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Comment > Love Thy Neighbour: Matt Turner by Carol Ann Wood

I’ve watched Neighbours for most of the thirty years it’s been aired, apart from a brief spell during the late 1990s when our family first moved to Cambridge, UK, from rural Norfolk, and I was in a period of personal transition. I stopped watching a lot of TV for a while, in order to reassess my personal ambitions and to get my creative mojo back on track. Well, that sounds impressive doesn’t it, but in reality, I was unemployed and kidding myself that I wrote for a living. Mostly, I didn’t make a living, and in order to contribute to the family coffers (or fund my shoe habit and my Chelsea FC season-ticket) I went back into the workplace. Then, after finishing work one day in the early noughties, I absent-mindedly flicked through the TV channels, and suddenly, there were my ‘old friends’ of Ramsay Street. There were newcomers to get to know, but some of the characters were just as I had remembered them when my children were young, and the show seemed to have retained its quirky charm. No other soap opera, to my knowledge, has featured a dog’s dream, or involved quite so many comedic episodes of characters getting locked out of their houses when naked. And although man-with-no-pants is a recycled scenario, it never fails to make me smile.

But I’m not writing this piece about Neighbours as a whole. With the thirtieth anniversary episodes fresh in everyone's memories, I’ll leave that to others. I want to talk about the fondness I’ve felt for one Ramsay Street character since his arrival in the spring of 2013, and why Cambridge will probably run out of boxed tissues following the sad death of Senior Constable Matt Turner – formally Sergeant Turner until the force demoted him for a minor misdemeanour. (I was incensed, of course.) At first, Matt, played by the lovely Josef Brown, didn’t feature heavily on my radar for a couple of months. I remembered that Matt had been referred to at various points over the years by Lou, but only in passing as Lauren’s other half, and he’d had at least one name change, as is the norm on Neighbours. It’s a long-running joke amongst the stalwart fans that the writers have little regard for continuity of name or age if it gets in the way of a good story. We refer to the ageing as SORAS. (Soap opera rapid ageing syndrome.) Well, I say Matt didn’t feature on my radar, that’s apart from the ‘Wow, Matt has gorgeous eyes, and a lovely smile when he isn’t frowning, and he looks great in uniform’ reaction. Hell yes. Let’s be honest here, Matt, (or should I say Josef, really) is easy on the eye!

We soon discovered that the oldest Turner child, Mason, was in what the Aussies quaintly refer to as ‘Juvie’ (which makes juvenile detention sound like the next educational step after ‘Kindie’ (Kindergarten)). It was revealed that Mason’s incarceration was the result of Matt shopping his own son. Youngest child Bailey was also involved in the crime but Matt had apparently covered for him. Matt initially seemed so straightforward but you could see that this story had legs. This was proven to be the case when we first saw a very bitter and angry Mason arrive on the street – the tension between father and son was played out perfectly by Josef and Taylor Glockner. Whereas some Neighbours viewers still insisted that Matt was ‘boring’, I have always tended to think beyond this basic premise, and am more inclined to believe that ‘boring’ characters are written and played that way for a reason. Perhaps their character will develop and change. They might have a secret or a side to them which has not yet been revealed. Maybe that’s because I’m a creative writer myself, because I’ve enjoyed taking part in amateur dramatics, or perhaps because I work in a university, supporting students in drama and film. On one module, the lecturer had worked on the production of Neighbours: I learnt a lot about soap characterisation and casting, as well as the technical abilities required to create successful and long-running TV drama.

Wondering quite why I was so intrigued by Matt (hunk factor aside) I made a point of listening to, and reading, interviews which Josef had given about playing him. Aha! I was right. Having had an extensive career as a dancer as well as other acting roles, Josef explained why playing someone like Matt appealed. He clearly had great insight into Matt’s character. Matt, Josef explained, saw things in a very black and white way. He had a strong sense of justice, and could sometimes be very stubborn. He was a strong believer in family values and would do anything to protect and nurture his clan. His stubbornness was often an annoyance for his loved ones, and sadly, his misguided pride was what finally caused him to slide into a dark world from which there would be no way back. I’m not sure how much Josef enjoyed the spectacle of Matt going down this uncharacteristic path in his final weeks, (I’m pretty sure he wasn’t keen on Matt’s liaison with Sharon Canning) but it serves to show how anyone can be tempted to act against their better judgement when a financial and emotional crisis looms large.

