Mcleod's Daughters: articles
A fawn ute teeters dangerously over a ledge, an orange-tinged quarry yawning below. Beneath the vehicle, on a discreet rock ledge, a film camera peers upwards. A second camera sits behind the car, which is anchored with heavy chains to a tow truck planted further up the hill.
Actor Bridie Carter, her blond hair knotted and face streaked with blood and tears, clambers out of the ute and unbuckles a "baby" from the back seat (the tiny mannequin is later replaced by the real thing), sets the bundle down and races back to help her McLeod's Daughters co-star Lisa Chappell, who sits "trapped" by the steering column.
As the McLeod sisters of the series' title, the pair are filming the final moments in the life of Chappell's character, Claire McLeod. In seconds the vehicle will topple, plunging Claire to her death.
The take over, Carter collapses to the ground, her body racked with sobs as tears stream down her dirt-streaked face. "Water please, Luke," someone calls, as a makeup artist and the set nurse step in to comfort her. Carter lies prone, weeping helplessly while friends on the crew rub her back. In the car, Chappell is also in tears.
"It's very draining," says producer Susan Bower. "They're just making sure the girls are all right."
"Poor old Bridie, she's putting her heart and soul into it," says director Chris Martin-Jones. "I feel like a monster."
Although no one is thinking of it on set today—the emotion they are witnessing casts a pall over everyone present—the scenes form a turning point in the life of Nine's three-year-old drama, the biggest challenge it has faced to date.
The character's departure, made necessary by the actor's desire to move on, has been well planned, although network programmers will keep an anxious eye on the ratings to see how viewers respond.
"It's always nerve-racking when a beloved character leaves but I'm feeling very confident," says the series' creator, Posie Graeme-Evans, belying an earlier admission of fear.
"You don't do these things lightly, but we had to honour the character. Lisa was strongly of the opinion that Claire would never leave Drovers Run."
By the end of the fourth season, currently in production in South Australia's wine-rich Barossa Valley, the series will have clocked up 100 episodes. The departure of Claire McLeod, as worrying as it has been, gives it a chance to refresh, Graeme-Evans says.
"All the relationships change. It shuffles the pack and rejuvenates the script department… The injection of new characters always gives everybody a new lease of life."
Long-running dramas such as Blue Heelers and A Country Practice survived similar upheaval with the deaths of audience favourites Maggie Doyle and Molly Jones, she says.
For the past 12 weeks, as Graeme-Evans happily points out, McLeod's Daughters, at 7.30pm Wednesdays on Nine, has knocked Blue Heelers, an hour later on Seven, from its long-held perch as most-watched Australian drama.
It's something for which she can feel justifiably proud.
The series' success has been a long time coming from its early 1990s development by Graeme-Evans' Millennium Television in conjunction with the South Australian Film Corporation.
Pitching the concept to the Nine board, a blokey bastion of broadcasting, was an intimidating experience, Graeme-Evans says, eased by pioneering TV executive and then executive chairman Bruce Gyngell, "who was kind enough to smile at me".
"This was a story about women and they wanted a women's audience. It was unashamedly emotional. It makes you laugh and it makes you cry."
Gyngell was impressed but shifted the producers from their idea of a 13-part series to three telemovies.
The first instalment, starring Jack Thompson as Drovers Run patriarch Jack McLeod, was shot on film over 11 days and "rated its tits off" when it screened on Mothers Day, 1996, an inspired piece of programming. Then Nine's enthusiasm cooled.
"I believe they got scared. They just got cold feet about it. They were scared that it was a freak, that it was a one-off, it wouldn't last the distance."
The Nine Network had always been about sport, current affairs and urban cop shows, Graeme-Evans surmised. An unashamedly emotional drama about women on the land wouldn't fit its mix.
But she kept pitching with two elements firm in mind. It had to be shot on film and it had to be shot in South Australia, where she lived at the time.
"When the cameras rolled on that first day the tears rolled down my face. When you have fought for something for so long it's a big wallop when it finally happens."
That the series was made at all—albeit six years later—was testament to Graeme-Evans's "sheer tenacity and belief in her product", Bower says. "Posie's energy is just amazing.
"This wonderful show, that by rights should never have been successful… going on a blokey network. It took how many years of tenacity?
"They were apprehensive and rightly so. It's so character-based, we don't have a murder once a week, we don't have a heart attack."
But Bower believes the delay in commissioning the show ultimately secured its success.
By the time the final version was pitched to Nine in 2000, Australia was filled with national fervour. "The opening to the Olympics helped us a great deal. The rider went in there and it was The Man from Snowy River and that's what they talked about when we did the pitch. Gorgeous Australians doing what Australians do well. The land. And we are still heavily identified with 'The Land'."
It was about giving Australians their fantasy of themselves.
Nine's gamble paid off—despite Graeme-Evans' concern: "I thought we'd missed the moment"—and the series premiere was watched nationally by 1.89 million people when it screened in August 2001.
