A deadly practice

Craig McLachlan is 47. Let's just let that sink in for readers of a certain age group who tend to associate McLachlan in his Neighbours heyday as 'that perpetually tanned, blond surfie kid'. Yeah, it's a little sobering.

The advancing years actually sort of suit the actor, though. And he's happy to embrace them, both for the greater diversity and depth of roles he gets to play and the life experience that adds gravitas to his performances.

Case in point: The Doctor Blake Mysteries, the new 10-part ABC drama series starring McLachlan as Dr Lucien Blake, the local GP and police surgeon in the regional Victorian town of Ballarat.

The year is 1959, and Dr Blake has returned home to take over his late father's medical practice after his time serving in the army during World War II and his internment as a prisoner of war.

Compassionate and caring, he also has an unpredictable maverick streak that sees him sticking his nose into the mysteries - murders more often than not - that happen around the town, often to the chagrin of local cop Lawson (Tangle's Joel Tobeck).

As originally written, Dr Blake would best be played by an actor in his mid-50s to mid-60s, and McLachlan admits that he knew the makers of the show were approaching well-known performers in that age range for the role.


McLachlan was in Los Angeles filming a guest spot in the hit US series NCIS: LA when he had a look at an early version of the first episode's script and, even though he knew his chances of nabbing the role were slim, filmed a screen test (on his iPhone, no less) and sent it to the series' producers.

"They could only say no, couldn't they?" he said. "And I thought even if they think I'm not right for Lucien, there may still be something terrific for me to do on it because it sounds like a project with such integrity, something very special."

It was mainly the chance to play Lucien Blake, a character with a bit more depth (and even a bit more damage) than the typical leading man that attracted McLachlan to the project.

"I liked the layers," he said. "He struck me as complex. If The Doctor Blake Mysteries wasn't a whodunit, it would still be fascinating to observe a day in the life of this man Lucien Blake. That's what motivated me to defy the parameters of age that had been set and send in my audition."

Keen to show both the age of the character (Dr Blake is called a 'well-preserved 52') and the toll his wartime experiences took on him (We see throughout the series that he has his demons, the actor said), McLachlan dropped 10kg and grew a beard with a touch of grey.

"That grey in the beard, that's 100 per cent McLachlan," he said. "The peaks and valleys of life, my friend."

And he found bringing Dr Blake to life was quite the task, psychologically and physically.

"For me on this one, unlike anything else I've ever done, I don't think I was quite prepared for what was required of me," he said. "As the name of the show suggests, Lucien Blake is in everything. So it was certainly a marathon – I enjoyed every second of it, but it was full-on."

Having co-stars such as close friend Nadine Garner, who plays Dr Blake's smart, capable housekeeper and receptionist Jean Beazley, certainly helped make the process easier, though.

"When the chemistry is right, as it was with Nadine, Joel and everyone else, every day was a shared joy," McLachlan said.

"Particularly so for Nadine and I because we've known each other since we were kids, since my Neighbours days and her Henderson Kids days. So to find ourselves doing something together all this time down the track and really enjoying the material and the project and each other, it made it extra special."

McLachlan also had a long working history with some of the crew members working on The Doctor Blake Mysteries, and he admits with a laugh there were times when they were taken aback by the whole thing.

"There were some members of the crew I'd known since I was 21 or 22," he said.

"And there were times when we'd call, 'Cut', and they'd come over and say, 'It's just weird. In our minds, you're this perpetually tanned, blond surfie kid we worked with 20 years ago. Looking at you, all suited up, grey beard, behaving in a very grown-up fashion it's almost too much to bear'.

"I'll tell you, it was an amazing few months doing this show. You know I tend to get fairly enthusiastic about anything I'm doing but this – this was special."

The Doctor Blake Mysteries, ABC1, Friday, 8.30pm