Personally, I have never been a fan of the all-out bad-boy character in soaps. I regard Stefan Dennis as a fine actor, playing Paul Robinson, and I understand why soaps need those characters, but I’ve never thought, “Ooh, he’s so devious, what a cheat, but you can’t help love him.” I’ve learnt that this sets me apart from a lot of other soap viewers. I guess, for some, soap is pure escapism, to alleviate life’s boredom or frustrations. These viewers want excitement, so they’re not going to be gripped by Matt discussing how best to discipline Bailey, or by Lauren tutting if he’d forgotten to call in to the butchers to get supper ingredients on the way home. (Butchers? We have never seen one in Neighbours and I don’t imagine non-carnivore Josef would have been impressed if he had to be seen in said butchers!) So, contrary to some viewers, I enjoy a portrayal of a good-at-heart, loving family man, with all his faults and well-meant but sometimes misguided words and actions. Much like someone we probably all know and love in real life, but who can also make us cringe. (Matt asking Bailey if he wanted to ‘hang out’ in the garden shed and make his mother a spice rack was one such moment. Er, Matt, no, he doesn’t!) Those moments are sweet, touching, and provide us with realism. And not all realism always has to be gritty to be watchable. Similarly, the time that Matt simply put his arms around his daughter when she had messed up her love-life was tear-jerking. That’s what you want your dad to do in a crisis. Yes, Matt was disappointed in Amber’s actions, but he wanted to show her that he was there for her.

Tender Matt was also exemplified when the story emerged that Lauren had previously had a baby with Brad, her ex-boyfriend, twenty years earlier. It was awkward enough for Matt living across the street from his wife’s ex-lover, but for her to have kept secret the birth of a child? What partner wouldn’t have been shocked? True to form, Matt went moody and silent, unable to process his emotions, until his love and loyalty towards Lauren shone through. Oh, that scene on the veranda! I was in bits! But Lauren also discovered that her baby hadn’t died, as mother Kathy had led her to believe, and instead was swiftly (and unofficially) adopted. Matt had to face the fact that Lauren and Brad would want to trace this daughter. He was hurting, and probably felt threatened by the new dynamics. A few Neighbours fans commented that surely Matt should just accept this new situation without question. Well hang on, emotions are a bit more complex than that. I reflected on the ‘what if’ that I had once discussed with my husband. What if an adult child had turned up announcing that he was their father? What if the mother was someone I knew had been his first love? I’d always said I’d be generous and accommodating, but on reflection, the reality might have been different. Ultimately though, generous-hearted Matt was able to put his own misgivings aside and give Brad and Lauren the go-ahead to search for their child.

Then came That Kiss, during Brad and Lauren’s search for their daughter. Oh my! And as this is Soap-Land, Matt, and Terese, Brad’s glamorous business-minded wife, would doubtless find out. “FFS!” wrote someone on a Neighbours Facebook page, “It was only a kiss. Can’t Matt and Terese get over it?” Okay, they are actors playing roles, but what the writers are doing here is trying to replicate real life. And in real life, if you discovered your partner had kissed their ex-lover, albeit in an emotion-fuelled moment which they both regretted immediately, you probably wouldn’t ‘get over it’ without questioning your relationship. You might feel feel hurt, betrayed and threatened, at least until you’d worked it through. In fact, Josef himself felt compelled to write a very forthright response to this storyline for the fans, because of the attention it received on social media. Again, great insight and reflection from the actor. For me, one of the most heart-wrenching scenes, after Matt learned of the betrayal, was when he said he’d known he was ‘lucky to get Lauren’ and had always thought he loved her more than she loved him. It wasn’t just the script that was moving, it was the look in Matt’s eyes. Sad, soulful, hurt. And that’s ‘dull’? In my view, the whole scenario was beautifully acted by Josef and by Kate Kendall, and was indicative of how devastating the affects of something like this can be.

