Craig McLachlan back on our TVs in The Wrong Girl

CRAIG McLachlan is supposed to be standing still(ish) for our cover photo shoot, but instead this Energizer Bunny of a guy is cracking up his small picture-studio audience with an impromptu skit about his “bitch hips”.

Someone must have given him a compliment about how well he rocks a sharp blue suit, a la his breakfast TV anchorman Eric in Channel 10’s new drama The Wrong Girl, and it’s got him on a roll about what’s not ideal about his (fit) 51-year-old form.

Allegedly, he has love handles.

“I was at my great friends’ house showing their kids how it’s done on a Razor scooter, really going for it with my shirt off, and she was filming me on her phone … and when I saw it back you could see my bitch hips just going ‘blubbada blubbada blubbada’ — I don’t think anyone has ever grabbed a phone so fast to hit delete,” he jokes, having acted out the whole scooting and jiggling thing.

You could possibly find the “bitch hip” thing a bit unreconstructed, but it’s impossible to be grumpy with Craig McLachlan. He’s not just adorably self-deprecating, he’s a likeable guy.

Even when he’s speculating about why he was actively sought by producers to play the slightly up-himself, cheesy and puffed up-sounding anchorman on the fictitious show The Breakfast Bar in the TV version of Zoe Foster Blake’s The Wrong Girl, McLachlan starts with a put-down about himself.

Pretending to be The Wrong Girl director Dana Reid, he chirps, “We need someone who could play a knob and a tool, who could do that … what’s Craig doing?”

McLachlan will star alongside Jessica Marais, who plays the lead character Lily, a TV producer, in the much-anticipated screen version of the hit “chick-lit” book.

He says years of working the breakfast TV circuit while living in England (where he was hugely popular after his Neighbours days, playing Henry Ramsay) has equipped him well to step into the shoes of a “love to hate him, hate to love him” full-of-himself host.

He lived and worked through the glory days of Brit breakfast TV, when rules were few, political correctness was unheard of and there were laughs aplenty.

It sounds like Our Craig was a very active participant in the glorious anarchy of hit shows like the late Paula Yates’ The Big Breakfast, which he calls “the show that revolutionised breakfast TV”.

McLachlan’s willingness to throw himself into a nutty stunt was enough even to shock the outlandish Yates, a woman who made her name by stomping over boundaries.

“One of the most popular segments was In Bed with Paula Yates (the segment on which Michael Hutchence met her). She did it lying back, just kicking back on the bed,” McLachlan says.

“It was filmed live in a house on the canal, somewhere near Camden Town, and while they were doing another segment downstairs they said, ‘Go upstairs and get ready for In Bed with Paula.’

“I thought no one ever actually gets into the bed, but it’s called ‘in bed’ not ‘on the bed’, so I stripped naked and got in bed in a position where the crew could see I was naked but the camera couldn’t — and when Paula came up the stairs and lifted the covers it was one of the few times any of us had seen Paula stuck for a word.”

McLachlan, who returned to live in Australia in 2012 to start on the successful Doctor Blake Mysteries for ABC-TV, says he soaked up plenty of the over-the-top style of Yates’ The Big Breakfast co-host Chris Evans and other big UK breakfast names.

“It’s a world I know really, really well, even though I have never officially done it (as a fulltime host),” he says, looking fresh from the gym in a little Everlast workout singlet, sported with on-trend ripped jeans and work boots. “Terry Wogan, Jonathan Ross, the iconic TV hosts, I’ve got a handle on how they operate, on the egos the segment producers have to deal with. It’s just a world I know well.”

Working on the eight-part Melbourne-made The Wrong Girl was a gear change for McLachlan, who had come straight from the set of Deep Water, a drama inspired by the gay hate murders in Sydney in the 1980s and ’90s. Made by Blackfella Films,Deep Water explores the difficult subject matter of brutal murders, assaults and unsolved cold cases.

Just days after The Wrong Girl wrapped, McLachlan headed into pre-production for the locally made The Doctor Blake Mysteries, so successful it is into its fifth season and propelled the one-time knockabout into something of a midlife thinking woman’s crumpet.

The show has attracted a huge local, and now international, audience for the appeal of its main characters, its quaint period setting, great plots and the endlessly unresolved sexual tension between Dr Lucien Blake and his housekeeper, Jean.

McLachlan is humble about the success of Doctor Blake, in which he stars as a doctor haunted by his memories of World War II service. But he is clearly chuffed by the show’s enduring success.

He gets a kick out of the fact British tourists who have come to Melbourne in part to do the Neighbours tour of “Ramsay St” are making their way to Ballarat, and sometimes to the Doctor Blake set during shooting.

“In the last couple of years we’ve noticed sure enough a couple of Poms will come up and go, ‘We’ve got Ramsay St next week, and this week we’re here (to see the Blake locations).’ They’re rapt, it’s been a win-win for all of us,” he says.

