“McLeods Daughters” memories

 

 

McLeods Daughters opening titles - the windmill and wild horses on Drovers Run

McLeods Daughters opening titles – an image of wild horses running free and that iconic windmill on Drovers Run

 

I first pitched the concept of a bunch of ordinary, contemporary women running a cattle operation in Australia’s outback as the basis of a television series to network Executives at the Nine network, Australia towards the end of 1992. Unbelievable, but that’s twenty years ago this year (2112).

 

A network programmer once said to me, “Women will watch what a man likes, but men won’t watch what a woman enjoys.” So “McLeods”- all about women on the land and centred on their emotional and physical lives on a vast  farm – was a hard sell from the start. Especially since 9 was renowned as being the blokiest (read, “male-focussed”) network in Australia. So, why pitch to Nine? Why not take the show somewhere else?

Well, 9 was the highest rating, most successful television network Australia at that timebut they were having a hard time making drama work and women didn’t like their male-skewed programming as much as they wanted them to. I was utterly convinced I could turn that situation around if they’d just give me and McLeods a chance.

Well, they did, eventually, but it still took 9 years before the series rolled (maybe that’s appropriate!) And, not before we’d made a pilot telemovie of the same name in 1996, starring Jack Thompson, which went on to be the highest rating Australian TV movie of all time – though that still didn’t convince them a series would work. They thought people turned on to watch Jack – but his character died at the second commercial break (and that was because I knew if Jack Thompson was on air throughout the movie, his character would pull focus. And I wanted the daughters to become the centre of the drama if we got a series away.)

But finally, finally we got the  nod and I started looking for our cast.

I wanted an ensemble of fine actors in our roles, and slowly I began to feel sure I’d found them when Sonya Todd said yes to playing Meg, Jessica Napier inhabited the role of the troubled Becky, and Rachael Carpani made us all laugh as a very young Jodi. But the McLeod sisters, Tess and Claire, were the hardest to find. Something like 300 individual actors tried out for the roles – and so many of them were absolutely fantastic – and yet I went to bed each night thinking, “Not quite.” That was because I knew they each of the sisters had to as strong as one another on the screen, and there had to be great chemistry between them.

So the days rolled on and I was starting to become more than a little desperate as my drop-dead date – the day I absolutely, positively,  had to have the cast assembled – loomed ever closer. Then, one hot friday in Sydney getting close to Christmas, Bridie Carter walked through the door, and then, at the very end of the last possible day, Lisa Chapel turned up. I knew Bridie just had to be one of the sisters, and she read for each of the McLeods’ as we teamed her up with various other actresses, amongst whom were the finest in Australia. But then, when Lisa arrived and we read them together, all doubts disappeared. We had our sisters.

Drovers Run homestead with Tess and Claire, from series 1, McLeods Daughters

Tess and Claire McLeods outside the Drovers Run Homestead from series 1 of McLeods Daughters

 

McLeods Daughters, an orignal poster from series 1

McLeods Daughters – an original poster from the first series. Part of what started the frenzy in the international marketplace.

 

We were so fortunate with this series, in the end.

Maybe all the long years pushing to get it made were not wasted (though it felt like that sometimes; the wilderness years, I call them.) Thinking time is vital, time to really work on what the concept is, to refine the characters. But I was so convinced that McLeods Daughters was a winner, it was just torture waiting for it to be made. And I believed in it so much, I just could not walk away. Something kept me going…

In the end, too, Fate was kind to us because Kingsford Homestead near Gawler in South Australia – the very same location in which we had shot the pilot – went up for sale. And Nine bought it. That’s when I began to hope – and pray! – that we were really on our way.

And, at last, no matter what doubts still existed in the network, we were. February 2001 we began pre-production in Gawler in a big old house that once housed the town doctor, and just after Easter that year the shoot started. The landscape was glorious, the systems started to work, the horses and the dogs seemed to like what they were doing – and so did we.  And as the production bedded down and started to hum, I became more and more certain we really had something here.

