PHOTO: Michael Caton chats to Coonamble’s Ann Kennedy at the Terminus Hotel during filming on 9 July.
ON 9 July, exactly two years after iconic Australian actor Michael Caton first visited Coonamble, he returned to the district with fellow actress Nell Schofield [Puberty Blues] and an ABC television film crew in tow.
This time, they traversed the Pilliga Scrub, calling in on farms and communities to connect the dots with Caton’s latest cause – opposing coal seam gas mining in the Pilliga – and to capture footage for Home Straight, an episode of the iconic Australian Story that aired on Monday evening 30 August.
In Home Straight, Caton talks about the highs and lows and feast and famine nature of his work and the challenges of ageing.
Throughout his enduring career – from Uncle Harry in The Sullivan’s, his highly quotable character in ‘The Castle’ to his award-winning performance in The Last Cab to Darwin – Caton played ‘the average Aussie bloke’.
The Australian Story episode revealed how “life is now imitating art” as Caton joins a campaign with farmers from across northwest NSW who are fighting a coal seam gas project in the Narrabri and Pilliga region.
Caton says he wants to make a difference with what time he has left and, since meeting up with Nell at a 2014 rally, has thrown in his lot with farmers, First Nations people, scientists and environmental activists campaiging against Santos’ Narrabri Gas Project in the Pilliga Forest.
Caton is best known for the 1997 comedy The Castle about a working-class man fighting to keep his home from being compulsory acquired by the government.
“I guess it seeped in that you don’t let the the big fellas walk all over you,” said Caton.
Ms Schofield says that her friend has joined the fight against coal seam gas because he realises “Sometimes you have to protect your patch against the forces of government and industry.”
With Australian Story, Caton travelled to Narrabri to meet pro-gas Mayor Ron Campbell and farmer Steve Eather, who explained their support of Santos’ project.
“Narrabri Shire Council is in support of the Narrabri Gas Project,” Mayor Campbell said. “Coonamble Shire Council isn’t.”
“We are very well educated as a community in the safe extraction of coal seam gas.”
“I have complete faith in Santos and their operation,” he said.
He explained that they support the project “because gas is a clean energy” and because “it gives opportunities to young people and business.”
However it was clear that, whatever support Narrabri might have for the project, these arguments were not gaining ground with Michael Caton.
The program traced Caton’s life, which began in Longreach in Queensland. After a brief stint as a wool broker, at the age of 22 Caton met lifelong friend and fellow actor Jack Thompson when Thompson was in the army and Caton was selling Comet windmills during a long drought.
Caton says he became fascinated with water and underground aquifers.
“Really, the most important thing is not gold or silver, it’s water,” Caton says. “Without it, the farming industry, and farmers, are buggered.”
Many Coonamble locals, including Milton Ralston took the opportunity to chat with Mr Caton during his brief visit.
Locals Margaret Fleck, Adam and Rowena Macrae and feedlot owner David Chadwick, also feature in the program and some familiar faces can be spotted on screen as Caton mixes with the locals at the Terminus Hotel.
At 77, Caton has become a grandfather and is far less concerned with how his activism might impact his career.
He says he’d rather not leave his grandson Beckett “with a poisoned landscape.”
“I think the whole thing is to do as much good as you can while you can,” he says.
As for the people battling to stop the Narrabri Gas Project and the Western Slopes Pipeline, Adam Macrae told Australian Story, “I don’t think we can have a better pin-up boy for our campaign.”