Mcleod's Daughters: articles

Back in the Saddle

Home-grown, pro-female and very country, McLeod's Daughters is set to revamp fair dinkum drama, CHRISTINE SAMS writes.

ON A BRISK day in rural South Australia, it's easy to be thrilled by a woman on horseback galloping across the hills. But when she is surrounded by a film crew of about 30 people, it becomes obvious the scene has been created for a greater purpose: the return of outback drama to television.

Already pre-sold to America's giant Hallmark network, McLeod's Daughters has been hailed as the Nine Network's next big thing. The 22-part series is squarely focused on the lives of two strong-willed sisters and their three female workers as they struggle to run a sizeable outback property.

The show is based on the 1996 telemovie, which starred Jack Thompson, Kym Wilson and Tammy MacIntosh. Perhaps surprisingly, it remains the highest-rating telemovie screened on Australian television.

But this time around, Nine has chosen two virtual unknowns to play fictional sisters Tess and Claire McLeod.

Australian Bridie Carter and New Zealander Lisa Chappell were selected after an exhaustive casting process, which included a number of high-profile actors.

The pair are now based permanently in Adelaide to film the series, alongside other cast members including Sonia Todd, Jessica Napier and Aaron Jeffrey.

"We're not making Sex And The City here, but we're trying to tell stories from a female pair of eyes," said the show's creator and executive producer Posie Graeme-Evans.

"It's big-sky drama and larger-than-life TV, but if it works, it will work because its heart is true."

Not only is McLeod's Daughters driven by a strong female cast, the behind-the-scenes team is characterised by strong women, including Graeme-Evans who has already been hailed by the industry for her success with Hi-5.

Her passion for the McLeod's Daughters project is undoubted. The feisty producer convinced Kerry Packer to purchase a 55ha property, an hour outside Adelaide, even before the series was given the final green light by Nine executives.

Each episode of the show is filmed on the property, with cast members using the grand homestead (built in 1856) as their main set—with the sweeping South Australian hills as the perfect backdrop.

"This is something which has never been tried before," said Graeme-Evans. "No-one has filmed a television series entirely on location, without city-based studios, without constructed indoor sets."

Because of the spectacular rural property (known in the series as Drovers Run) and the strong female storylines, the show has already attracted comparisons to the real-life struggles of outback author Sara Henderson and her daughters.

But Graeme-Evans said Henderson's adventures had not influenced the show.

"I haven't even read her books the whole way through," she said. "The ideas stemmed from an article I read in The Bulletin in 1993 about women being trained to work with cattle on horseback. And at the same time I was reading A Fortunate Life by AB Facey—another great Australian story.

"It struck me as such a simple thing: women working on a cattle station. But it makes for great television as they cope with the struggles in their daily lives," she said.

Viewers wary of tired country stereotypes might be surprised by the lead characters. Claire McLeod (played by Chappell) is a tough, gallant horsewoman, born and bred in the country. But her sister Tess, who turns up to help run the property after their father's death, is a city chick who relies more on aromatherapy than the great outdoors.

"At first I thought it was a period piece—corsets, the whole deal," said Carter, who plays Tess.

"But as soon as I realised the leads were female, and the five main characters were strong, contemporary women, it just blew me away."

Carter graduated from NIDA in 1994 and although she has appeared in a number of television productions, this is her first key role on a television drama.

"I can't wait until the public gets to see this, because we've already been here for months, riding horses and playing make-believe in the homestead," she said, with a laugh.

Remarkably, both Carter and Chappell only jumped on horseback after they scored the lead roles. Now they happily sit astride horses between takes, sometimes riding their four-legged co-stars from the hills (where much of the series is filmed) back towards their make-up trailers.

"We've all taken a lot of care with authenticity and it seems to have paid off," said Chappell, who is a well-known actor in New Zealand and is hoping to achieve a similar profile in Australia.

"I'd touched a horse twice in my life before, but now I love it. This series has such a strong emphasis on the outdoors, and the strength of women in working together in a natural environment, it's been a very grounding experience."

The cast and crew of McLeod's Daughters will remain in South Australia until at least November, but if the series is a success, Drovers Run is expected to become a permanent part of the television landscape.

McLeod's Daughters premieres August 5, 8.30pm, Channel 9.

July 29, 2001
Sun Herald