On the 30th anniversary of Blue Heelers’ premiere, we celebrate the cop show that became a phenomenon

Heelers captured an audience hungry for local drama.
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For a drama series that became a TV institution, Blue Heelers didn’t get off to a promising start the night it premiered on January 18, 1994.

The cast of the new series, including TV stalwarts John Wood and Martin Sacks, along with newcomers Lisa McCune and William McInnes, gathered in Melbourne’s Channel Seven boardroom to watch the first episode screen live. What they saw, however, wasn’t encouraging.

Blue Heelers premiered on January 18, 1994.

(Image: Supplied)

“It was the same week as the Australian Open, and for some reason, the tennis commentary ran throughout our episode!” Lisa, 52, recalls. “We were all stunned, and the network had to replay the episode a few nights later so people could understand what exactly was going on.”

Blue Heelers had enough dramas among the country cops in the fictional Victorian town of Mount Thomas to keep the series running for 510 episodes over 13 seasons. It became a ratings blockbuster, regularly attracting audiences of 2.5 million viewers an episode, and often more.

The series also won 25 TV WEEK Logie Awards, including four Gold Logies for Lisa and one for John. Martin won Most Popular Actor a record five times, with Tasma Walton, Damian Walshe-Howling, Jane Allsop and Ditch Davey also emerging as Logie winners.

The series won 25 Logie Awards.

(Image: Supplied)

The storylines opened as young cop Maggie Doyle (Lisa) arrived at Mount Thomas Police Station, headed up by seasoned cop Sergeant Tom Croydon (John), with the team including PJ Hasham (Martin), Adam Cooper (Damian), Nick Shultz (William McInnes) and Wayne Patterson (Grant Bowler). Chris Riley (Julie Nihill) ran the local pub.

“One of our creators, Hal McElroy, dubbed the series ‘cops with heart’ and that’s what I think people liked about the show,” Lisa says.

“William McInnes once commented that the characters were like a family – Tom was the father, I was the daughter, PJ was the big brother, and so on. People felt they could relate to what the family of characters were going through.”

Blue Heelers was a slow burn after it launched, but hit its stride and became a big hit in its second season in 1995.

“Audiences became invested in the characters as they got to know them,” Martin, 64, says. “Heelers seemed to bring people together as it crossed generations, and we were able to capture a large audience hungry for locally produced drama.”

Some of the cast members are still friends.

(Image: Supplied)

The central action revolved around the local police team solving a new crime each week, with the personal dramas of each character woven throughout. John Wood jokingly referred to Mount Thomas as “the crime capital of the Southern Hemisphere” for the range of issues they dealt with. And the on-again, off-again love affair between Maggie and PJ was a major focus.

“Lisa and I were and still are great friends, and I think that chemistry translated to the screen, as she was a lot of fun to work with and we loved what we were doing,” Martin says.

One of the other men who turned Maggie’s head – but only for one episode – was lawyer Brady Jackson, played by Hollywood star Hugh Jackman.

By season five, some of the original cast moved on and new cops like Jo Parrish (Jane Allsop), Ben Stewart (Paul Bishop) and Jack Lawson (Rupert Reid) moved in. But when Lisa departed, as Maggie Doyle was shot and died in PJ’s arms on the eve of their wedding in 2000, many predicted Heelers would end.

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“After that, I figured I’d be lucky if I got a year out of it,” Jane admits. But the show powered along, buoyed by new cast and strong storylines.

“The best Heelers episodes were those that dealt with petty local crimes and incorporated some comedy in the storylines,” Jane says. “I also liked that Jo had a sense of challenging authority. I think audiences enjoyed that she wasn’t afraid to say what she thought.”

By 2004, however, Heelers had lost its top spot to McLeod’s Daughters, so it was decided to revamp the series, which involved the bombing of the police station and Jo’s death.

“I was ready to move on,” Jane admits, before adding with a laugh, “although I would have liked her to have had a big funeral as it would have been fun to watch everyone cry over me!”

Evan “Jonesy” Jones (Ditch Davey) became the most popular of the new cops on the beat, with other new additions including Susie Raynor (Simone McAullay) and Joss Peroni (Danny Raco).

“To see the commitment everyone had and the family that was created was very special,” Ditch, 48, recalls, while adding the reality of filming on location was far from the glamour some might expect of working in TV.

Martin announced in 2005 he was leaving.

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“There were times when filming on location we’d need to change outfits, so we’d just drop our pants by the side of the road and change – there was no glitz to it. Everyone just mucked in to make it the best show we could.”

When Martin announced in 2005 he was leaving, it felt like the end was near. Sure enough, the 2006 season was its last and the final episode screened on June 4, 2006, with Tom, battling cancer, trying to reconcile with his estranged family. John and Julie were the only original cast members to have remained to the end.

Only weeks before its finale, Blue Heelers was given a golden farewell at the Logies when, after 10 nominations, John Wood finally won Gold.

Thirty years on, Lisa believes Blue Heelers should be celebrated as a key chapter of Aussie TV drama.

“People still tell me they grew up with Heelers and it became part of the fabric of their lives,” she says. “But for those of us who worked on it, it gave us so many opportunities, allowed us to tell amazing stories and gave us incredible time working together.”

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