Taking the lead
The star of the much-anticipated reworking of the Doctor Blake series, Nadine Garner opens up to Sue Smethurst about the grief she felt over Craig McLachlan’s “trial by media” and about inding herself, once again, a rising star.
It is a blustery, ice on the car kind of late winter morning in Melbourne. In a lofty suburban warehouse, Nadine Garner is posing effortlessly, wide smile and trademark blue eyes piercing the lens of the camera, oblivious to the chill permeating the studio’s walls.
She muses that, after spending the last six years lming The Doctor Blake Mysteries in the draughty mansions and wind-swept paddocks around Ballarat, she’s immune to the cold. The camera clicks away and she owns the moment as you’d expect from an actress of her stature, yet ironically, we’re here to discuss a major career breakthrough, three decades after she became a household name.
At 47, Nadine and her much-loved character, Jean Blake, are nally stepping out on their own, commanding the starring role in the upcoming telemovie The Blake Mysteries, but what should be cause for celebration, a watershed moment for the actress and her character, is also undeniably bittersweet.
“I went through a grieving for what happened to Craig personally and professionally,” she says of her former co-star Craig McLachlan, who is ghting allegations of sexual assault. “Before we stepped on set, I did a lot of imagining as to what it would be like without him. So, by the time we were ready to shoot, I’d worked out in my head how it would be because, once we were shooting, I had a job to do and I had to put emotions aside.”
In January this year, the mum of two boys, Eden, 12, and Jem, nine, was in her Melbourne kitchen, elbow deep preparing back-to-school lunchboxes, when news broke that her co-star Craig McLachlan, who played her on-screen husband Dr Lucien Blake, had been accused of indecent assault. To say she was shocked is an understatement.
She initially had thought there may have been a drastic misunderstanding about the man she’s worked alongside for the past six years, describing him as “ irty, fun, cheeky and a bit bawdy at times,” before pointedly adding “… and he’s been that way for 30 years.”
“I thought this was a storm in a teacup that would all blow over,” Nadine says. But she was very wrong.
Hot on the heels of the international #MeToo movement, a media restorm engulfed McLachlan, who has been accused of indecent assault, sexual harassment and bullying while on the set of The Rocky Horror Show in 2014. McLachlan vehemently denies the claims, which ran on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald and in the ABC’s 7.30, and has since launched defamation proceedings against Fairfax Media, the ABC and one of his accusers, actress Christie Whelan Browne. The case is set down for trial in February 2019.
“Whether or not his behaviour is always politically correct is not for me to say,” Garner admits, “and what’s true or not true and what actually happened between him and the women who accused him is not for me to say either. I have no idea and I don’t deny the women felt what they felt. But regardless of Craig’s position in this, I vehemently oppose that sort of trial by media of anyone. [The media’s] character assassinations like that are just not fair.
“Craig is who he is and he’s been that way for a very long time. He brings a persona to the set which everyone enjoyed for six years. He’s an entertainer who never switches off and I think he was an easy target for the media.”
An investigation into McLachlan’s behaviour on the set of The Doctor Blake Mysteries cleared him of any wrongdoing, but the damage was done and the Seven Network, who’d rescued the show after it was axed by the ABC, cancelled a future series. Garner and her colleagues, 100 local cast and crew, were suddenly unemployed.
However, the show’s producer, George Adams, wasn’t willing to let the hugely popular Doctor Blake go so easily and began exploring the possibility of Garner and her muchloved supporting character, Jean
Blake, stepping up to take the lead. When the Seven Network jumped at the chance, the production team swung into action, working tirelessly writing new scripts, storylines and scenes, and in a marathon 13-day shoot, they created a telemovie, The Blake Mysteries: Ghost Stories. The Blake phoenix rose from the ashes one more time.
“I’m still pinching myself,” Nadine says. “It’s a dream really because it seemed like all hope was lost and the odds were stacked against us, so it’s incredible to see it come to life.”
It has been 33 years since Garner burst onto our screens as the loveable Tamara Henderson in the hit 1980s series, The Henderson Kids. She was just 13 years old when she landed the role alongside fellow showbiz newcomers Kylie Minogue and Ben Mendelsohn. Audiences instantly fell in love with both Nadine and the show, and in 1986, at the ripe old age of 15, she won the Logie for Best Performance by a Juvenile.
“It was the most signi cant time of my life,” Garner says, recalling how privately she was dealing with the break-up of her mum and dad’s marriage whilst publicly learning to cope with being mobbed as she walked along the street.
“I do remember having a bit of an identity crisis and it was hard for my family when I was suddenly being recognised everywhere we went. I had this public persona being beamed out into living rooms and a crisis happening at home.”
The experience could have scarred her for life, but instead she found comfort and community in her castmates, many of whom were around the same age.
“In some ways, the cast and crew replaced my family. Many of them became my role models. I attached myself emotionally to those people and I still have a very deep attachment to them today. It was a formative time in my life and the people on set swept in and scooped me up and supported me when I needed it most.”
Her love of acting was immediate and she threw herself into the craft, carving a formidable career in shows like Prisoner, Neighbours, The Flying Doctors and Changi. Behind the camera she’s found success too. Nadine wrote and directed the short lm Afterglow, which was nominated for an AACTA award for Best Screenplay.
Showbiz is a ckle industry though, and despite her success there have been long periods of unemployment and many times she’s been tempted to give it away. She’d reached that point when The Dr Blake Mysteries came along in 2013. The show was an instant hit, becoming the ABC’s highest rating locally produced TV show, and aired in 130 countries.
“My career has been a huge roller-coaster. For the majority of my working life I haven’t had enough money – that’s the harsh reality of it. It’s very hard to survive as an actor. I get frustrated with the myth that acting is a life of fame and fortune
– it’s not. Most actors, especially in Australia, have huge amounts of downtime. There are very few people who are constantly employed. That’s just how our industry is, we live with nancial insecurity.
“Each time I’ve said to myself, ‘right, that’s it, I’m looking for another job,’ something comes along to just get me across the line. Then along came Blake, and it changed my life in many ways. I felt like it was a message that this was what I was meant to do. I love acting, I get so much from it and Blake has been a joy, but equally, I am circumspect – if it all falls apart tomorrow, it isn’t the end of the world. Motherhood changed my focus completely and brought a great deal of perspective to my life.”
It is not lost on Nadine that her eldest son, Eden, is approaching the same age she was when she landed the role of Tam Henderson. Neither Eden nor Jem have shown a particular interest in showbusiness, despite both parents working in the industry. “Although,” she laughs, “Jem wants to be a YouTuber!”
Nadine’s former husband, cinematographer Cameron Barnett, now lives in Los Angeles where he has worked with people like Shawn Mendes, Elon Musk and Alicia Keys. They remain on good terms and she describes him as a wonderful father, but she unashamedly says life as a single working mum, particularly with Cameron based overseas, has its challenges. During lming, she’s required on set long before dawn most days, so a babysitter helps get the boys up and ready for school.
“There is no such thing as balance for working mums,” she insists. “We just lean into whatever we are doing at the time. Then, when it’s over, you lean into another part of your life.
“My work is important to me and I love what I do, but the children are my focus. I have a very close relationship with the boys – they are the centre of my life and the reason
“Then along came Blake and it changed my life.”
Above: Nadine as Jean with co-star Craig McLachlan on the DoctorBlake set. Right: Receiving her Best Actress AFI award for Mull, aged 17. Below: Nadine and Kylie in theirHenderson Kids heyday.