Mcleod's Daughters: articles

Daughters of fortune

It's as popular on world markets as Neighbours and Home and Away, partly because it doesn't offend Muslims. Graeme Blundell charts the success of McLeod's Daughters

'THIS is a 'high-concept show': girls running a cattle property," Karl Zwicky, the man in charge of hit show McLeod's Daughters, is saying, a hint of exasperation animating his voice. "That's the motherhood statement, OK, but the trick of the show is to bring all the elements into play that flesh it out. There is no story engine."

He's right. In this drama there are no weekly victims, no serial killers, no hospital patients, no car crashes, no cold cases and no diseases. McLeod's is a one-a-week story series with a complex set of intricately traced family connections between characters.

A caring, supportive, occasionally disruptive world unto itself centred on life at Drovers Run, a 200,000ha property 180km from the nearest town and 400km from the city.

McLeod's Daughters, in its international incarnations, now appearing in more than 230 territories, ranging from Afghanistan to Zaire, has been called a lot of things, such as "Dallas down under", "Bonanza with better hair", "Charlie's Angels on horseback" and "The Thorn Birds with the sheep but thankfully not the priest". It's also arguably Australia's most successful television drama.

When the show first opened in the US two years ago, the blurb went: "Who cares if it's a top show in Australia. For US audiences you sell it with three words - hot, foreign, cowgirls." Creator Posie Graeme-Evans famously developed the original concept inspired by a photograph depicting "blue skies and quintessentially Aussie girls' faces with big wide grins under the broad brim of a classic R.M. Williams hat".

McLeod's Daughters began as a high-rating 1996 telemovie on Nine. The obvious, if ambitious, idea for a series was pencilled on the network's development slate before belatedly, as it turned out, being green-lighted in November 2000.

To the rest of the industry the idea seemed a winner, a peach ready to be plucked by anyone with enough brains and nerve to try. But the Nine cynics couldn't see potential in a show that offered humanity, romance and innocence - not even the girl-power vibe of sexy young blondes shooting guns and galloping on large horses.

Stories reflecting the lives and desires of contemporary Australian women, its main characters neither narcissists nor idiots, were not seen as sexy enough then. Nine probably would have knocked back Desperate Housewives too, just as many American networks did at the same time.

"From the beginning the themes have remained unchanged," Zwicky is saying. "Family really, in all the forms kinship can take. And mateship." The show's budget hasn't altered much either, despite its success. "Just nothing compared to any show from overseas," he says with typical producer's gallows humour. "The Americans laugh at us."

McLeod's Daughters is what the industry calls a mature series, entering its sixth season. "We are doing more action scenes and more stunts," Zwicky says. "The audience won't let you go backwards. They expect more out of the stories. You have to pile more story, further plot and emotion into every moment."

Shot completely on location round Gawler in South Australia - "No frozen birds on a painted backdrop," Zwicky says - the producer is proud of the way it's possible to see the seasons change through the episodes, the ground's colour, the shape of the trees, the look of the skies.

"We're the last local drama series shot on film. Film still looks better. This series has a look that video doesn't. Overseas markets love that. The show is shot with two film cameras, the only way to avoid the static quality of soap," Zwicky says.

To succeed internationally these days, Zwicky argues that Australian producers need to jettison the parochial approach to narrative that dates back to Hector Crawford's Homicide in the 1960s. "They can no longer just think of themselves being in the local rowboat, they are in the worldwide one now, with no dispensation offered. You are up against everyone. The benchmarking has altered radically."

But he is concerned at the show's lack of local critical recognition. "This show is in the long line of cinema seen as 'women's movies,"' he says. There is a kind of Forever Amber prejudice at work, he believes, that consigns certain kinds of material, anything that has "women's issues" stamped on it, those plotlines of doomed love affairs, infidelity, unrequited love, various family crises or marital separation to a critical side shelf.

"Approved of but never taken seriously," he says of his show and the disdain is almost palpable down the phone line. "We are a 7.30 show, too," he says, a timeslot that doesn't encourage serious comment from critics. "I think this time has saved us; and we regulate ourselves to its exactitude."

He believes that if he was producing an 8.30pm show and doing what his critics are always saying they should - "Make it gritty" - his drama would die. "Overseas there would be cultural resistance to more violence and sex in some territories, as we're shown in many Muslim countries. We have a very broad cultural range."

This week's episode, solid and functional, is not a great one, though there are many nice moments. Drovers Run is under threat again, vultures are circling, and the bank wants its demands met instantly. Stevie (foxy Simmone Jade Mackinnon) stuffs up again, Tess (energetic Bridie Carter) is constantly disappointed, and Jodi (splendid Rachael Carpani) is disillusioned in love.

The show moves in and out of a kind of idealised feminised "Australianness" working out of imported genre conventions. Any crack at representing a national identity is inevitably a construction using transplanted forms. "This 'Australianness' in the dialogue really works for us in the overseas markets," Zwicky says.

The action is packed yet becalmed like a painting, where space is crowded and time no object; at its most turbulent the show is never panicked and the impression you are left with is of skill and extreme professionalism.

This is the house of TV story as convalescent home, of brief recuperative stay, just under an hour of skilfully made escapism where the immaculacy of childhood is never far away. I enjoyed being there, felt rested and glad my sisters live in different states and not in my house.

Zwicky says he always feels pleased when complimented on the Americanness of McLeod's Daughters' story-telling, its emotional clarity and lucid narrative progression.

The Americans make no apologies for the articulate and clearly driven stories that characterise their TV drama. "Sometimes in this country we seem to be ashamed of narrative eloquence. If people can understand something, then the makers are seen as middle-brow."

He says the secret of a drama's success and longevity is in understanding the audience. "There is only one rule: you can't go backwards." He says he has worked on some local long-running local dramas that became stationary despite their success. "You could pick up a script and say to yourself, 'I swear I directed this three years ago."'

The failure of local drama generally, he believes, is due to producers simply underestimating their audience. "They are ahead of you most of the time. You have to believe in them and be truthful." He says he always waves "the reality wand" over the scripts in case they become "too scripty" and events magically happen without explanation or motivation. He believes the local audience is not resistant to local drama, just more discerning than the producers: "When something is good, the audience is there."

McLeod's Daughters, Nine, 7.30pm Wednesdays.

By Graeme Blundell
March 04, 2005
The Australian