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Tribal Mind

Date: 04/07/1999
Words: 1328
          Publication: Sun Herald
Section: Television
Page: 4
The once golden-haired boy of Neighbours, Craig McLachlan, can be a right "bastard" when he has to be, as RACHEL BROWNE found out

CRAIG McLachlan had been on the far north Queensland set of the miniseries Tribe barely a few days when he decided to introduce his co-star, Calvin Klein underwear model and erstwhile Melrose Place hunk Antonio Sabato Jnr, to the Australian sense of humour.

He donned the most moth-eaten pair of old Y-fronts he could find, padded them with an, um, appendage, and strutted out of the wardrobe trailer to confront the so-cool-it-hurts Sabato Jnr.

"I said, 'Now listen, you're not the only man capable of flogging a pair of undies, let me tell you. I understand Calvin Klein's the cat you work for, means nothing to me but are you familiar with a brand called Best & Less? I am the Best & Less billboard boy, what do you make of that?'," said McLachlan, re-enacting the scene in his manager's inner-city Sydney living room, swivelling his hips and pointing lasciviously to his groin.

"'This is all me too. That and my one-pack'."

Ah yes, you can take the boy out of Tumbi Umbi but you can't take Tumbi Umbi out of the boy.

For all the frenzied heights of soap fame, pop adulation, serious success in London's West End and, more recently, a crack at Hollywood, 33-year-old McLachlan remains a remarkably normal bloke.

He even wears a twin-tub washing machine rubber band on his left wrist to remind him of his former life as a humble plumber's mate in Tumbi Umbi on the NSW central coast.

Of course, after 10 years of treading the international stage, he's not completely down-to-earth. As you would expect from someone whose second home is the pointy end of a plane, his conversation is peppered with sentences which start: "When I was in (insert name of glamorous city)" or "I'd just flown in from (insert name of exotic destination)".

However, he is far from jaded. The locations used for Tribe, Mission Beach as well as Dunk and Bedarra Islands, took his breath away.

"Forget the rest of the world . . . listen to me, I should be working for the Australian Tourism Commission," he enthused.

The cast of the four-hour co-production between Crawfords, Paramount and Channel 7, including Sabato Jnr, Rachel Blakely, Nadine Garner, Thaao Penghlis and Joanna Cassidy, spent last October and November in the tropical paradise filming the tale of trouble on the high seas with director George Miller at the helm.

Rather than adopting the standard publicity line of how hard they all worked, McLachlan grinned and raised his eyebrows: "It was like a holiday but, you know, what goes on the footy trip, stays on the footy trip."

So, they played up? "Three minutes we've been talking, she's hit me up for dirt already," he exclaimed with mock horror. "Whatever happened to journalistic foreplay? It just doesn't happen in this mad world we live in. It's all about instant gratification."

Okay, so we'll talk about the story instead. Set in the South Pacific, the story begins when a charter ship sets sail on an island-hopping cruise. On board are Captain John Brava (Penghlis), his wife Gina (Cassidy), their loyal deckhand Jack Osbourne (Sabato Jnr) and passengers including lawyer-turned-politican Ralph Leydon (McLachlan), his French UN translator girlfriend Lucille Fournier (Blakely), two young girls looking for romance, Marie Sinclair (Garner) and Sandy (Lisa Callaghan), a pair of newlyweds and a nun.

They are attacked by pirates, the ship sinks, and the survivors are washed ashore on a deserted island which was extensively booby trapped by Japanese soldiers during World War II. There they are forced to survive on their instincts with the ever-present danger of the pirates lurking in the background.

Writer/producer Jock Blair, whose creations include The Sullivans, Skyways and Bluey, devised the script six years ago but only retrieved it from his bottom drawer when Channel 7 and Crawfords expressed an interest last year.

"It was a combination of ideas," Blair said of the project. "Part of it was that fantasy of being shipwrecked and stranded on a deserted island. Modern people are used to having everything spoon-fed to them. How will these ordinary people rise to the challenge of having to survive using nothing but a penknife and their wits?

"The other element which I wanted to throw into it was those stories you read about pirates who are still active in the South China Sea. Not only are the survivors struggling among themselves, they have that outside threat as well."

McLachlan was originally intended to play Jack the deckhand but after reading the script, he decided the devious Ralph was much more to his liking.

"For all those Aussies who have thought over the years that Craigie is such a nice boy, prepare yourselves for a shock," he said, referring to his time as the golden-haired boy of Neighbours and Home & Away. "Oooooh. This guy is a bastard with a capital B. I've even shocked myself."

Although it is casting against type to put McLachlan in the black hat, Blair believes it is a clever move.

"Ralph is a very charismatic, likeable young man who is quite capable of commiting dispicible acts in a cold-blooded way," Blair explained.

"Craig worked very well in that regard because he is a good-natured, good-humoured person and he has always played that type of role on TV.

"He works much better in this role than someone who is a dark and brooding type because when he turns, it seems 10 times more sinister because he is outwardly so dependable and trustworthy."

If playing the baddie was a change of pace for McLachlan, so too was working on an Australian television production. After all, 12 years have passed since he initially signed on to Neighbours for a six week stint as Henry Ramsay. That role turned into two years, followed by a year on Home & Away, a role in the miniseries Heroes 2 and a gig hosting Tonight Live.

He spent much of the period from 1992-95 on the stage in an Australian production of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, followed by the West End production of Grease, during which his second marriage to Neighbours co-star Rachel Friend broke down, followed by another revival of Rocky in the UK. Then he joined the BBC spy drama series, Bugs.

"Working for the BBC was interesting but everything is quite proper, very stiff upper lip," McLachlan recalled. "After three years of that, I had to escape, I had to get out of London."

Anyway, Hollywood was beckoning and he signed on to a series with Columbia Tri-Star, in which he played an investigative reporter, exposing the dirty linen of the White House. After years at the union-dominated BBC, suddenly McLachlan was travelling in stretch limos and nothing was too much trouble.

However, the timing could not have been worse. The Monica Lewinsky scandal broke shortly after McLachlan filmed the pilot and the project was consigned to the bad taste file.

"When Bill started getting up to no good with Cuban cigars and the like, it was all over," McLachlan said with a shrug.

Still, it meant he was able to return to Australia and do the 68-date Grease arena tour followed by Tribe.

"Honestly, I had been so itching to come home for so long," he said.

"I had such a good year here, last year. Having said that, I am reading a play at the moment. It's on the West End and with some good people but I'll see. I just really want to be home for a while."

* Tribe airs on Channel 7 later this month

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