On October 15, 2003, viewers held their breath as a ute teetered on the edge of a cliff. Inside were two of Australian TV's most-loved characters, sisters Claire and Tess McLeod, and Claire's baby Charlotte. Claire was trapped, but she convinced Tess to get out with Charlotte before the vehicle went over and she plunged to her death.
That scene from McLeod's Daughters is etched in the memories of so many fans. To mark the 15th anniversary of that pivotal moment, TV WEEK Close Up has tracked down the main players: series creator Posie Graeme-Evans, 66; actors Lisa Chappell, 49, and Bridie Carter, 47; and Annette Hart, 49; whose twins Sarah and Alisha, now 15, played Charlotte. Here, they recall the dramatic scene and the impact it still has today.
Setting tragedy in motion
Posie: We'd been going for close to three years. We wanted to keep our core cast as long as we possibly could, and that pairing of Bridie and Lisa was absolutely wonderful. We started conversations with them all about renewing [their contracts], but Lisa said she wanted a new life. God, did we take every step we thought we possibly could to get her to stay! She didn't want to stay. She didn't. She'd just had enough and I really understand.
Lisa: I said, "Look, I'm not coming back – Claire would never leave the property, so we have to kill her off."
Posie: We then sat down in the story department and it was, "Well, what do we do?" Claire had to leave in a way that honoured that character. Her nobility, her compassion, her guts – all those things got written into that scene.
Lisa: We were filming Bridie's hospital stuff with the breast cancer scare and we saw that the make-up artist had the next script, which was my last episode. So we stole it, ran into a cupboard, read it, and we were like, "Ohhh! Look!"
Bridie: As much as it was incredibly tragic, we both looked at each other and went, "That's right – that's the only way she'd go."
Making it work
Annette: We knew what was going to happen and were a bit concerned about the car going over the edge. We were thinking, "Oh, my goodness – where are the girls going to be?" But then they explained that when Charlotte was in the car, the car was actually in the middle of a paddock. So the girls were very, very safe.
Lisa: I remember it was a glum, grey day, which was pretty appropriate. We usually had lots of fun working, but it was a hushed atmosphere on set. It was very emotional for Bridie and me. We say it was our favourite scene in the whole show – not because we wanted to kill Claire off, but because it was such a challenge.
Bridie: The moment Tess thinks she can save Claire, then the rope doesn't reach... The moment where they look at each other and they know they're saying goodbye… I can now cry about it. I was not only Tess losing Claire, I was Bridie losing Lisa. I was losing my on-screen sister, this incredible character, but I was also losing my castmate who I'd been with through thick and thin.
Lisa: I loved the fact that Claire died a hero, making sure she got her baby out.
Bridie: My son Otis wasn't born yet, but I'm very, very maternal by nature. Dramatically, I think it was wonderful. Claire sacrificed her own life. But the blessed thing was that Charlotte was saved.
Annette: I think Sarah was actually crying at the time, so she played that really well!
Bridie: There was one point where the whole crew was crying.
Lisa: Watching the truck go over was very strange because they had a dummy in the same outfit as me with a wig on. It looked horrifically like me. It was quite surreal and disturbing.
Posie: Claire's death and the episode afterwards, her funeral, rated hugely.
Bridie: It's one of those iconic TV moments.
Posie: People sent me emails: "I cried last night like I've never cried before. My father died last year and I couldn't cry, but seeing that episode brought it all back."
Lisa: I'd moved up to Sydney with Chris, my ex-husband, and I decided to go see my brother in Corfu [in Greece]. It was the first time I'd had time off in three years. When I got back to Sydney, I got some phone calls from mothers who had tracked down my number. They said, "Look, you need to speak to my child. They can't sleep. They just need to hear your voice."
Posie: I could hardly walk down the street for months! People came up to me and went, "It's your fault – what did you do that for?"
Lisa: People have bought box sets and they've watched it again. They pass it on down through the generations. The audience is growing.
Annette: We watched it back the other night.
Sarah: It was sad to watch her fall off the cliff.
Alisha: It's good that we were a part of it.
Sarah: It's amazing that we are part of such a great show.
Lisa: We've been doing these meet-and-greets [with fans]. I always get asked about that scene, always. Last year, I'd just start with a blanket apology: "If anyone was severely traumatised, I'm open to giving hugs." Hands would shoot up and I'd run around hugging everyone.
Bridie: Because of Stan [all the seasons are available on the streaming service] and so forth, when you meet people, it's as if Claire's death just happened. It's not like it was years ago.
The McLeod's Daughters phenomenon is alive and well.