30th August 2003
“Police! Don’t move!”…
That was my first line as Sergeant Tess Gallagher in Blue Heelers. I must have practised it a million times – in the shower, in the car, even on the toilet!
I couldn’t believe my luck. My first real acting job out of drama school, and it was as a regular in the highest-rating police drama in the country!
It was a dream come true to find myself rattling my faithful Mazda 121 out to Williamstown in Melbourne – the “home” of Mt Thomas Police Station.
I had already met the cast and crew at a rehearsal lunch the day before. It was very casual, but I still giggled like a maniac when I shook John Wood’s hand. It took me a good six months to recover and speak to him again!
I had done my two-week crash course at the Victorian Police Academy with Sergeant Geoff Still, the police adviser to Blue Heelers.
I had practised saying, “Mt Thomas 258 to VKC. Urgent! We’ve got a 12 with 14s out on the Widgeree back road. ETA on AMBOS, TRS and the DOG SQUAD ASAP!” really fast into my mobile. I had punished my clapped-out car doing frantic doughnuts in my parents’top paddock – stopping,jumping out, wrestling my brother’s face into the dirt a couple of times. Oh, and I had read the script…
But nothing could have prepared me for my first day as a cop. An overland car chase in the 4WD, a lost grandma bleeding to death on the cliffs of Widgeree, and the only one who could lead us to her… a fluffy white Scottish Terrier.
Sweating in the dark behind the cables and cameras, I watched as the cast and crew doubled over in hysterics at one of Jane Allsop’s outrageous jokes. They were waiting for the unknown sergeant who, according to the script, marches in to the police station with the highest crime rate in the country and whistles everyone to attention.That’s right… whistles.
I turned to “Stilly”.
“Um… Geoff? I can’t whistle.”
“Don’t worry, mate,”he laughed, enlisting the first assistant director to make the high-pitched noise for me.
I put my fingers to my lips and (cue whistle stand-in) I did it. Easy! I looked around and everyone was silent.
“How was that?” muttered the director from behind a monitor in the darkness.
“Nup,”shouted John Wood, gruffly. “We’ll have to go again.”
I looked at him. Now I’m terrified.
“Boofhead here was standing right in front of me and whistling into the wall, so none of us were in shot!”John barked.
I blew it. Literally.
Then he cracked a grin and shoved me back out the door to my starting position!
The first assistant director winked at me.
“Ready to go again?” he said.
That night, as I was digging my gun belt out of my bruised hips, I felt a warm arm around my shoulders. It was Marty Sacks.
“You winning?”he smiled.
“Urn, I don’t know, Marty. Maybe”
A minute later, Paul Bishop (Ben) arrived with Jane and Rupert Reid (Jack) and plonked a kiss on my cheek, and John cracked open a bottle of red wine to mark the occasion. Gathered together in a cramped make-up bus parked in a rainy paddock at 9.30pm, I felt like I’d joined a family, rather than a workplace.
Once over my initial jitters, Blue Heelers became a ball. There were Starsky and Hutch-type car chases, fanging down the road in the 4WD with Paul. We even got to do our own stunts, leaping and tackling blokes like Jackie Chan.
I’ve had my life saved a bunch of times by Jo, Jack and Jonesy. The Boss (Tom) was always there to dry my tears with a fatherly hug – dragging me out of collapsed mine shafts, shipping containers, bushfires, out of the jaws of rabid dogs and drug dealers.
John also took me under his wing, tearing my script ideas to shreds over glasses of wine, getting me off my bum and into theatre again and eventually helping me to put those ideas back together to get into screenwriting at RMIT University (in Melbourne), where I’m writing this now.
Yeah, I was spoilt.
As a cast, we flew around the country for charity and publicity events and I got to meet all those viewers who dedicated so many Wednesday nights to make the show number one.
Mostly it was really positive, but I’ll never forget being at the local supermarket near my Mum’s and copping a packet of frozen peas in the back of the head for not being Maggie Doyle. People get passionate about their TV!
I’ve had many highlights. One was seeing John Wood in the nude on stage at the Sydney Opera House (as he performed in the play The Elocution Of Benjamin Franklin)! I also got to fly in a helicopter over Sydney Harbour, sung with 120,000 people at Carols in the Domain in Sydney and met Cathy Freeman at the Olympics.
Another highlight, but not as pleasant, was the “finger fiasco” as I like to call it.
My first publicity stunt was abseiling off the roof of Colonial Stadium in Melbourne to present the cup for best and fairest in an AFL charity match. I’d never abseiled before, and I slipped and fell gloveless into the 55m chasm, rope-burning my finger clean off the bone.
I ended what had been a sunny adventure blearily singing “Simply The Best” to the cops who did a line search of the ground and then popped me into an ambulance, with my finger, a few handfuls of grass and sections of James Hird’s knee in a doggie bag.
After a few months of one-armed acting, it healed. PJ was even scripted to comment on my unusual gun technique – a lump of plaster for a trigger finger.
PJ: “Hey, Tess, what happened to you on the weekend?”
Tess: “Oh, you know… abseiling.”
But for all the fun, there were also sad bits. I know it’s only TV, but that didn’t make it any less real to me.
It was hard saying goodbye to Jack after discovering he was such a hot kisser, losing Jonesy in the fire, saying goodbye to my foster daughter, discovering my husband stole drugs for his gay lover and saying a long goodbye to Jonesy at the end.
What I loved most about Blue Heelers is that, somehow, it treads deftly between tragedy and comedy. For every universal storyline about family, money, drugs, cultural and religious differences, drought and bushfires, there are quirky snapshots of life in a country town – the case of the misfired manure; lost puppies, guppies or guinea pigs; broken-down tractors; crazy local characters and their dodgy scams.
The cast and crew spend more time together than with their own families, and they are loyal to the show in rain, hail, floods and 40°C sewerage farms. They practically are a family. I had so much fun there and I loved it, every minute. After a while, I even got some of Jane’s jokes!
Both Tess and I will miss it heaps, but I’m sure we’ll meet up again some day. In the meantime, if you happen to pass through Mt Thomas, drop in to the Imperial and give that red-headed barmaid a cheeky one from me!
By Caroline Craig.
Original content copyright TV Week.