Although it fell away to average 1.5 million viewers over its 22-episode first season, the numbers held firm and this year have grown slightly while those recorded for other home-grown dramas, including Seven's Blue Heelers and All Saints, have dropped.
"With most drama series, (that's) why it is so nerve-racking—because you have got to stick with them for a decent amount of time," Graeme-Evans says.
Since her appointment last December as Nine's head of drama, Graeme-Evans has had to relinquish day-to-day control to Bower and supervising producer Karl Zwicky, but keeps an eye of production by watching rough cuts of the episodes, discussing casting and occasionally reading a script. She also still writes the soundtrack, a duty she had cemented into her contract. "It means a lot to me to do the songs," she says.
"Up until January this year I had lived and breathed McLeod's for 10 years or something. It's been terribly hard to pull back… I made it happen and it took 10 years to do it… you don't give away your 10-year-old child that easily, but I must."
Now screening in over 100 countries, many on the Hallmark Channel, the drama has struck a chord. When Graeme-Evans and her husband, producer Andrew Blaxland, were shopping for a rural retreat recently, the agent thanked them for contributing to a boom in rural real estate. Hallmark runs competitions for international viewers to visit the fictional Drovers Run and, although security reasons prevent it, local viewers have asked to marry at the down-at-heel sandstone homestead. (In 1999 Nine bought the property, Kingsford, to house the series, but it remains a working farm and home to stock and animal wranglers.) The towering eucalypts, grass tennis court, shady veranda and stone walls form a fantasy to which many Australians subscribe.
"It's Australian country and it's girls on horseback," says Bower, who believes escapism is the series' strongest selling point. Not much else is filmed in country Australia, she says.
The drama also is warmer than the cop shops, hospitals and court rooms central to many international series, with soap opera elements that keep viewers coming back.
"We love E.R. with the blood and the guts when the heart comes out and the leg comes off, but what are we watching for? Is Noah Wyle's character going to marry whatsherface? Your character arcs are the things that keep people going in series television."
Bower, a former nurse who cut her drama teeth as an adviser on A Country Practice, sees drama as a therapeutic outlet for emotion.
Graeme-Evans concurs. McLeod's Daughters tapped a "vast desire" among women and men for emotional drama, she believes, a view supported by ratings statistics showing a third of the audience is male.
If characters are given permission to show their emotions, then viewers had permission, too, she says. "It touches people emotionally. People want to be these people and they want to live their lives."
Bridie Carter, who plays Tess Silverman McLeod, believes its emotional content gives the show its strength.
"We dare to go there emotionally. People say that we are sentimental and romantic but I'm so proud of that," she says.
"We are a show that is about families and it is about human relationships. It is about when you take away all those extraneous things—courtrooms, hospitals, cop shops—and what is left is human relationships."
Scenes filmed over these two days at the quarry are among the most emotional she's ever done, Carter says.
"I guess this is the first time I have done something with such hysteria and intensity.
"This is over two-and-a-half years, so there is a lot in it for the character… You are pulling on your own emotions. It's desperately sad for Tess to lose her sister. She's had a relationship break up, she's had a cancer scare and now she loses her sister."
As the older remaining McLeod daughter (neatly, Claire McLeod gave birth to a daughter shortly before she died), the producers must be relieved that Carter has no plans to leave.
"I'm still extremely encouraged by the show, I'm not bored," she says. "Juicy fantastic stuff for me is an extra and while that continues to happen…"
The departure of Claire McLeod gave Bower, Graeme-Evans and the McLeod's Daughters script department a special challenge.
"We had to put our heads down and our bums up," Bower says. "The character of Claire has been hugely successful and enormously popular, but it is not the show. The important thing to do was to be truthful about seeing her off."
It wasn't good practice to end the season on the death of a McLeod daughter—the audience has to be given a chance to grieve and move on—so a new character was introduced last week.
Working with the idea of a "rodeo queen and Erin Brockovich on horseback", the producers settled on Stevie Hall, a mate from Claire's past, played by Simmone Jade Mackinnon.
"She's a very different character from Claire. She's a country girl born and bred but she likes to take the piss," Bower says. "She's an Australian larrikin, really. A female Australian larrikin. And she's an injured person. In her past she's had to give up things. She has a secret of the heart and I don't mean a romance. She's a bit of a wildcat because she's hurt. A flawed hero."
Four months after Chappell filmed her last scenes, it has "rearranged itself" to fill the hole.
"We have to continually keep reinventing ourselves as all series do," Bower says. "It's like The Secret Life of Us… it's had an enormous turnover of cast. But it's your premise. It's women working on the land, you keep going back to women working on the land."
Although an "enthusiast" for the show and "completely one-eyed", Graeme-Evans agrees.
"It's a devastating thing, but the series has now headed off with Simmone as a very strong replacement, as a very different person," she says. "The show is like an amoeba, it fills the void."
Ultimately, McLeod's Daughters wasn't about Claire McLeod. "It's still about these women running a cattle station… Drovers Run remains the heart and soul. Women in control of their own destiny."
By Kylie Miller
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