Then, of course, I got scared.  Terrified, really.

What if, after all this time, I was wrong? What if no-one watched no matter how much I loved this show?

What saved me drowning in anxiety was just plain, relentless work. I was so tired each day, all I could do was sleep – it was that or collapse. The rushes too, were great that little by little I began to have faith again. But the pace was killing. Andrew anchored the series on location in South Australia as I flew back and forth between Adelaide (the capital of South Australia) and Sydney, where my script office was. On  hill in the middle of a sheep station near Lyndoch, Andrew and I lived in a beautiful cottage with a long, long view but when I was back in Sydney, I came home to an empty house each night and two grumpy cats.

Some weeks I was flying back and forth between the two places in the beginning, middle and end of every week. Insane. And then Chris Harriott and I began to write the songs as well. Actually, that provided some light relief. I used to write the lyrics on the plane (and write the first of my novels, The Innocent, on the weekends.) Something to do with the white noise of the engines took me away from the everyday and into the emotional truth that lay behind the stories of  McLeods land. The songs were all about what the characters could not say….

Late August 2001. A crisp winters night in South Australia. The moment of truth. Tonight we were going to air!

The production office had arranged a party for cast, crew and everyone who’d helped us in South Australia, on location at Kingsford – the fictional Drovers Run. And as I drove out to the homestead from the production office, my heart rose. In the distance the building was alive – every room blazing with light and happy people spilling out onto the verandahs. In Gawler, I was told afterwards, the streets were deserted and the local paper, The Bunyip (true!), had a headline on the street: “It starts tonight”. And it did.

The next day, when the ratings came out, all the pain was washed away (just like the memory of childbirth.) We had blitzed the ratings. The relief was indescribable. And then we rolled the shoot again, and got on with it. That’s what you do… But I’ll always treasure that moment when I was able to get up in front of the cast and crew – this wonderful group of people who so believed in the show – and I give them the good news about the ratings… 7 years and 8 series later, 224 hour long episodes all shot of location, in all seasons, all weathers, and the show finally finished shooting its run in March 2008. What a ride. I  hope you enjoy a few memories from the series, below…

 

Simmone Jade Mackinnon plays Stevie Hall in McLeods Daughters

Simmone had big RMs (boots) to fill when she joined McLeods Daughters. Not only did she do just fine, she made her character, Stevie Hall, one of the most beloved characters on Australian TV

 

The final shot on McLeods Daughters - all the women ride off together

Preparing for the emotional last shot of McLeods Daughters when all the women ride off together from Drovers Run

 

McLeods Daughters. The year we blitzed the Logies

The year McLeods Daughters blitzed Australia’s Logie awards. Most popular drama and most popular show on Australian television – plus a raft of actors awards too!

 

McLeods Daughters cast including Simmone Jade Mackinnon

Times change, and the cast of McLeods Daughters changes too – a little bit

 

McLeods Daughters - 200th episode celebration on set with Posie Graeme-Evans & Andrew Blaxland

The cake for an on set celebration of the 200th episode. Very good it was too. Posie and Andrew cut it together

McLeods Daughters series 1 - Jodi learns to drove sheep

A still from the first few days shooting of McLeods. Droving sheep. Not as easy as it looks!

 

McLeods daughters original cast

And here they are again. The original cast of McLeods Daughters in a shed at Drovers Run

 

McLeods Daughters, the final cast

McLeods Daughters, the cast in series 7 and 8. And they’ve all gone on to do such stellar work.

 

McLeods Daughters stunt riding, final series

A great horse riding stunt from the final series of McLeods. The last weeks of shooting in March 2008 were during a record breaking heat wave – the ground was as dry as talcum powder!

 

MILLENNIUM TELEVISION Logo from closing titles McLeods Daughters

Just a bit of nostalgia here. The closing card of the end titles of McLeods Daughters. The Millennium Television logo