Mcleod's Daughters: articles

Estrogen Rides Tall in the Saddle in the Australian Outback

Call it “Dallas” down under, “Bonanza” with better hair or “The Thorn Birds” with the sheep but not the priest. It’s just nice that the first Australian western to hit American television screens is something of an all-woman affair. “McLeod’s Daughters,” an enormous hit in its home country, is the Women’s Entertainment network’s first prime-time drama series, and the reasons for its popularity are reported to be multifaceted.

“For the rural audience, it’s having their life and their environment reflected back at them,” said Lisa Chappell, who plays Claire McLeod. “For the urban part of the audience, the women love that there’s a whole bunch of women running a ranch and the men have a whole bunch of gorgeous gals on top of a horse. And everybody loves the landscape.”

They must. Since “McLeod’s Daughters” had its premiere in August 2001, it has become Australia’s No. 1 drama series. This year it took home four major Logies, the high-visibility awards presented by TV Week, the country’s TV Guide equivalent. The series won awards for most popular Australian drama series, most popular Australian program, most popular actress (Ms. Chappell) and most popular actor (Aaron Jeffery).

The premise is a sister-act version of the classic city mouse-country mouse encounter. In the first episode, which had its premiere last weekend, Tess Silverman-McLeod (Bridie Carter), whose mother has just died, leaves her fast-paced urban life in Melbourne for a visit to Drover’s Run, a sprawling outback cattle ranch, half of which she has inherited. (“I’m fabulously wealthy,” she tells a friend by cellphone.) There she finds her half-sister, Claire McLeod, desperately trying to keep the farm going since the recent death of the girls’ father, Jack. Claire isn’t in any position to buy out Tess’s half, so neither of them is fabulously wealthy. The young women also haven’t seen each other in 20 years, but Tess, who was at loose ends back in the city, decides to stay for a while. Claire is not thrilled.

Tess quickly demonstrates an unexpected knack for home repairs, but also lets the cattle escape by not fastening the snap-hook on the gate. On the plus side, she is an eyewitness to the hired hands, all men, stealing fuel, and that’s the end of them. Luckily, Claire and Tess can count on three other women. Meg (Sonia Todd) is the attractive blond housekeeper, who may have been Jack’s lover; Jodi (Rachael Carpani) is Meg’s perky daughter, fresh out of boarding school; and Debbie (Jessica Napier) is the flirtatious grocery delivery person, who quits her job to be part of the team. Luckily the women all ride and look good in tight jeans and cowboy hats.

In this week’s episode, a married pubkeeper commits rape, and in last week’s, which will be shown again this afternoon, one of the temporary sheep shearers is suspected of multiple murders. But all the men in Claire and Tess’s world aren’t useless, evil or both. That’s just part of the setup, to leave the women on their own. In fact, as time passes, the series becomes a full-blown romance. Mr. Jeffery, the Logie winner, plays Alex Ryan, a neighbor and close friend of Claire’s who is attracted to Tess at first sight. To the show’s credit, it takes its own sweet time to let sexual tensions build and simmer.

Posie Graeme-Evans, who developed the series based on a top-rated 1996 television movie she created with Caroline Stanton, declares herself a complete romantic whose favorite films include “Notting Hill” (glamorous movie star falls for humble bookseller) and “When Harry Met Sally” (opposite-sex pals finally realize they’re crazy about each other). “I love nothing more than to go to the movies and sit in the dark and hold hands,” she said.

Ms. Carter is fine with that aspect of the series. “At times it is absolutely sentimental in its romance,” she said in a telephone interview from the set near Adelaide, where she was shooting the show’s fifth season. “You embrace that sentimentality with absolute truth, so it’s been a great teacher for me as an actor.”

But viewers don’t usually fall for just any romance that comes along. And although the series had just begun when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 made viewers everywhere yearn for a simpler, more peaceful world, it couldn’t be just the timing either.

“It’s about endurance and persistence,” said Ms. Graeme-Evans in a telephone interview by cellphone from the outback, where she was on vacation with her husband. “I think it’s about life-affirming things. I think it’s about strength and community, the enduring power of love, reconnecting with one another and being loyal. People yawn when you say things like that, but in the end it’s translated all round the world.”

But surely it’s about women’s empowerment too.

“I hadn’t seen it that way; I’m fortunate enough to be of a generation—I see people as people,” said Ms. Carter, who was born in 1970. “My mother was a feminist.”

But, she added, “I’m so proud that the two lead characters are women.”

Ms. Chappell, who was born in 1969, also contends that this is not a feminist show. “No, it’s a romantic drama and unabashed about that,” she said in a telephone interview from Auckland, New Zealand, where she was visiting her family and had just become an aunt for the first time. But it is unique, she said, that “the leads of the show are five women—and women doing a man’s job, living in a man’s world.”

“Feminist” must be a very bad word in some parts of the world.

Ms. Chappell, unlike her co-star, does not see her world as one of utopian equality. “We are still second-class citizens,” she said, acknowledging pay inequities, among other things. But she sees hope in the success of many women, like Ms. Graeme-Evans, who is “in an incredibly powerful position” as head of drama at the Nine Network, a television outpost best known in its early days for sports coverage and other manly entertainments.

Ms. Chappell has also been paying attention to her own career development, which has led to a role as a sexy, streetwise undercover detective on “Stingers,” an Australian crime series. Her personal softer side is alive and well, however. “The Waltons” is still one of her favorite series, she said, and it was the daily close contact with animals during the first season of “McLeod’s Daughters” (she particularly remembers a “naughty little lamb” who wagged its tail like a puppy) that led her to become a vegetarian.

By Anita Gates
October 10, 2004
New York Times