Instant vomit! The Thorn Birds author gives her damning verdict on the iconic TV series
The novelist Colleen McCullough is extremely wealthy, more outspoken than Dame Edna and was several years ago voted a National Living Treasure by her Australian countrymen.
'They love me because I am rich and famous without being beautiful or having slept my way to the top - and, unlike our politicians and financiers, I don't lie,' says the chain-smoking author of The Thorn Birds.
She is in Britain, with her husband Ric, putting the finishing touches to her musical version of the 1977 novel, an epic love story between a Catholic priest and a woman, partly set on a sheep station in the Australian outback.
The 1983 television series - globally the most watched mini-series of all time - is today as well remembered as the book.
The stars of that series, Richard Chamberlain as Father Ralph de Bricassart and Rachel Ward as Meggie, were adored by the viewing public. But not by the author.
'It was instant vomit!' she shrieks through a cloud of smoke. 'Ward couldn't act her way out of a paper bag and Chamberlain wandered about all wet and wide-eyed.
'The filming was done in Hawaii, there was only one kangaroo on set and everyone sounded American except Bryan Brown, whose Oz accent stuck out like a dingo's bits.'
So disgusted was she with the series that McCullough is about to launch a corrective musical version on which she has been working for 15 years.
It features Matthew Goodgame as Ralph, the priest, and West-End star Helen Anker as Meggie, his lover - and this time McCullough thoroughly approves of the cast.
'It's a brilliant show,' she says with an impressive lack of modesty considering it's her first fully staged musical.
Despite having written 20 books, The Thorn Birds will remain her literary monument, although Australian feminist Germaine Greer recently took her to task for not including any Aboriginal people.
McCullough sighs: 'Poor old Germs! She's just currying favour with the politically correct. Listen. In the book I am painting a picture of life as it was for white people in the first half of the 20th Century. Believe me, to them the Abo would have been invisible.'
The novel is a brilliant page-turner and into its 50-year time span McCullough poured much of her miserable childhood.
'We were poor white trash. My father was an Ulsterman, a sugar cane cutter and a terrible miser. My mother married him to escape her family. He married her because he wanted a slave. They hated each other from the word go.'
There are echoes in the book of her own painful life. For example, Dane, Meggie's son, drowns. This was the tragic fate of McCullough's adored brother, Carl, who in 1965 lost his life aged 25 while rescuing bathers who had run into trouble in Crete.
'I still miss him so much,' says McCullough. 'I can barely talk about it. My mother never forgave me for living and my brother for dying.'
'Meggie in The Thorn Birds is basically my mother. I detested her. Can you imagine writing a 280,000-word book and hating your heroine? She was everything I despise in a woman. She suffered and, worst of all, she enjoyed suffering.'
McCullough grew up knowing three things: that she never wanted children, that she loved words and that she would educate herself in the sciences.
And she did: she qualified as a neuroscientist in Sydney before working at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London in the early Sixties. From there she went to the Midland Centre For Neurology And Neurosurgery in Smethwick, Birmingham, and then to the Neurology Department at Yale University in America, which she loved because people were so direct.
'The first thing anyone said to me was, "How come you are 29 and still single?" It was so refreshing.' There she worked as a high-powered neurophysiologist.
Despite her elevated status, she earned half of that paid to her male counterparts. So she tried to supplement her salary with writing and met with instant success. In 1974 her first book, Tim, sold for $50,000.
'I thought if I wrote my next book three times as long I'd get three times the money,' she says.
She was wrong. The Thorn Birds - unbeknown to her until she read the headlines - sparked a bidding war and netted a record-breaking advance of $1.9million. McCullough was on the cover of Time magazine in 1977.
'I woke up rich and famous and went out and bought a new purse [bag] for $50.'
'Men didn't attach themselves to me. Maybe the average fortune hunter took one look and said, "Uhuh, she's not susceptible."
'I had proposals from men in India and even a letter from a church minister. I had affairs, but I was never interested in men. They were just grist to my writer's mill.'
In her new career as a novelist, McCullough had secured herself a job as a nurse in London so she could research her next novel. The success of The Thorn Birds put paid to that. 'They didn't want a millionaire nurse carrying a bedpan about, understandably enough.'
Instead she moved, in 1980, to Norfolk Island, a beautiful former penal colony 1,000 miles from Sydney and her detested mother. There she met Ric Morgan, an islander with a ferocious handshake and a kind smile.
She married him. 'He's got Polynesian blood and Mutiny blood,' she says. 'As long as I am married to Ric, I live on Norfolk. He won't live anywhere else.'
They celebrate their 25th anniversary this month. He does everything for her and mends everything on her substantial property.
'They say Ric married me for my money. He didn't. He married me for my sheds,' she says, patting his hand.
McCullough maintained a duty of care to her mother. She died aged 98 in 1995. 'My mother won the war against my father by outliving him. She ended up a victorious vegetable.'
McCullough is now in poor health. 'Cigarettes are my passport off this planet,' she says. She has lost the sight in one eye, her spine is crumbling, she has had uterine cancer and her swollen feet confine her to a wheelchair.
The musical is her way of revisiting The Thorn Birds without writing a sequel.
'It's a novel about the fact that women tend to fall in love with men they can't have. That crosses all cultures and boundaries.'
'Black women with piles of copies at book signings in the States would come up to me and I would say, "What do you like so much about the story that you're giving it to everyone as a Christmas present?" They would smile and say, "Honey, I know it."'
The musical demands daily rewrites. When in front of a typewriter, she says, she is never ill or old. And it shuts her up, too.
'There are two types of writers: there are those who write because they can't talk. Those who talk so much no one listens any more, so they write. No prizes for guessing which I am,' she wheezes with a tarry laugh.
Richard Chamberlain Online