The gift of Lu­cien Blake

As a mus­cu­lar 20-some­thing ac­tor, Craig McLachlan made young girls swoon on Neigh­bours. To­day, at 52, as Sue Smethurst dis­cov­ers, he has lost none of his abil­ity to make hearts throb.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Exclusive - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY KRISTINA SOLJO STYLING BIANCA LANE

On a chilly Mel­bourne morn­ing, Craig McLachlan is stand­ing an­kle-deep in the sand at Brighton Beach in just a pair of “budgie smug­glers” and a surf life­saver’s cap, film­ing an episode of True Story With Hamish & Andy.

As the cam­eras are poised to roll, a group of women sashays past on their morn­ing walk, cran­ing their heads to take a peek at the film set. When they spot the fa­mil­iar, al­beit “very Stro­plook­ing” ac­tor, the Ly­cra-clad ladies abruptly come to a halt.

“I could hear a bit of chat­ter, then they waved,” Craig ex­plains, “so I waved back and told them to come over.”

As the women line up for self­ies, one con­fesses he was the first poster she ever had on her wall. “What do you mean ‘had’?” he jokes.

“We grew up watch­ing you in Neigh­bours wear­ing next to noth­ing and here you are still do­ing the same thing,” an­other gushes, be­fore stop­ping her­self. “Sorry, you must hate hear­ing that.”

To the con­trary, the star of the ABC’s hit se­ries The Doc­tor Blake Mys­ter­ies couldn’t have been more thrilled.

Af­ter three decades in the cut-throat world of en­ter­tain­ment, the pin-up boy who burst onto our screens as Henry Ram­say and melted mil­lions of hearts in the ’80s and ’90s teases he is de­lighted to still be recog­nised, let alone em­ployed.

Yet he is be­ing hum­ble, very hum­ble, be­cause Craig McLachlan is one of Aus­tralia’s most bank­able TV stars, en­joy­ing a sec­ond com­ing of his ca­reer.

The trade­mark blond mul­let may be gone and his fans (that’s us, ladies) more in­clined to send him a Face­book mes­sage than knick­ers, but his char­ac­ter Dr Lu­cien Blake has in­tro­duced him to a new gen­er­a­tion of fol­low­ers all over the world.

As he be­gins film­ing the highly an­tic­i­pated fi­nale of Doc­tor Blake, the se­ries, which screens in 130 coun­tries, has been recog­nised as the ABC’s high­est rat­ing lo­cally pro­duced TV show and a run­away suc­cess.

More­over, the gifted ac­tor, whose broad-reach­ing tal­ent has at times been over­shad­owed by his flirty, love­able lar­rikin im­age, is now re­ceiv­ing long over­due ac­co­lades and crit­i­cal ac­claim.

“The fact that, 30 years down the track, I’m still asked to do stuff is won­der­ful and the fact I’ve had the gift of Lu­cien Blake for the past six years is in­cred­i­ble and I’m re­ally grate­ful.”

A huge shock

Craig ar­rives at our photo shoot alone, de­void of an en­tourage of stylists, pub­li­cists and celebrity min­ders. “Hi, I’m Craig,” he says, shak­ing hands and in­tro­duc­ing him­self to ev­ery­one on set, even though he has been a house­hold name longer than some of the crew have been alive.

Within sec­onds, he has us all in stitches, strum­ming air-gui­tar bars of his much loved but equally much ma­ligned 1990 hit Mona (in fair­ness, by re­quest!). Then, ef­fort­lessly, he flicks be­tween the char­ac­ters that have made him fa­mous, from Dr Blake to Rocky Hor­ror’s Frank N. Furter.

He is part-chameleon, part-class clown, a peren­nial Peter Pan who barely sits still, even when he’s mak­ing a se­ri­ous point dur­ing our in­ter­view.

“Craig was al­ways the joker on set,” says his Neigh­bours co-star

Kylie Minogue. “He got away with it not only be­cause he was so funny and charm­ing, but he was also pro­fes­sional and al­ways got the job done. It sounds like not much has changed! I’m so happy for his con­tin­ued suc­cess and that we can all de­light in his cheeky ways to this day.”

