Melbourne and I'd be working with a different actor and then never see them again,'' Pearce says.
An impressive array of actors was keen to be involved, with some - Colin Friels, Steve Bisley, Shane Jacobson, Diana Glenn, Don Hany, Emma Booth, Lachy Hulme, Rhys Muldoon - appearing only for a scene or two.
Pearce credits the director with helping to attract such a fine cast and enabling him to navigate the dense plots and myriad characters. He says Walker's involvement was a key factor in his decision to return home to appear in his first Australian TV production since Neighbours in the 1980s.
Walker, a former child actor whose nickname on set is ''Boy Wonder'' or ''Boy Genius'', inspires unreserved admiration from his cast. ''He's my favourite type of director,'' Dusseldorp says. ''Very quiet, just watches and then says one thing and the scene opens up: he's given me some jewels.''
Pearce credits the director with creating a respectful, collaborative working environment in which an actor feels trusted and free.
''This is what you look for in a director,'' he says. ''You want a director to say, 'I trust you, I trust that you'll do what instinctually feels right.' … Jeffrey is very aware of the power of those words and he said those things to me at the very beginning.''
Even though Walker says Temple's novels were screaming out to be adapted for the screen, Knight describes the process of translating the novels as ''a real wrestle'', requiring the condensation of plot-packed, heavily populated books into trim 90-minute telemovies. ''It's achingly hard because you're stuck in this compression chamber where you're trying to distil the very best of the writing and the plot without losing the essence of it,'' he says.
''For me, the tone was more important than the plot. The world of Jack Irish is this world of racing and old men in bars. That's the sort of stuff that, frankly, you'd normally cut out on television because it doesn't have a plot value. But I thought, if I do that, I'd destroy it.''
Many of those involved hope the telemovies will become the foundation of a franchise, to be followed by Dead Point and White Dog. If viewers share their enthusiasm, Jack Irish could continue to grace our screens for some time.
Bad Debts screens on Sunday on ABC1 at 8.30pm. Black Tide screens the following Sunday.