Blue Heelers: articles

Fair Cop

Lisa McCune, as Constable Maggie Doyle in Blue Heelers, is the golden girl of television—with the Logie to prove it. As Mike Safe discovers, she's a straight shooter, too.

When Lisa McCune won the Gold Logie for most popular personality on Australian television, she was the talk of the town—for the wrong reason. "I wore my hair a bit curly that night and it creates a this huge thing. No-one recognised me when I walked in. There was a backlash about it, but I thought it was the best thing that ever happened. Suddenly I was controversial because of a hairdo. I thought it was really funny that people were more concerned about my hair than that I'd won the Gold Logie."

It says something about the Logies, the pinnacle of Australian television's gossip-fuelled obsession with itself, that McCune's coiffure proved more of a talking point than her all-conquering popularity. It also says something about her that she can see the ridiculous side of a business where style often wins out over substance. Indeed, it is appropriate that the Logies, lauded as local television's grand occasion, are no more than an affirmation of the commonplace—and that McCune, the quintessential girl next door, has emerged as their new dream queen.

She recalls her night of the tizzed hair as she sits in front of a dressing-room mirror where she is, appropriately enough, having her hair and make-up done for the photographs that appear on these pages. Today she is straight-haired and straight-shooting, the hazel-eyed blonde from the suburbs of Perth who in four years has captures the hearts and minds of middle Australia.

At the Logies, the 26-year-old McCune swept away the old guard—Ray Martin, Daryl Somers and Kerri-Anne Kennerly—to win the "most popular" prize in television, on top of a Silver Logie for most popular actress. Every week her character, Constable Maggie Doyle, is watched by more than three million of us, probably close to four million if rural areas are taken into account, as she polices the fictitious town of Mt Thomas.

The one-hour drama in which she appears, Blue Heelers, on the Seven Network, consistently tops national ratings. Only the most popular of American series, the medical melodrama ER, and the sitcom Friends, can match it. Blue Heelers is part of a tradition in local television. Ever since Bellbird first flickered across our screens in black and white 30 years ago the experience of being an Australian, as far as mainstream television is concerned, has been summed up by the comings and goings of small-town life, the last example being A Country Practice. That one ran out of ratings and therefore life just as Blue Heelers came along.

As she sits before the make-up mirror, McCune is unassuming about her achievement. She remarks that someone told her to remember she was now a Gold Logie winner when it cam to renegotiating her contract. "I'm only entertaining people and that's what it's about. I love the fact that I'm on telly, my mum loves the fact that I'm on telly, but I know that one day I won't be. I've seen a few disaster cases come and go and I don't want to end up like them. I don't want to end up thinking, 'I wish that was still happening to me.'"

"I'm really conscious of maintaining a go-to-work-and-do-my-job attitude. The morning after the Logies it was get up and go to work." Not even with a sore head from celebrating? "Well, I had a bit of one, but I wouldn't admit it. It's a discipline thing. That's what my training was about, that's how I was brought up. My dad was in the Navy and I blame him."

McCune arrives at the photo shoot in a rush. She has spent the morning at Werribee, one of the outdoor sets for Blue Heelers located outside Melbourne, There were delays so she is late making it back to town. She is full of apologies as she pulls off her battered R.M. Williams boots and settles into the make-up chair before trying on a selection of gowns chosen for the photographs.

Anyone you talk to about McCune remarks on her naturalness. They say she remains unaffected by her rise to fame and after an afternoon spent with her it's difficult for even the most hardened observer to disagree.

She tries not to analyse what's happened to her. "I'd go a bit mad if I thought about it all the time." A few moments later she adds, "I think if I get over-excited about it there's a fear of me being carried away by the publicity. People want to talk about that and I don't want it to happen. I wouldn't allow that to happen." And still later, "It doesn't affect me too much because it can't. Your emotions can't get caught up in your success."

In case you haven't gathered, she has a way of extending answers to questions. There's never a simple yes or no. She always has another thought, an aside, or insight, a willingness to explain herself. Photographer Andy Tavares, a friend of McCune's who took these pictures and who has shot her many times for the Seven Network, says this openness shines through. It comes down the lens, the way she can address the camera with our fear or fluster. Even the most cursory watching of Blue Heelers reveals this. At times, McCune appears to be going through the motions, making up the numbers, simply speaking her lines. Then—bang!—somehow the light, the angle, the mood come together and she dazzles. It's a rare quality.

Still, as is her way, she refuses to put herself on a pedestal. She prefers to acknowledge the efforts of the Blue Heelers crew and writers, her fellow cast members, particularly the veteran actor John Wood, a Gold Logie rival who helped her find her way in the hard slog of a week-in week-out series, now 150 hour-long episodes and counting.

