This series following the lives of five women running a cattle station in the outback aired on Channel Nine between 2001 and 2009. It was one of the most successful shows on Australian television, garnering an average of 1.51 million viewers during its first season. And just a few months ago a survey conducted by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance voted McLeod’s Daughters Australia’s favourite local show or movie during lockdown.
Horsemaster and livestock co-ordinator, Jim Willoughby, worked on every episode. “We were based on Kingsford, a property just north of Gawler in South Australia,” explains Jim, who has been working in the Australian film business for over 40 years. “This became Drover’s Run in the series. We set up a wranglers’ camp with yards and Atco huts and thought the show would at least be good for a couple of series – in fact it went for eight seasons.
“Before filming began we were lucky to have a month’s pre-production and did some really intensive riding and also livestock training. It always looks so much better if actors handle animals themselves and, of course, if they can ride a bit.
“I do appreciate that learning to ride can do an actor’s head in. Some get the hang of it but then forget what they’re supposed to say and where they’re meant to be. My role is to get actors to appear as if they know what they’re doing on a horse. If during filming they’re not looking good enough, it’s up to me to ask for another take.”
Jim recalls that Lisa Chappell rode a horse fairly well. Her character died in a car accident during season three. “I’ve died many times on screen but that particular death was the most challenging and satisfying,” Lisa recalls. Upon gaining the role of Claire McLeod, Lisa, who was to win a Logie in 2002 for Best New Female Talent, threw herself into rural life. “I lived on a property by myself and when I had time I’d watch horses being trained and go to rodeos.”
Jim was impressed with the way Lisa embraced life on the land: “Like a real rough and tumble country girl.” But what Jim didn’t know was that working with the show’s farm animals led to Lisa changing her dietary habits. “After shooting scenes with a lamb called Buddy, I turned vegetarian – I just couldn’t eat my co-stars!”
Bridie Carter, playing her on-screen half-sister, Tess McLeod, had been a timid rider when arriving on set, so she was introduced to a horse called Beau, known as Oscar in the series. “He’d been ridden by scores of actors over the years,” says Jim. “He gave them confidence and made them look good.”
Bridie developed a very close relationship with the trusty gelding. “I was broken-hearted when I learnt he had died recently. I’d dreamt of taking my sons to meet him, he really looked after me.”
Sometimes the thought of having to ride will stop an actor taking on a role; Michala Banas, who played Kate Manfredi, was petrified in the beginning. “The part involved horses, sheep, cows and dirt. I was a city girl, I knew nothing about all that stuff and had only sat on a horse twice,” says Kate. When she left the series four years later she had learned much about rural life. “I can drive a tractor and shear a sheep!” boasts the 42-year-old actress who these days spends her time between Melbourne and Los Angeles.
Series member Simmone Jade Mackinnon, who for six years played Stevie Hall, a jillaroo, became the real thing last year after competing in a charity cutting event. She’s now working full-time on a cattle station in central Queensland. “I’m a jillaroo at 46 and I just love it,” she says.
Jim remembers the episode when she and Alex married. “The couple were on horses and Stevie’s wasn’t quite ready for the long white wedding dress she was wearing – there was a bit of a crash but no bones broken. In fact, the only real injury during all the years was when my brother, Bill, got tipped off a horse he was training and broke his arm.”