It comes as no surprise to learn McLachlan has also friended some of the “old boys” he meets during filming on the streets of Ballarat. Some of them have become such fixtures they wander up to the actor — who no doubt struggles to contain his natural effervescence in the pensive medico’s vintage three-piece suit — with instructions from the director.

“They started out coming up in the first series with questions about what those (camera) tracks are used for or what does that thing do … now they’ll come up say, ‘Good to see ya Doc, they’re ready for a final rehearsal now, if you’re ready take your position, he’d like to roll on this and get the wrap before lunch.’ ”

For the record, Lucien Blake’s neat beard, which McLachlan reckons takes him at least six months to grow, is real — including the grey tufts.

THOUGH he doesn’t seem one to crow, McLachlan must be one of only a handful of actors who started out in soaps in the 1980s and has been in demand pretty much non-stop since.

It must have helped that McLachlan can sing, as fans of his one big pop hit, 1990s Mona, will recall, and that he has a cheeky sense of humour as seen on stage in roles such as his much-loved turns as Dr Frank-N-Furter in productions of The Rocky Horror Show.

His sense of humour would be a huge plus, too, as a survival tool in the fragile world of showbiz. It is something McLachlan’s Eric, the vain breakfast host in The Wrong Girl, sounds as if he lacks.

“Eric is very sure of himself and can’t quite work out why people don’t understand his funniness,” says McLachlan, who just grabbed a NSW surfing break between The Wrong Girl and Blake pre-production. “He’s a tool. But a complex and layered tool.”

McLachlan made sure his on-air alter ego was not unlovable.

“Eric could have potentially been thoroughly detestable, but you just can’t help but love him. He is an ego out of control because The Breakfast Bar has been successful for some years and he’s used to getting his own way.”

He insists he didn’t use local male breakfast hosts as his muse … “Karl and Kochie can rest easy.

“I was always mindful that as much as Eric could be a huge d— the audience can see elements of breakfast TV hosts in him, so I was mindful there was nothing nasty in this character. There’s so much funny stuff to be had without being nasty anyway,” says McLachlan, exhibiting a tad more professional generosity than is sometimes evident between performers in a hyper-competitive industry.

He says he got along brilliantly with Marais while filming and palled up with fellow cast member Hamish Blake.

“I didn’t know Hamish before, had never met him but we shared a laugh together and terrorised the set on occasions — in a fun way.”

Showing the professional generation gap between himself and his co-stars, though, McLachlan said he did not share much on social media about the shoot … or anything else.

He likes to keep his private life private and though his last publicised relationship, with choreographer Kelley Abbey, was rumoured to be heading for marriage in 2010, papers reported McLachlan “wants no media inspection” of his love life.

He is reportedly single but has been married twice, once to actor Rachel Friend and has a teenage son, Jacob, with an English actor. But you won’t see him tweeting about it.

Twitter, Facebook and the online world generally are among the few things about which McLachlan fails to show enthusiasm, a trait he has in common with many public figures and performers who made their names before social media really took off.

“I’m still not familiar with social media,” says the actor, who despite his gregariousness prefers not to overshare.

“A couple of years ago when Blake started I was told to at least get Twitter-savvy and try to be regular on it, but my tweets are almost all like ‘standing in a cafe, chatting to a guy who has almost fluorescent teeth, does anyone have normal choppers any more?’. And Facebook? No, I’m shocking.”

If he does post “again, it’ll be something a bit obscure”.

He is also old-school about his attachment to family, particularly his mother, a widow. McLachlan, who has an older brother, says his decision to move back from England fulltime was to enable him to be closer to his mother as she grows older.

“We lost Dad when I was a kid and Mum’s been on her own since about 1980 so I wanted to be closer to my family.”

He doesn’t say exactly where he calls home — which is unsurprising as he’s been so busy professionally — but reckons “my favourite pillow is in Sydney”. His “dear Mum” and his aunt, who both live in NSW, fly to Melbourne to spend time with him while Doctor Blake is in production.

As we prepare to wind up an interview that has been more like witnessing a very enjoyable performance including accents, acted-out bits, cheesy posing and general fun, one question that lingers to ask an actor with the versatility of McLachlan, but one who is mainly known for lighter roles than contemporaries including Russell Crowe or Noah Taylor, is if he feels professionally satisfied.

Ever unpredictable, but ever the good sport, McLachlan does not disappoint.

“Ha, I just worked with Noah Taylor on Deep Water and, yes, he’s a very gifted person, and he’s become a great mate. The funny thing about Noah (whose name is usually associated with very meaty performances) is he is the most deliciously wonderfully kooky, intelligent guy but he knows Neighbours better than I do,” McLachlan says.

“He’s written an online mini-thesis about Neighbours. We even hatched a plan for him to do an appearance as Henry’s best friend.”

God, I hope they do it.

The Wrong Girl starts on Channel 10 on Wednesday, September 28, at 8.30pm