Matt came across as someone who wanted to let his hair down a bit more but, when you’re a neighbour, friend and serving police officer to the whole street, that must be a difficult balance. And he had to put up with a lot of criticism from the likes of Paul, who always saw him as some country bumpkin plod, which made Matt even more defensive and uptight. I always felt cross when he dismissed Matt in this way. I would have liked for Matt to have nailed Paul for something during his tenure, but sadly that is not to be, other than in my fan fiction. I think that the writers might have developed Matt’s character further if he hadn’t been killed off. I liked the humour involved when he agreed to be a life model for Lauren’s art class, thinking that she would be the only artist present. You just knew where this was going and that Sheila Canning would definitely be in the front row, sizing Matt up and having a good old oggle. My husband, not a viewer, watched that particular scene and remarked on how well it was acted. He knows little about the characters apart from the basics but noted Matt’s priceless facial expression, sweat dripping off his brow, realising he would be revealing his ‘all’ to quite a few female residents of Ramsey Street. Until Bailey found out and set off the Community Centre fire alarm. (Spoilsports, writers!)

I always appreciated how the writers conveyed Matt’s (endearing) awkwardness through use of somewhat old-fashioned language. Matt once commented to father-in-law Lou “I know you think I’m straight-laced.” What others thought of him was of great importance to Matt. I believe there was a phrase akin to ‘bibbity-bobitty-boo’ once, too. It’s am embarrassing parental expression that many of us can identify with. As someone who once ran up to a young Premiership footballer (freshly-arrived from Nigeria) shouting “Oh Baba,” (a nickname derived from his family name) “I love you!” causing my then-teenage son major embarrassment, I understand how this happens. I felt sad for Matt when he tried to show his romantic side, coming home with a bunch of flowers, only to be met with Lauren engaged in an intense discussion over the latest teen crisis. There he stood, smiling, waiting to be noticed and for Lauren to thank him for the flowers. She didn’t. He slipped off dejectedly and went to put the flowers in water. And this is a slice of real life. Haven’t most of us had moments like that, when you’re so preoccupied with something that seems important, and overlooked the feelings of a loved one? I know I have. Pre-internet, I once interrupted an anniversary meal in a restaurant to phone a friend. I’d overheard a woman at the next table say that the-then Chelsea FC manager had been sacked. (And yes, I did feel suitably ashamed afterwards.) Matt was always eager to please. He had secretly arranged the renewal of his wedding vows, unaware that Lauren was busy kissing Brad and wishing she hadn’t. Poor, sweet Matt. He’d struggled to write a poem after Karl had given him advice on song lyrics, but then he eventually came up with his own words, poignant and heartfelt. Unfortunately, we viewers knew that Lauren had a guilty secret and that Matt was going to be hurt. Again. The time when he learnt to dance, too, was an indication of how much he sought Lauren’s admiration. He was determined to show her that she made the right choice in marrying him and that Brad was firmly in the past. Maybe it was as much to reassure himself. Brad could dance, but Matt could learn. How funny it must have been for Josef with his esteemed dance career, to have to play the part of a ballroom novice!