At 52 and en­dear­ingly self­dep­re­cat­ing, Craig is en­joy­ing his re­nais­sance thanks to the suc­cess of The Doc­tor Blake Mys­ter­ies. Dr Blake, a po­lice sur­geon who re­turns to his home town of Bal­larat to take over his late fa­ther’s med­i­cal prac­tice, in­stantly struck a chord with view­ers.

Five sea­sons on, with the lat­est in­stal­ment due to air from Septem­ber 17, it’s watched by more than 1.6 mil­lion view­ers in Aus­tralia and many more around the world on the BBC and Net­flix. So it was a huge shock to both the fans and the cast when the ABC un­ex­pect­edly an­nounced that the fifth sea­son would be the last.

“When Sea­son 1 took off and there was a chance to do Sea­son 2, we were ec­static,” Craig says, “but Blake has con­tin­ued to build each sea­son, so it’s tough when you see a con­tin­ual in­crease in the au­di­ence to jus­tify the end of the show”. The ABC said in a press re­lease, “We feel that the time is right to go out while we are still on top.”

Craig re­veals he didn’t even get a call from the ABC to tell him the show was be­ing axed. “Not even a ‘Hey, Craig, just let­ting you know the show’s com­ing to an end.’ That was dis­ap­point­ing. For me, it’s about the au­di­ence and they ob­vi­ously want this show.”

The star says he knew the 1950s drama was some­thing special from the mo­ment he read the role of charm­ing but trou­bled coun­try sleuth Dr Lu­cien Blake, but never in his wildest dreams did he, or any­one else, pre­dict how suc­cess­ful the show would be, even spawn­ing a “Dr Blake ef­fect”.

There are Face­book pages ded­i­cated to Dr Blake and a “Blake Army” of fans around the world, who mo­bilised their forces when the show was can­celled. One pe­ti­tion car­ried 16,000 sig­na­tures, while an­other saw 8000 fans un­leash their anger to­wards the ABC.

The gold­fields town where the show is filmed has en­joyed a tourism boom, with sell-out sight­see­ing tours, ex­hi­bi­tions of the cos­tumes and sets, and fans vis­it­ing Bal­larat to take a glimpse of where it was filmed.

When the ABC an­nounced the se­ries would end, the lo­cals mounted a fierce, but ul­ti­mately fruit­less, me­dia cam­paign to save the show. Bal­larat Mayor Sa­man­tha McIn­tosh says, “I can­not un­der­state the sense of com­mu­nity pride in Bal­larat that Dr Blake has gen­er­ated. Dr Blake has opened up our past to a whole younger gen­er­a­tion and it will be sadly missed, both from our TV screens and our city.”

The role of a life­time

Craig McLachlan de­scribes his ca­reer as a “se­ries of lucky breaks and happy ac­ci­dents”. In truth, it’s been any­thing but. He worked hard to ar­rive in Ram­say Street and has fought hard to shake off its ghosts ever since. So, when

Dr Blake landed on his desk in 2011, while he was in Los An­ge­les film­ing on NCIS, he “took the bull by the horns”.

The pro­duc­ers were look­ing for some­one older, so af­ter a long day on the set of NCIS, when he was “look­ing like hell”, he grabbed a mate’s iPhone and filmed an im­promptu au­di­tion. “My beard was grey­ing and I spent time in the sun squint­ing to de­velop deep crow’s feet, kid you not,” he says. “Don’t try this at home, folks!”

It’s about the au­di­ence and they want this show.

“My mate said, ‘Mac, do you think you want some make-up? You look old’, and I said, ‘Bril­liant! Roll the cam­era now!’

“I felt so strongly about the whole project, I said to the direc­tor, ‘If it turns out it’s not me be­cause I’m too young, I’ll swing the boom, I’ll make tea, I’ll do any­thing just to be a part of it.’”

Dr Lu­cien Blake has been trans­for­ma­tional for the for­mer sur­fie from the NSW Cen­tral Coast, who dreamed of one day hav­ing a gold record to put on his wall, but never of be­com­ing a fa­mous ac­tor.

Af­ter the death of his dad, Peter, when Craig was in his early teens, he dropped out of school “a bit rud­der­less” un­til he landed a gig in a club band play­ing up and down the coast.

