The Alice: articles

Erik Thompson and Caitlin McDougall

Erik Thomson and Helen Gregory [Caitlin McDougall] from The Alice… the magic of Australia's red centre "lends itself to storylines that are a bit out there"

Success down a dusty road

The Outback brings life to a quirky Australian series, writes Erica Thompson.

THEY say Alice Springs is like another world. Stepping on to the set of Nine’s new drama series, The Alice, a spin-off of last year’s successful two-hour telemovie, confirms it.

Despite the stunning backdrop—a magnificent rocky range surrounded by rich red desert—today’s shoot looks more like a scene from Outbreak than the Outback.

The cast and crew are all wearing surgical masks, including star Caitlin McDougall. “The dust is a bit of a problem,” she explains.

Fair enough, except this isn’t Central Australia. This is a giant Sydney warehouse converted into an authentic Alice Springs set—complete with 200 tonnes of red dirt.

“At least there aren’t any flies down here,” McDougall says. “In the telemovie we were forever doing this (swishes hand in front of her).

“The little ones get up your nose and in your eyes.

“We don’t have that down here, but the dust is still dreadful.”

With its spectacular location and intriguing mix of characters, The Alice was watched by almost two million people—eclipsing the record held by the McLeod’s Daughters pilot.

It’s no coincidence the same woman behind McLeod’s, Posie Graeme-Evans, also served as an executive producer on The Alice.

Graeme-Evans, a strong believer in setting and characters, rather than genre, is convinced audiences want shows that “take you to somewhere you’ve never been before”.

McDougall agrees, saying the magic of Australia’s red centre “lends itself to storylines that are a bit out there”.

“It’s got little touches of Northern Exposure,” she says. “It’s quite whimsical and gentle and that desert is such a lovely thing to watch.

“There’s so much stuff on television that you need to wear a crash helmet just to watch it.

“This (show) is, sit back, enjoy it, and enjoy these people.”

The Alice telemovie was based on a seemingly simple premise—disparate people being drawn to Central Australia to see a total eclipse of the sun.

Helen Gregory (McDougall) was desperate to escape a loveless marriage, while former rock star Jack Jaffers (Erik Thomson), was deciding to create a new life in the outback.

The series opens with McDougall’s character, Helen, returning to the Alice—the ghost of her best friend Patrick (Simon Burke) in tow—for the inquiry into her obnoxious husband’s death. He fell off a cliff during the eclipse, but it was never revealed how.

“A lot of people thought: ‘Aw, did you murder him or was it the ghost?’ ” McDougall says. “That will be made clear.”

Meanwhile, Jack (Thomson) has built a bar in town and is yet to tell local nurse Jess (Jessica Napier) he is her father.

Aspiring medicine man Matt (Patrick Brammell) is waiting to find out if the mystery desert plant he discovered has curative powers, while trying to keep his tryst with Toby’s (Brett Stiller) mother (Roxane Wilson) out of his head.

McDougall, who starred in Always Greener for three seasons, says it’s great to be back working in television.

“It’s so difficult being an actor at the moment and it was a long time to wait and see if (the series) was going to go ahead because it’s an ambitious project having the Alice Springs part to it.”

Incredibly ambitious, with the cast and crew now flying back and forth between Alice and Sydney—a six-hour round trip.

“Tomorrow I fly to Alice Springs and spend the day up there and then I’m back down here and then I head back up there next week,” McDougall says. “It’s not just up the road!”

But it’s worth it, McDougall says.

“There’s nowhere else like it in the world,” she says.

“The dust gets under your skin and there is something about it that makes you want to go back.”

McDougall’s character is seduced by the same mystical pulling power.

“Helen resists living in the Alice because so much has happened there on a tragic kind of level,” she says. “But, obviously, she returns and then she’s able to start taking her layers off and find out who she is again.

“The Alice is this sort of magical place that allows people to be who they really are.”

And perhaps the place for romance to blossom between Helen and Jack, played by McDougall’s real-life husband, Thomson.

“There’s a dance with that whole sort of feeling that’s going on there,” she says.

“They both recognised that there was something in each other (in the telemovie). There was a bit of a zing.”

While McDougall says it’s “great fun” working alongside her partner of six years—as well as the couple’s dog, Russ, who now has a part in the show—you won’t find the actors discussing who’s picking up the milk on the way home.

“When we did the telemovie, a lot of the crew didn’t realise we were married because we both made that conscious decision that when we come to work, that is what it is,” she says.

“It’s all strictly professional (laughing). There has definitely been no canoodling in the background!”

 The Alice, Nine, Sunday 8.30pm

By Erica Thomson
July 28, 2005
The Courier Mail