I once asked Josef during an online Q and A if he would like Matt to have more of his backstory revealed. He replied that he would, as he thought it would be interesting. Alas, we won’t ever know any more now, unless Lauren reveals it in a future storyline, or she has a visit from one of her late husband’s relatives. All we did get to know, which arose when Bailey had a drink problem, was that Matt’s dad had a drink problem when Matt was growing up. I ‘filled in’ the gaps, because I think that’s what a writer always wants to do. In my imagination, Matt joined the police force because he was looking for some kind of stability and purpose in his life. He had not always had a close relationship with his dad, and at times he felt that he should have protected his mother from his dad’s dark moods whenever his drinking reached crisis point. He felt that by joining the force, he would be looking out for others and protecting them. Since then, it’s been his main aim in life – to look out for his family and the community in a way that his father failed to look out for him and his mum. Ultimately for Matt, that sense of wanting to be the protector and the main breadwinner led to his downfall and untimely death. If only he hadn’t felt such a sense of failure because he ‘couldn’t provide’ for his family. Initially, he reluctantly accepted that the house had been bought by Kathy, albeit to appease her own guilt over Paige, and put into her grandchildren’s names. But as soon as the cat was out of the bag and his children knew they owned the property, that dratted pride took over and drove him to desperate acts.

In truth, the clues had been there that Matt was probably going to be written out. Firstly, seeing a spoiler photo of him and Brennan, both in uniform. Usually, there’s only one regular Ramsay Street character in the police force. Then when they brought in the new opening credits in the autumn, I noticed straight away that Matt wasn’t in the same scene as Lauren and the girls. Instead, he was seen walking alongside Lou and Bailey. It’s easier to edit out a cast member from such a scene, if it’s a pre-planned exit they want to keep secret for a while. Furthermore, Josef’s references to filming had petered out. I had previously enjoyed reading his tweets about scenes, and he occasionally gave subtle clues about future story lines with an accompanying photo. One such photo was the filming of the tornado story, when he tweeted that people would be ‘blown away’ by the acting that day. Another was a shot of him looking decidedly dapper in a Bugsy Malone-type suit. Followers were invited to guess what it might be about. Some of his fans guessed correctly that it was connected with Kyle and Georgia’s wedding. Often, I answered Josef’s ‘riddles’ with silly things I knew darn well wouldn’t be the right answer: Matt looked worried because he had just broken the last of the dinner set which had been a wedding present and favourite of Lauren’s. Matt was in the dog-house because he had left the orange juice out of the fridge. It was fun. However, late last year, Josef ceased mentioning filming. Spoilers are obviously against the contractual rules, and all he had said in an interview which he did with co-star Kate Kendall, was that there would be gritty story lines ahead for Matt. That made me fear the end was nigh, although I didn’t yet know what that end would be…

Now that Matt's exit has been aired in the UK, I’m expecting comments from fellow-fans who will think “Oh! Carol will be gutted!” I will, of course, miss Matt Turner like crazy. He will always have a special place in my soap-heart. That said, he wasn’t real, and, unlike some soap fans, I can separate the characters from the actors. I’m not going to turn into some crazy, deluded person who constantly implores the writers to “Bring back Matt-who-Is-Not-Dead-But-Just-In-Witness-Protection so that he and Lauren can have the happy ending they deserve.” Characters are fictional, but the actors who play them do not exist solely to entertain us. They live in the real world too, with their loved ones and with their personal life-dramas, ambitions and aspirations. They deserve respect and have a right to privacy. And as the fate of the characters they play is often out of their control, it is also futile to beg and implore the actor to return to a soap. Josef the actor is an interesting and inspirational person who has a lot of beliefs and values that I greatly admire. I am glad that by taking a role in Neighbours, he came to my attention. I will continue watching Neighbours, but I am also looking forward to following Josef’s next career move, in whatever direction it takes him. So, Josef, thank you for taking time out of your very busy days to respond to all the Neighbours-related tweets from me and from other fans. Thank you for entertaining us as Matt. And even if, as you’ve said in interview, you aren’t like Matt in every way, I think you’ll take a little bit of him with you for old time’s sake. You did say ‘willy-nilly’ after all, during the backstage video! I hope we get to see you in another TV role in the future. But in the meantime, I guess I may have to resort to watching every episode of Neighbours from spring 2013 till April 2015, UK time. Now that’s one sort of Groundhog Day that I won’t mind a bit!

This article originally appeared on Carol's blog, Levelling The Playing Field