Now in his late 40s, still fit, pragmatic and quietly disarming, it’s impossible to ignore the charisma that set him off to stardom all those years ago. In the “me too” world of show business, I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed anyone who is more interested in learning about my work than speaking about his own. I struggle to keep our conversation on track for his new ABC series…
He is also a man who has had to reinvent himself many times. Shaking off a soapie career has taken time and work -plenty of hard work. There have been telemovies (Heroes Mountain, Through My Eyes, My Husband My Killer), series (Always Greener, Rescue Special Ops, Packed to the Rafters), comedy (At Home with Julia, Lowdown), international work (NCIS: LA, Bugs) and stage (The Rocky Horror Show, Chicago, Grease, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang).
Now he has the title role in ABC’s latest local drama: The Doctor Blake Mysteries alongside Nadine Garner.
Across 25 years of work, McLachlan concedes he’s seen the highs and the lows. From “hysteria to straight-to-video” he laughs.
“At this point as I cycle dangerously close to 50, it’s really the sum of the parts. Whereas as a youngster, as we do, we’re prepared to have a crack at anything. For better or worse we’ll give anything a go.
“But the last couple of years I have really had to be passionate about the script of whatever it is. I want to know who I’m working with. Life’s too short when you’re working day in, day out giving your all. It’s nice to be giving your all to like-minded people who are just as passionate as you are.
“That was one of the blessings of Doctor Blake. Everyone from the DOP to the unit bus driver was on board with this, passionate and enthusiastic.
“When you’re lucky to share every day with someone like Nadine or Joel Toebeck…. we enjoyed working with each other as much as the material we were working with. And we had great Melbourne actors coming to work with us.”
McLachlan plays Lucien Blake, a maverick country town doctor in Ballarat in the 1950s, solving crimes while running a local practice. The December Media production is created by George Adams, but unlike many other TV detectives, is not based on a book.
“George Adams has a colourful history back in the UK and for a period in America. Curiously enough, he was working in Ballarat on an historic installation depicting one of the mining disasters and he became totally absorbed in the history of Ballarat and Victoria,” he explains.
“The characters are all from his imagination but interestingly, so much of it is rooted in truth. He was researching how doctors operated in towns like Ballarat back in the day and how they were the CSI guys of the day.
“It’s not like being a fan of the Poirot or Miss Marple. There’s no template, as such. But it does afford you the wonderful luxury of reading up on a lot of George’s research and having the freedom to create.
“I can remember at the time of doing Rocky Horror everybody getting out the video and looking at Tim Curry or Susan Sarandon and I remember deliberately not doing it. My feeling was, in the consciousness of Rocky fans the benchmark was well and truly set by Tim Curry, so if I try and come out and do a Tim Curry I would be f****d. I hadn’t seen it for a number of years so those things I could remember I took on board and hoped there would be touchstones that would register for the audience.
“With Lucien similarly, what I didn’t want to do was watch the new Sherlock Holmes or those sorts of things. The Robert Downey Jr pictures I saw and enjoyed but some he drives some people crazy. I really enjoy him. I think he can be delightful and quirky.
“With Lucien and Jean there is no template, no book, so here was an opportunity to throw caution to the wind. Hopefully little elements of Sherlocks or Poirots and much-loved characters will bubble up to the surface.”
Playing his housekeeper Jean Beazley is Nadine Garner (City Homicide, Blue Water High, Razzle Dazzle, Raw FM, The Henderson Kids). The two team together in the show’s whodunits, and there is an air of unresolved romance between them.
“The constant throughout shooting the ten eps from a story perspective is the chemistry between Lucien and Jean,” he explains.
“‘Deanie’ and I adore each other as human beings so the chemistry that exists within us as people was something that I think the writers hit upon very quickly.
“It’s fun playing all the whodunit stuff, and to work within the parameters of that period and all the rest of it. But from an acting point of view the real guts and meat of the matter is when you have some sort of special connection with whoever you’re working with. Thankfully ‘Deanie’s’ there. She’s just great.
“We brought out unexpected things in the middle of takes that we hadn’t necessarily planned on.
“It was like winning the lottery. We were talking about how long we’d known each other from the beginning of Neighbours and towards the end of The Henderson Kids.”
The show also bears its own period look, with none of the rich colour that has defined Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.
“The three directors come from very different places but had a shared vision in terms of how it should be shot,” McLachlan says.
“I was aware that a guy like (director) Andrew Prowse for example loves a long lens. He would say ‘This is the space, you know what objective is. No marks on the floor, no tape. You guys create and I will be back here on a long lens.’ So it was really exciting that we could just ‘go!’
“That was something all the directors picked up on, so very rarely, unless it was critical for lighting there would be a mark on the floor. In terms of their approach to shooting it, it was very liberating.
“Miss Fisher had such scope for colour and she looked fantastic. It was very flamboyant. I know for Dr. Blake they were looking for something darker.”
Watching the two leads together it’s easy to forget they are Gen X graduates who have both defied show-biz odds to be seen as creditable, mature actors who are TV survivors.
In the case of Craig McLachlan, who was once a pin-up poster boy and fleeting pop-star, he’s endured some of the most extreme media scrutiny.
With his good humour, he acknowledges the Australian media has at times partaken in tabloid negativity.
“It becomes a feeding frenzy. I don’t know why it exists here, more so than anywhere else in the world,” he admits.
“I’ve worked on both sides of the equator and that sort of negativity doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. It’s a shame.
“Those of us who came through Neighbours’ halcyon days, the Kylie-Jason days, we’ve had 20 years of having the boot laid in. I’ve always tended to deal with it through good humour. That seems to get me through. But I don’t know why Australians do it.
“Life is full of peaks and valleys, but in this business the peaks can be a little more dizzying and equally the valleys can be numbing. But I promise you, you’ll get through the valleys. And I’m someone who knows. My valleys haven’t been horrible, but I’ve had enough of them to know.”
Hopefully the new 10 part series for the ABC will sit towards the summit of his recent work.
The Doctor Blake Mysteries premieres 8:30pm Friday February 1st on ABC1.