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Comment > A Woman's Place is in the Show? by Rhys


What if one was to ask which female characters have made the biggest impact on the day-to-day existence of Ramsay Street and its residents? It is likely that among the most memorable of all Neighbours characters, people like Helen Daniels; Madge Bishop; Mrs Mangel and Dorothy Burke would be quite near the top of that list. However, would you select Lyn Scully; Rosie Hoyland or Susan Kennedy for similar status within that list? Maybe, if their acting talents and the friendly nature of their characters taken into account, you would. Maybe it might be classed an unfair comparison. Rosie was only ever in the show for a year, despite her popularity. However, these women have, or did, fall victim to the worrying culture within Neighbours of victimizing, and demeaning the female roles.

Prisoner was a massive culture shock when it aired. For the first time a programme was depicting women as being the stronger sex. Prisoner and Neighbours' Casting Director, Jan Russ, has said that no other show has come close to doing so much in favour of women's roles on television as Prisoner did. Sadly, she is right. Neighbours began with an excellent mix of strong and weak male and female characters, but, unfortunately, in recent times that balance has been lost. In the 1980s, we were presented with Paul and Gail Robinson, managers of the Erinsborough branch of Lassiter's Hotels. Gail could be every bit as feisty and scheming as Paul, despite them both being very caring and likeable people, deep down. They were truly well-rounded characters. In a similar fashion, the 1990s saw Lou Carpenter, a seemingly harmless, yet very determined middle-aged entrepreneur was partnered with Caroline Gillmer as the wonderful Cheryl Stark. Cheryl had the ability to wrap Lou around her little finger, and was, for the most part, the dominant half of their relationship. But, Cheryl knew, and the viewers knew, that she could not function without Lou, because he was strong in so many ways that she couldn't hope to be.

Anne Charleston has said herself that the whole basis for Madge came as a result of the Max Ramsay character. As his sister, Anne always worked on the theory that they were very similar in terms of opinions, attitude and idea of family loyalty. Madge's storylines were always written in this way. No matter how awful or unfair life was, Madge would always support her family and stand up for what she believed in and never gave into her oppressors. In the early years of the programme, Madge fought on many occasions with Mrs. Mangel and Eileen Clarke. Later on it was Dorothy Burke who caught the bitter end of Madge's tongue. In short, Madge was not a person you would particularly want to cross. But, deep down, Madge had a heart of gold and was a truly kind person, and Anne Charleston portrayed her fantastically. In 1992, after a storyline that saw Madge's husband, Harold, washed out to sea, Madge left Erinsborough to live with Scott and Charlene in Brisbane. It wasn't until 1996 that Madge returned to Erinsborough and was reunited with amnesiac, Harold. It would be quite understandable that a whole new team of writers and storyliners would have difficulty, at first, scripting dialogue and plots for Madge after four years. However, the majority of the writers had written for Madge the first time around, and a story team capable of plotting dramatic and strong storylines for male characters could surely do the same for Madge? No, it would appear not.

Anne Charleston stated that the style of writing for Madge had altered since her first stint, but she put this down to the time lapse. But, it is impossible to excuse the changes made to Madge with the majority of the story and production crew being the same as on her original run. Gone, it seemed, was "strong Madge". The Madge that you didn't dare cross. The Madge who didn't get easily upset and would rarely let her emotions show. The "new Madge" was weak, victimized and a true shadow of her former self. Working alongside Ian Smith, again, as Harold, the contrast became all the clearer. In the past, Madge would have been the dominant half of the relationship - whereas Harold, while maintaining a hidden, strong element to his character, would always be dictated by Madge. Anne Charleston maintains that the only reason the relationship between Harold and Madge worked is because they were like chalk and cheese. By 1996, however, the contrast between them was ever fading. Harold was becoming increasingly dominant in the relationship, and Madge seemed to stay at a constant half-way point between being "old Madge" and some new, undetermined Madge.

While the dialogue alone was proof enough that Madge had been changed, some of the storylines given to her held greater weight as evidence of the "dumbing down of Madge". In 1997, Madge was diagnosed with a brain tumour. The medical implications meant Madge suffered from several "blackouts" causing falls and accidents, as well as blindness as a result of the operations. The blindness, in turn, cause Madge to accidentally set No. 24 on fire with her trapped inside. It wasn't, fortunately, until nearly two years later when Madge next suffered. She was held at knifepoint during an armed raid on The Coffee Shop; she was burgled; terrorized in her home and workplace and was confined to a wheelchair for several weeks (granted, the latter was as a result of a real life injury sustained by Anne). As well as physical weakness, Madge's character was severely damaged by these occurrences. The Madge and Harold roles were reversed, and it was he who comforted her and dictated her actions. The only opportunities, during her entire second run on the show, of making enemies with other characters were thwarted. Soon after she arrived, there was noticeable friction between her and Marlene Kratz - yet less than a year later, Marlene had been written out of the programme. Madge joined the women's basketball team and took an instant dislike to Hilary and Portia Grant. But, again, these were only guest characters, and even they resolved their differences with her.

