Packed To The Rafters: articles

First Impressions: Erik Thomson, actor

IT'S not hard to picture television actor Erik Thomson in a swaying kilt and thistled sporran.

Born in Inverness, Scotland, 42 years ago, and possessed of a startling, blue-eyed physicality, fly-away chestnut locks and hands like bears' paws, he is probably as close to the archetypal Scotsman as it's possible to be.

His accent is less pure, however. While there are remnants of Inverness, especially in the way he forms the word Australia (Scots tend to give the word a full middle syllable, as in "rail"), 21 years in New Zealand followed by 15 years in Australia have created an intriguing hybrid.

Thomson still has family in Crail, near StAndrews in the southeast of Scotland. His mother is from the Shetland Islands.

"I have hundreds of years of Scottish heritage coursing through my veins," he says. He notices himself reverting to the full-blown accent whenever he's there, perhaps "up in the Shetlands sitting with my great-aunt Maggie in a little but'nben (holiday cottage) that wouldn't have looked out of place 120 years ago.

"Of course I have no problem with aunt Maggie's incredibly broad accent, but I remember my wife Caitlin's face as the old woman chattered away. It was a mask of blank incomprehension." Perhaps Caitlin -- actress Caitlin McDougall -- could be forgiven for not getting the gist of things. "Up in the Shetlands they were Norse before they were Scottish, so many of the words they use are still Norwegian," Thomson says.

Thomson migrated with his family to NZ when he was six. He studied performing arts at the New Zealand Drama School in Wellington and English literature and drama at Victoria University of Wellington before moving to Australia in 1995.

"Growing up in New Zealand it really was a big deal to go to Australia and become a televison star," he says. "But of course, when you get here, all anyone wants to know is when you are going to Hollywood."

We meet at a waterside park in Sydney's Birchgrove, with a cricket pitch at our backs and the Sydney Harbour Bridge at close quarters across the water. Thomson attributes his rugged good health to a personal trainer. "We come down here at 6.30 every morning and this place is like the town square. People come and chat and exercise in the semi-light as the sun rises over the water. It's incredibly beautiful."

The actor is settled in Adelaide with McDougall and their daughter Eilish but has the use of a house in Birchgrove courtesy of the Seven Network, maker of the hit show Packed to the Rafters, in which Thomson stars as the affable Dave Rafter. The family moves here for seven months while the show is being recorded.

Packed to the Rafters has been a runaway success, with ratings -- unheard of for an Australian domestic drama -- hovering consistently just under the two million mark.

The public's affection for the show was confirmed when Rebecca Gibney won the Silver Logie for most popular actress and the coveted Gold Logie for most popular TV personality for her performance as Dave's everywoman wife, Julie Rafter.

With the bewildering parenting dilemmas she faces constantly, and with her authentically affectionate love for husband Dave, Julie seems to have struck a deep chord as a role model for female viewers, but one whose virtues are at once believable and attainable.

Though Thomson is full of admiration for his co-star, he admits to being surprised by the show's success. "We thought we had a good combination of established actors and a bunch of really good young actors, but I don't think we realised we were about to capture the spirit of the times so wholeheartedly.

"Rebecca and I have done Richard Glover's Sydney ABC radio program. When that happens to people from a commercial network's drama, you know you're getting a little bit into the fabric of something which is defining a period of Australian culture."

So how exactly did a lightweight dramedy such as Packed to the Rafters become a cultural touchstone, especially when the culture was apparently defining itself at the same time with the second series of the Nine Network's ultra-violent, ultra-cool, incredibly high-rating Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities?

Thomson believes that more traditional, more typical Aussie values are projected in his program and embraced by viewers.

"You could not get two more radically different bookends than Underbelly and our show. But we (the Rafters) love each other, we love our sport, we like to have a barbie, we like to have a beer.

"At the end of the day you might be a dickhead, but you're my brother and my mate. We're not knocking ourselves over the head to provide these things, but it may be that, in troubled times, people find something comforting and familiar about the show."

After making 175 episodes of the evergreen hospital soap All Saints in just four years for Seven, Thomson, who played popular doctor Mitch Stevens, turned his back on the show in 2003. His death episode was a cracker. Viewers had been dragged through years of building on again-off again sexual tension between Mitch and ex-nun Sister Terri Sullivan (Georgie Parker). Finally they married, only for Mitch to come down with a brain tumour. A nail-biting life-or-death operation and its tragic conclusion made for riveting TV.

Though he had engineered his own exit and demise, Thomson found the experience unexpectedly touching.

"I didn't quite realise how sad it was going to be. Georgie Parker was on my chest and she was crying. My dying eyes weren't supposed to be so full of tears." But there was relief as well. "It was good. The door was firmly shut. When youdie, unless you're on Dallas, you die."

After his departure from All Saints, diversions to the outback followed, first in a successful 2004 telemovie The Alice, then in the not quite so successful follow-up series of the same name that aired on Nine.

Thomson continued his residency at Nine as a presenter on travel and lifestyle program Getaway. "It was fun in a way, but it was probably the worst time to be at Nine," he says. "(It was) just before Kerry Packer died and there was a terrible power vacuum. Things were changing fast and it wasn't a particularly pleasant place to be. Much as I had some great experiences there, there were also a lot of hard things." This dissatisfaction was, in part, how Thomson came to be in another hit TV series back at Seven.

Increasingly, however, Thomson draws satisfaction from his work in films. Roles in Somersault (2004), The Black Balloon (2008) and Beautiful (2009) are about to be complemented by The Boys are Back in Town and Accidents Happen, both for release this year.

The Boys are Back in Town is an adaptation by Allan Cubitt of the Simon Carr novel, directed by Australian Scott Hicks (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedars). Accidents Happen, set in the northeastern US in the 1970s, has a cast led by Geena Davis. The rest are Australians playing Americans.

"Of course a lot of Australian-American co-productions have been made here. But this is an Australian film, made entirely offshore. It could be the first of a new generation of Australian films that don't have to be quite so navel-gazing," Thomson says.

Though he is hardly starstruck and long ago gave up the fantasy that any part might be the one that opens the door to his being the Next Big Thing, he was delighted to work with Davis.

"With established Hollywood actors you never know what you are going to get because there's usually so much front. Geena's a big, attractive lass," he says. (Davis is 185cm tall.) "But if you walked past her in the supermarket you probably wouldn't look twice."

Is this hunkering down inwardly an old actor's trick to avoid being recognised?

"Well, experienced actors do that," he says, laughing. "But younger actors these days haveentourages to protect them in case theyget recognised. And of course the only reason they get recognised is because they haveentourages."

By Ian Cuthbertson
June 20, 2009
The Australian