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.
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.