Article 97

Claws out for Son of Thornbirds

Deep in the burnished dust bowl that is Queensland's drought-stricken Gold Coast, a familiar saintly, black-clad figure strides across a movie set.

A cassock slaps around his legs. A gold cross and chain glints from his chest.

As charismatic priest Father Ralph de Bricassart, Richard Chamberlain turned The Thornbirds into one of the most lucrative TV shows ever.

The 10 million, 12-hour production earned him the title "king of the mini-series". It has been screened again and again.

Now more than a decade on, the 57-year-old actor is filming the sequel Thornbirds: The Missing Years.

Its Hollywood producers have spared no effort to give it authenticity.

A rambling homestead has been built in the tiny ton of Biddaddaba, near Canungra, north Australia. More than 100 Australian extras and crew have been hired.

But on remote Norfolk Island, off Sydney, the woman who first penned the Thornbirds saga is seething. Coleen McCullough, outspoken authoress with a 16 million fortune, is said to have turned down almost 5 million to write what she derides as "Son of Thornbirds".

The 58-year-old writer of Indecent Obsession and Creed for the Millennium is upset that the book which sprang her to international superstardom - a work she describes as "my bash at the romance novel" - is being so cynically recycled.

She claims she had little choice in the matter. She was given a token 18,400 for the use of the name and characters under an agreement made in the Eighties.

"This princely payment should enable me to afford proctological surgery for anal insult," she says.

She talks about Thornbirds in terms that will make executives at U.S. TV giant Warner Bros chomp with rage on their cigars.

"I hated the first mini-series," she says. And of Chamberlain: "I don't want to meet him. He never was my idea of Father Ralph." In the original book, Ms McCullough killed off the main characters. She says she did so to prevent what has happened - a sequel to a story well told and well and truly over.

"But in Hollywood, they don't read books. They read the dustjacket blurb and create a script that way," she says.

In the sequel, English-born LA Law actress Amanda Donohoe replaces Rachel Ward in the central role of Meggie.

The screenplay - by David Stevens of Breaker Morant fame - returns to 1943 and fills in the gaps in the Cleary family saga of forbidden love.

The sequel is said to be a "real tear-jerker" with Chamberlain being sent by the Vatican to help with a drought in Australia, the original setting.

He is embroiled in a battle for his secret son, climaxing in a courtroom fight. 2You'll need a box of Kleenex," says a spokeswoman.

Ms McCullough knows just what she means.