Then there's her publicist, her management, her mum and dad, Elise and Malcolm, back home in Perth, her boyfriend Tim Disney, who once worked behind the scenes of the show, even TV Week, the magazine that touts the Logies. The list seemingly goes on forever. From anyone else it would be too bloody much. From her, it just seems, well, like she means it.

Hal McElroy, executive producer of Blue Heelers who has tested a lot of actors in his time, sees something special in McCune—a combination of vulnerability and strength that audiences and the camera love. He says these are the qualities Mel Gibson has and the reasons for his appeal. Playing the amateur psychologist, McElroy says he and his wife, Di, who handles most of his casting, noted these characteristics when McCune first tested and she has since come on in leaps and bounds.

For a show like Blue Heelers to succeed—and it is now sold to 55 countries—McElroy says it has to bring in the over-40 female audience and that McCune connects strongly with this demographic. They see her Constable Maggie as either a little sister or daughter with the qualities to match. He laughs and adds that he is just as impressed by her ability to hold a gun and look like she knows how to use it. "Drama, romance, comedy, action—she can do it all as far as I'm concerned."

McCune's formative years in Perth were the picture of suburban normality. "I haven't got any trashy stories from my childhood," she sighs almost apologetically. "Nothing bad happened to me." Her father left the Navy and got a job with Ansett airlines, her mother worked at a museum. "I was a dreamer as a kid. I loved stories and went through stages of wanting to be a vet, then an astronaut and a marine biologist. My mum and dad supported me in all this, they encouraged me without being pushy."

Still, it was a working-class family with aspirations. She was taught early on by her Navy-trained father that nothing came easily, that you always had to put in the effort. This principle drives her. "You have to work hard to reap the rewards. I hope I can set myself up through Blue Heelers so I don't have to do a job just because I need the money, as a lot of actors have to, but I'll do it because I like the project, I like the idea."

She remembers listening to her parents' records by The Seekers and Barbra Streisand and musicals such as West Side Story and Carousel, It became apparent that performing was her calling. She was accepted into the West Australian Academy of Dramatic Arts, embarking on a three-year course. She graduated in 1990. In her last year, her class went to the eastern States as part of an audition program. They had to do three items—a song, an acting piece and a group performance. Afterwards, the agents handed out cards to those they considered had potential. McCune was given three. "It was the most Hollywood kind of thing that's ever happened to me. I remember when I went to see an agent in Sydney I asked, why does everybody kiss each other on the cheek and call them darling? She said it's because the can't remember your name. So I thought, okay, that's lesson one."

On graduation, she moved to Melbourne, where she knew no-one and spent a lot of time on the phone crying to mum and dad back home. "It was the most ambitious I'd ever had to be. I don't think I'm very ambitious, but that was ambition for me. It was a big thing. I was going into an industry that doesn't build your self-esteem, that's for sure, and here I was losing all my security."

There was a series of television ads for Coles supermarkets in which she played a daffy checkout chick, a couple of TV pilots, a play and a musical in Sydney, and when all else failed she sang with a band. Blue Heelers came along at the end of 1993. She had no great expectations. "I suppose it was that thing of if you get a job, it's fine, if it becomes a pilot that's great and if it becomes a series that's fantastic. If it goes beyond that, well, it's a really big thing. I was happy to just have a job and that it's done so well is almost secondary."

But the series remains hard work and long hours. She's up at 5:30am five days a week, two of them filming outdoors, hardly pleasant during a Melbourne winter, two indoors and the fifth rehearsing. They are usually 12-hour days, though the ensemble nature of the show can mean lighter weeks.

She enjoys the interplay of the characters and how the scripts run from funny to serious. "I feel a responsibility towards those who watch the show. I'm concerned if something's not right."

This is particularly so of her character Maggie. "I don't want to see her jumping into bed all the time. We've got to see the cops' lives, of course, because we've got to know how they tick, but my character is quite moralistic and I'm protective of her. If I don't like what's happening to her I'll say so." So there's no chance of Constable Maggie becoming a Melrose Place-style bimbo bed-hopper, the show that incidentally gets whipped by Blue Heelers every Tuesday night? "I don't think I'd turn up for work if she started doing that."

She would like to do some film, although Hollywood holds no particular attraction; maybe a mini-series and certainly more on stage. Eventually, she wants to produce, and admires Jodie Foster who has set herself up in such a way.

For the moment, however, there are no grand designs beyond Blue Heelers. How long she continues with it remains the great unknown. "When I wake up one morning and say, 'I hate doing this' I'll go to the end of my contract and then I won't renew. I won't ever be any good if I feel like that."

"I don't have a plan. Someone told me once that everyone should have a five-year or even a 10-year plan. The only thing I know that I need to do is have a family before I'm 40. That's the only plan that has to happen because that's a biological one and I don't have a choice in it. And I have to get medical insurance—that can be my plan for this year."

By Mike Safe
The Australian
July 26, 1997