When Tina Bursill was cast as Meryl Knight in Doctor, Doctor it was, in a way bringing her full circle.
“The first TV job I ever had was at Channel Nine on a show called The People Next Door for Gemini Productions,” she recalls.
“I was in my early 20s and I did 6 months to a year, and then theatre and ‘guesties’ after that.”
Stepping back into Nine’s Willoughby studios for publicity and meetings was like stepping back in time.
“I couldn’t believe it. The dressing room and make-up room are the same!
“I was a regular on The Mike Walsh Show for 10 or 15 years, doing a spot every week.
“And I walked down the corridor and said ‘This is insane!’ It’s exactly the same. I walked past Mike Walsh’s old dressing room. They said ‘It is the same but we have different lights up now.’
“It was the same corridors, the same control room. What does that say about Channel Nine?” she asks.
On Doctor Doctor she plays forthright mother and local mayor Meryl Knight. Since launching a year ago the show has proven an instant success for Nine, returning the rural genre to Australian drama. Filming in Mudgee, northwest of Sydney, it has also been embraced by the locals.
“Mudgee has a reputation for having a large sky”
“Mudgee has a reputation for having a large sky. I don’t know what that actually means, but a lot of the locals refer to it. Some of the locations are extraordinary, with the bush, and the sky has such clarity. Because it was so bloody cold!” she laughs.
“But they are very generous both with their conversation and offering places for us to visit if we have any leisure time. Now that we have gone to air I think people feel included and to participate when we have large scenes with fetes and streetscapes.”
While Mudgee doubles as Whyhope’s main street, airport, and pastoral scenes, a homestead in Cobbity, near Camden, is the Knight family home and dam. But filming through winter is no bush picnic.
“Let me tell you it’s hardly ‘eternal springs’. It’s actually very cold, so we battle those elements and I have more heat packs than you can imagine!”
“There is a great regard and respect for the process”
With her vast performing experience I’m curious as to what key changes Bursill has noticed over the years. She notes how technology better captures the Australian landscape, and schedules are constantly stretched in order to capture 10 minutes screentime a day (on film it is 3 mins a day).
“For 43 years I’ve been a professional performer and through that time the changes are more about Health & Safety, or consideration for Overtime. We adhere to those more,” she reflects.
“The winnebagos and green rooms are better. But they’re not great!
“But we are driven everyday to complete a schedule and we work with a lot of fine producers on this one. There is a great regard and respect for the process, which can differ from production to production.
“Catering is better because we have less mass-produced foods. With celiacs and gluten-free, there is a necessity given there are 2 to 3 meals a day. There’s more fresh fruit and vegetables, which is something I’ve noticed. And how many soy lattes!”
One of her best known credits was the 1979 Seven soap Skyways, as ruthless assistant manager Louise Carter. At 109 episodes it was her first long-running role.
“I wanted to be taken seriously because I had done comedy and musicals. The job came up when I was 27 or 28.”
“I had a time with Shirl, intermittently, during and post-Skyways”
During her time with Seven she became romantically involved with another network star, Shirley Strachan during his time on Shirl’s Neighbourhood.
“I had a time with Shirl, intermittently, during and post-Skyways,” she recalls.
“He was a beautiful man. We did a few charity junkets together and we were on and off for a few years. I was very fond of Shirl, he even met my family.”
Bursill is keen to catch Classic Countdown now on ABC, bringing back memories of ABC’s Ripponlea studios.
“I started on so many TV shows there. Countdown was on when I was filming Winner Takes All. I remember it so fondly. All those amazing people in the studio.
“It was extraordinary.”
Another much-loved role was her 54 episodes as Sonia Stevens in Prisoner during the early 1980s, eventually rising to ‘Top Dog.’ The role has since been reimagined by Sigrid Thornton on Wentworth -but while she hears good things, Bursill is yet to catch an episode.
“It was by default that she became Top Dog,” she continues.
“I don’t think I was in that position for more than 6 weeks because Sonia was transferred and then escaped.
“When I heard they were bringing her back I thought it was a nod and I’m curious to see what happens. She did escape (in Prisoner) and it was open-ended.”
“I like pushing that creative button and seeing how far you can go”
Finding the time to watch TV during 15 weeks of filming is a big ask, but Bursill nominates Pulse, Fargo, House of Cards and Vinyl as recent viewing highlights.
“I loved being in that hedonistic world of record producing. I don’t know if that’s because of my age, going into that world. I think it reflects a little bit of my own pushing down boundaries and seeing how far you can go. Not with hallucinogens -that’s not what I’m saying- but I like pushing that creative button and seeing how far you can go,” she explains.
“‘Meryl’ has had huge storylines this season but I did manage to see Midnight Sun and I was obsessed with that. But there are a handful if things I’ve got to do: Wentworth, The Handmaid’s Tale, Top of the Lake, Gypsy with Naomi Watts.
And while she awaits news about a third season for Doctor Doctor (“We’d like to go again. There’s a good feeling on set, despite our fatigue”), Classic Countdown is high on her watchlist.
“It’s a salute to Ripponlea and the great Australian television that was produced in that place. There’s a history there on many, many levels.
“I was there last on The Time of our Lives playing some drunken foul-mouthed woman.
“The great thing about getting older is I can slip into those wonderful character roles. I love it.”
Doctor Doctor airs 8:40pm Wednesdays on Nine.