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Features > Ramsay Street's New Neighbour: The 21st Century by Aaron

This month saw the introduction to Australian screens of Lana Crawford (Bridget Neval), a lesbian teenager creating controversy not only within the Neighbours world, but also in the Australian media. Family groups have criticised the storyline as being indoctrination; while many Neighbours fans are rejoicing that the issue of homosexuality is finally being addressed openly. In this feature exclusive to PerfectBlend, scriptwriter Helen MacWhirter and script producer Luke Devenish share their views on Lana and her upcoming storylines.

It's been suggested in the Australian media that some family groups feel that the story is simply a ratings grabber or sensationalist. Is this a view you agree with?

Helen MacWhirter: Who said that! Tell me now! I want names and phones numbers!! But seriously. I have to honestly say that it never occurred to me that Lana's story was devised to be sensationalist or a ratings grabber. Births, deaths, marriages and life or death cliffhangers would normally be considered rating's grabbers and as far as sensationalism goes, what's so shocking about homosexuality? I mean, really. I think the Libby/Taj story where a teacher has a relationship with her student would be far more deserving of the sensationalist tag. Lana's story is multi-faceted. On one level it's about a young girl coming to terms with her sexuality, which on it's own might have been a bit boring and gratuitous, but it also brought into play other story strands which added depth and dimension, such as Lana's special bond with Sky, Sky's subsequent doubts and confusion about her own sexuality, how it affected Sky's relationship with Boyd and how they were all forced to deal with both positive and negative reactions and ill-informed prejudices within the school environment. Far from being sensationalist, I thought the story line as a whole sent some very positive and responsible messages, the kind that most parents would want to pass on to their kids. Without being too preachy, it gave us the opportunity promote acceptance and understanding, stand tall and be proud of who and what we are, regardless of race, religion or sexual preference..

Luke Devenish: I'm not quite sure how these groups have drawn this conclusion, given that the story hasn't started on air yet and no one has actually seen anything. Sounds like a gut reaction to anything with the word "gay" in it. These groups sometimes paint themselves as alarmist and reactionary, which makes it difficult for people to take any real concerns they might have seriously. Is the notion of "family" so easily threatened by a storyline in Neighbours? Something tells me the people from these groups aren't soapfans either, otherwise they wouldn't be suggesting that "ratings" and "sensationalism" are a bad thing! Seriously, we were not motivated to tell this story simply to grab attention - though we're pleased that it has for the right reasons. We simply wanted to tell a complex, strong, emotionally based storyline, dealing with an area of teenage life that many people face in the course of growing up. We considered it in exactly the same way we considered (and told) other "sensationalist" stories like Jack's addiction to party drugs, Stingray's possible ADHD, or Lori's unexpected pregnancy.

Do you think there's a place for homosexual characters in prime time family drama?

Helen MacWhirter: As a writer and a parent of two primary school aged children, I personally don't have a problem with it. A couple of weeks ago I caught a glimpse of another Australian prime time family drama and was quite stunned to see an obviously deranged character with a room full of hostages waving a gun around. I find that kind of imagery far more disturbing and confronting particularly when exposed to young minds. At some point in our lives it's only natural that we'll acknowledge out sexuality whatever our preference, but how many of us are ever going to pick up a gun and point it at someone.

Lana was a lovely character to write for, she was funny, witty, loyal, artistic, troubled, spontaneous, intelligent, mischievous, courageous - in other words, a writer's dream. She was also a lesbian. She was introduced to the show as a means of addressing the issue of teenage homosexuality, and therefore only contracted for the duration of the story which unfolded over a few months. Had she continued on as a regular cast member she would have been less a 'homosexual character' and more a 'character who happens to be homosexual' - much like Gino the Hairdresser and Aaron his 'flatmate' who popped in and out of storylines last year. I can remember as far back as about ten years ago, there was a BP character called Hamish. He was a gay med-student Uni friend of Cody's. So it's not like Neighbours hasn't had homosexual characters before - I guess they've just never been 'featured'.

Luke Devenish: The question may as well be "do you think there's a place for homosexual people in society?" Taking on board the fact that Neighbours is a soap and that, by necessity, our characters face dilemmas and disasters with greater frequency than you and I, the show is still reflective of reality. We reacted to a complaint that has often been made of us that there are no gay characters in Ramsay Street. If we are to reflect reality we knew that this was a significant omission. Yes, we have had gay characters on the show in lesser roles before (Gino and Aaron for example), but we felt that the time was right to properly explore a teenage "coming out" story that would affect characters the audience really care about. Anyone who has been in this position will tell you how difficult and emotionally taxing coming out can be - declaring your sexuality to the world - and of course that makes it damn good soap. Throughout its twenty years Neighbours has always maintained a theme of accepting and cherishing those who share this world around us - family, friends and neighbours - no matter what their differences might be. Neighbours is a bit like Christianity - just without any God-bothering.

Without giving away any spoilers, do you think the story has been handled in an appropriately sensitive way?

Helen MacWhirter: Yes. The writers and producers of Neighbours are hugely aware they cover a broad demographic. While we aim to provide stories that entertain all ages, we're always mindful of the younger viewers and tailor our stories accordingly. I don't think I've written anything I wouldn't allow my own children (6 & 10) to watch and I'm a bit of a Nazi when it comes to their viewing choices.

Luke Devenish: We couldn't be more delighted with the story - or with the way the young actors rose to the challenge and gave it their all. It takes a lot of twists and turns, it's not blanded out, and I don't feel we took any easy options either. Lana faces some quite dreadful experiences - but also blossoms with the love of good friends. What's also pleasing about the story is that it's not just about being gay, either. Lana is a strong character regardless of her sexuality, and her story touches upon a wide range of subject areas.

Conversely, do you think this is an appropriate way for Neighbours to tackle the criticism it's received in the past that it's a conservative show, I.e. it's never handled the issue in as much depth before?

Helen MacWhirter: Damned if you do, damned if you don't. I think the way we've handled it sits comfortably half way between conservative and controversial - if you consider homosexuality controversial.

Luke Devenish: Well, yes. What better way to counter a criticism than to give people what they tell us is lacking? In the last couple of years we've become a lot less "conservative" than we might have seemed in the past because our market research told us that people would be pleased to see a wider range of contemporary issues and dilemmas affecting our characters. When we audience tested the idea of a gay character joining the show we got nothing but positive responses. Truly. That's not something we could really ignore.