During her time on Neighbours 1996-2001, there was never the sense of feistiness that Madge had during the 1980s - so much so that Anne Charleston made reference to how she hated the "new Madge" in several interviews. Anne sounded quite optimistic in an interview she gave in the summer of 2000: "I believe they're trying to build up some rivalry with Lyn Scully which will be good to do". However, for some reason, the minor misunderstandings the two characters had never amounted to anything, and this obviously upset Anne so much, that in the Autumn of 2000, it was revealed she had handed in her resignation. "I know this is it, now" she said. Madge was written out of the show having been diagnosed with cancer. This, in itself, was almost a fitting end to the "new Madge" of the 1990s. Cancer is a terrible, weakening and destructive disease, thriving on weakness and lack of immunity. This was precisely how the writers and story liners had altered Madge. Even when unwell with the illness, Madge didn't display the sort of "life goes on" or "it's happening for a reason" attitude that she would have a decade previously. Madge died in episodes filmed at the end of 2000, and episodes that greatly disappointed Neighbours fans. Of course, it was highly unlikely that Kylie Minogue or Jason Donovan would reprise their roles as Charlene and Scott for funeral episodes, so why on earth show the funeral as having taken place in Erinsborough? It would seem, quite believably so, that the story team were adamant that Madge should leave the series in as botched up a way as she had been written for during the last four years. No mention, whatsoever, was made of her family or long-time friends. Not even all the current Ramsay Street residents were shown at the funeral. This was a disgusting end to one of soap operas' greatest creations.

That, is just one example of how the female, matriarchal figure, in Neighbours has been undermined in recent years. Maggie Millar, as Rosie Hoyland, has recently been written out of the show despite the biggest campaign ever seen to save a character on the show. The producers gave Maggie no reason for deciding not to renew her contract, and have been quite hurtful in their manner - not only in the way they wrote her out so promptly, but also the total disrespect they have for the wishes of the fans. Maggie's axing is the most recent example of how strong, female characters are being written out, or being forced to leave because of the way they're being written. There is now no central, matriarchal woman in Neighbours. The closest might be Valda Sheergold, but the character is so brash and loud, without, it would appear, an ounce of vulnerability, that she doesn't possess the qualities that have made people like Helen, Eileen Clarke, Madge and Rosie so popular. It would seem that this is the avenue the current story team and Peter Dodds have decided to take. It might be pretentious of us to suggest this is a weakness, if the format of dumbing down women's roles in the show was a successful tool in the Neighbours mix. But, it clearly isn't. Rosie has been gradually written out in such a way that the character becomes less and less important in the structure of the show. The same, watered down exit that Anne Charleston had to endure. As well as these, more memorable, characters, there are also many other actresses who have been blessed with the opportunity to portray strong, determined female roles. Joy Chambers is fondly remembered as the intermittently appearing Rosemary Daniels, the director of the Robinson Corporation, based in New York and in control of the worldwide Lassiter's empire. Rosemary was one character you could always rely on to provide a backbone of strength, during one of her obligatory visits for funerals and family crises. However, Rosemary was only ever a recurring character, who rarely stayed for visits spanning any more than a few episodes. Almost in the same mould, recently, we have the character of Chloe Lambert, the new part-owner of Lassiter's. Chloe mirrors Rosemary, perhaps she's even stronger than Rosemary was, but, again, she's only a guest character, despite the obvious talent Stephanie Daniel has for playing the role. It would seem that no dominant woman is allowed to become a full-time character these days.

But, I hear you say, why haven't you considered the characters of Lyn and Susan as strong, female roles? It would give me no greater pleasure than to consider them as such. However, Lyn has always been a very self-conscious, vulnerable character. That's how she was written in, and that's what works for her. At the time of Lyn's entrance, we had Madge, as the supposedly "strong woman" in the Street - but as we've seen already, that role soon diminished. So, what about Susan? Recent months have seen Susan suffer an embarrassingly scripted bout of amnesia. For the past eight months, Susan has been wandering around like a lost dog. In losing her memory, Susan has also lost any authority, any power and any strength she had. She's also lost believable vulnerability, and we are left with a character who is only weak because she has no facets at all. Perhaps, this might have been more acceptable if the powers that be hadn't written out other strong women who could take her place. Even when Susan was at her worst, the producers ensured Lyn was made to look plainer and frumpier in terms of clothes and hairstyle. It was almost as if Lyn can only ever be relative to Susan, and if Susan is suddenly "sliding down the ladder of strength" then Lyn must slide ever further, too.

In 2001, there was the wonderful story involving the "Ramsay Street Book Club" whereby Lyn, Susan and new neighbour, Maggie Hancock, were given the opportunity to spend time chatting, reading and advising each other. These scenes made for very joyful viewing, because it was wonderful to see actresses Janet Andrewartha, Jackie Woodburne and Sally Cooper interact on a similar level. When the idea of the "new Hancock family" was first mooted, fans were very excited by the prospect that Maggie Hancock, the mother, would be a strong, level headed woman who would be the strong half of her relationship with Evan. Yet, Sally Cooper was given awfully mundane material to work with, and the character never developed. Gone was a wonderful opportunity to create a truly strong woman who would be the complete opposite of Lyn, and would share some characteristics with Susan - thus creating three, very rounded and well crafted women.

As we gradually edge nearer the 2003 production block of episodes, and a new Executive Producer in the form of Riccardo Pellizzeri, we can hope that the days of making the male the dominant character a thing of the past. Susan will thankfully be back to as much as her former self as is possible, but she will always be tainted with this period of amnesia. Rosie will be gone, hopefully, not for good. Valda will be there - continuing the belief that the show cannot provide intelligent, emotional, yet decidedly strong women for us to enjoy, and Lyn will remain 'Lyn'- a fantastic lady who always aims to be the best, but somehow, in her mind at least, never quite manages it. Let us hope that one day, not too far away, Neighbours will remember what it is to have strong female characters who can have just as much of an impact, if not more so, than the males.