She’ll be right, Jack

NZ Listener

January 14-20 2006 Vol 202 No 3427

She’ll be right, Jack

by Diana Wichtel

Kiwi actor Erik Thomson has made a career out of playing outsiders, oddballs and eccentrics, from Hamlet to Hades.The sudden canning of his Australian TV series The Alice has him wondering about heading home.

Heat, dust, flies and Kath and Kim – there’s a price to pay for trans-Tasman acting success. Erik Thomson – born in Inverness, Scotland, raised in New Zealand, buggered off to Australia – is one of the ones who got away. He’s back home to promote TV1’s The Alice, a drama series set in Australia’s scorched red centre. Heat, dust, flies.

It should be a happy homecoming. Thomson, whom viewers may recall from such equally torrid roles as maverick Dr Mitch Stevens (All Saints) and Hades, King of the Underworld (Hercules and Xena), was delighted that The Alice was getting a run back home. Then, three days before the series screened here, came headlines announcing that it had been “canned”. The show that was meant to be the new McLeod’s Daughters wouldn’t be getting a second series. As Thomson arrived to do the media in New Zealand, the sets and props were being flogged off online.

In fact, there are 22 episodes in that can, a run of King Kong-like proportions in terms of most New Zealand drama. But the timing couldn’t have been worse. “It took the wind out of its sails,” says Thomson, sighing. “The first day I was here, a guy said, ‘Are you in that Alice thing? I don’t watch it because it’s ending, isn’t it?’”

So, what went wrong? We meet at Westhaven’s HQ in a sort of nautical version of the Baa Bar, the chaotic establishment run by Thomson’s character Jack Jaffers, an ageing ex-rocker who’s afraid he’s lost what little mojo he once had. Relaxed, friendly, disinclined to take himself too seriously (can he really be a Kiwi actor?), Thomson settles in for a glass or two of local sauvignon blanc and a trawl through the life and hard times of a gentle, meandering, mad Australian television series in a harshly commercial age.

It’s the sort of scenario that gives an actor plenty of practice at playing philosophical. “Just one of those things,” says Thomson, quite often. “Mustn’t grumble.”

After all, he knows the game. Before leaving for Australia, he survived an encounter with the short-lived Plainclothes. Once across the Tasman, he stumbled into Pacific Drive, possibly the worst soap ever made. “Melrose Place on the Gold Coast” doesn’t begin to do justice to the full horror. “I asked to see the scripts before I signed, but they said they weren’t ready yet. Just trust us. So I signed,” recalls Thomson. “The next day the scripts arrived and I went, ‘Oh my God!’”

Still, it’s an ill wind. Pacific Drive led to the role on veteran Australian medical drama All Saints, which won Thomson a Silver Logie in 2003. A moving moment for a boy from Lower Hutt. “Kath and Kim presented it to me and Kimmie tried to crack on while I was up there. I got up on stage and she came running across and jumped on me.”

The next morning another formidable woman, McLeod’s Daughters’ creator Posie Graeme-Evans, pounced as well, wanting a meeting about a project. That turned out to be The Alice, a series that presented an expat actor with such exotic professional opportunities as the chance to run around the Australian desert naked and hallucinating, having been bitten on the bum by a kangaroo tick.

The Alice started out as a high-rating telemovie that screened in 2004. The series, with its desert moonscape, magic realism and the obligatory dead person – think a more rustic, remote Insiders Guide to Happiness with ticks – is good fun. We’re puzzled over what went wrong over there. “So are we. Basically, it was given a really tough timeslot,” says Thomson. “Monday at 7.30, which has never been a drama slot.” The traditional drama slots tend these days to be full of CSI and its evil spawn.

Then there are the expectations of a highly competitive market. “That’s been the trouble with Australian drama since 2001. The networks aren’t giving shows time to bed in. They want instant results. All Saints, Blue Heelers and McLeod’s Daughters – none of them would have survived in this day and age. We were pulling a million [viewers], but it was just one of those things. I think you have network politics here as well,” he teases, having read the headlines about antics at TVNZ. “I’ve come back to a storm.” In the end, he says, it just comes down to luck and timing. “Until there’s a culture of supporting drama generally, it’s going to be hard for the relatively experimental stuff to be successful.”

It all sounds distressingly familiar. Thomson heard the bad news with three days still to shoot to finish the series. “Channel Nine had made the decision and was going to do a press release that afternoon. I went on set and told everyone. I wanted to make sure everyone didn’t hear it secondhand.”

Gutted. If the series seems a little more than usually personal to him, it’s possibly because he worked on it not only with his wife, Always Greener’s Caitlin McDougall, but also his dog, Russ. “He’s probably the most disappointed that the show’s been cancelled, because he had a personal wrangler who would play with him all day and the person who loved him most on the crew was the caterer.”

There are things Thomson won’t miss about the shoot. Such as the endless commutes between Sydney and Alice Springs. By the time the show was cancelled, it was September. “The heat was back up to 35˚ and the flies had come out. Once the flies are out it’s absolute hell to work. There was an early scene where Caitlin was having to cry. As there’s no water in the desert, as soon as you tear up the flies just go ‘Drink!’ and you look like a little Ethiopian child.” He mimes the frantic, fly-discouraging hand-flapping that had to be constantly shot around. “You don’t know whether you should flag them away,” he muses nostalgically, “or if it’s more distracting for the audience to see a fly go up your nose and come out the other side.” Then there was the dehydration, the muscle cramps …

On the upside, there was also the higher profile. Thomson has discovered that he can now get a very good restaurant table in Tasmania. He has done everything from Shakespeare at the Opera House to a role in Australian Indie film Somersault, but it tends to be television that causes mad scenes at drive-throughs. “By the time you drive to the second window, everyone knows you’re in the car. One person gives you one burger, one gives you the drink, another one hands you the chips …”

Happy times. Thomson’s still a Kiwi, though, as he talks about arriving here from Scotland – “We moved to Upper Hutt. Right next to Selwyn Toogood” – his accent becomes infiltrated by a touch of residual Inverness. Sounding like Billy Connolly did little for Thomson’s social life as a nine-year-old in 1974 New Zealand. “As a little Scots boy with a big, broad accent, I got so much racism.” He shut up his tormentors by performing School Journal plays for the class in different voices. And the experience gave him a bankable affinity for playing outsiders, oddballs and eccentrics, from Hamlet to Hades to Jack Jaffers.

Yes, he does think about coming home, for all the usual reasons. “My parents are about 70 next year. It would be good to be around a bit more.” Children? “Hopefully. Soon. My best friend’s got a one-year-old I’ve never met, so …”

And, yes, he’d love to work here, given the opportunity. “Caitlin loves New Zealand, which is lucky. The older I’m getting the more I realise that New Zealand is my home. Everything about my life was taught to me here.”

As for The Alice, “Maybe we can carry on making it on the Desert Road,” Thomson jokes bleakly. Lord knows, madder ideas have received NZ on Air funding. But in the end it was just one of those things. “We were making this great show which was a romantic adventure series and we were having a pretty romantic adventure on it by going to Alice Springs. It was a great seven months of my life I’ll never regret.”

The Alice, TV1, Wednesday, 8.30pm

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The article originally appeared here.