“When you’re play­ing the Cess­nock Work­ers Club, you’re not rak­ing in a gazil­lion dol­lars,” he jokes. “In my fam­ily, it was tough love. If you left school, you had to pay your way, so I did. I picked peaches and zuc­chini, worked as a bar­man and a plumber to pay the rent, un­til a mate sug­gested I do mod­el­ling on the side.

“My first TV com­mer­cial was for a jeans com­pany and I couldn’t be­lieve it. They dressed me in a funky pair of duds and asked me to stand there and look brood­ing and sexy. I had no idea what I was do­ing, but I made a stack of money. It was like win­ning Lotto.”

The blond-haired, blue-eyed good looks came onto the radar of Grundy’s tal­ent scouts, who asked him to au­di­tion for Sons And Daugh­ters. Craig vividly re­mem­bers walk­ing into their Syd­ney of­fices, try­ing to “stay cool” when he was sur­rounded by fa­mous faces.

“I thought, ‘What am I do­ing here?’ I spent half my time won­der­ing what rab­bit I could pull out of the hat to main­tain some face along­side th­ese sea­soned ac­tors and the other half try­ing to learn a new Ea­gles song we were play­ing at the

Woy Woy pub the next night!”

By the time he was called up to au­di­tion, he had de­vel­oped a cun­ning game plan, “flirt like crazy with them and make them laugh, and hope­fully they might fall in love with me”.

The part was his and he was quickly of­fered the role in Neigh­bours, be­com­ing an in­stant star along­side Kylie Minogue and Ja­son Dono­van. They were heady days.

“We were get­ting faxes from the BBC say­ing, ‘Con­grat­u­la­tions, you’ve just hit the 20 mil­lion view­ers mark twice a day.’ I re­mem­ber Guy Pearce say­ing to me, ‘Mac, that’s more peo­ple than live in Aus­tralia watch­ing our show twice a day.’ We couldn’t get our heads around it, it was so enor­mous.”

Yet, in the back of Craig’s mind, he had contin­gency plans in place in case it all went pear-shaped. Sea­soned ac­tors Ian Smith and Anne Charleston cau­tioned him that suc­cess can be fleet­ing; you can be in a hit show one day and un­em­ployed the next.

He needn’t have wor­ried. Af­ter Neigh­bours, he booked a one-way ticket to Lon­don and proved his suc­cess was no fluke, seam­lessly tran­si­tion­ing to the stage. Fans flocked to see him play Danny Zuko in Robert Stig­wood’s West End 1993 adap­ta­tion of Grease, which led to one of his most mem­o­rable roles as Dr Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Hor­ror Show.

There were more stand­out small screen roles – Stu­art Diver in the 2002 Thredbo drama He­roes’ Moun­tain and Michael Cham­ber­lain in the 2004 mini-se­ries Through My Eyes – but none have cap­tured the hearts quite like Dr Lu­cien Blake. Craig’s re­newed suc­cess has given him the op­por­tu­nity to delve into darker char­ac­ters, such as in the ABC’s Red­fern Now and the SBS drama Deep Wa­ter.

Be­hind the scenes, he is also com­pos­ing film scores, but the best may be yet to come with a pile of new scripts on his agent’s desk.

“If I’ve man­aged to lose the per­pet­ual im­age of the golden-haired surfer, I think Lu­cien has done it,” Craig says. “For decades, pro­duc­ers and cast­ing peo­ple have seen me as a 23-year-old with blonde ringlets, so there’s a com­ing of age. There are some re­ally won­der­ful gritty roles com­ing in that wouldn’t have been of­fered if not for the good doc­tor.

“Lu­cien Blake has given me so much, he’s opened up so many doors for me and I am very grate­ful.”

Flirt like crazy with them and make them laugh.

BELOW: Craig McLachlan as Doc­tor Blake with co-star Nadine Garner as house­keeper and un­re­solved love in­ter­est Jean Bea­z­ley.

ABOVE: A for­mer sur­fie from the NSW Cen­tral Coast, Craig’s first love was mak­ing mu­sic – the act­ing only came later.

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