> Animal Actors
In 1999, Animal Actors took over as the suppliers of all of Neighbours' pet and animal needs. Here, Christine Powell chats to us about working with Bob, Harvey, Audrey and the other animals of Ramsay Street.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your role within the show?
As head of the animal department, it falls to me to provide all of the animals requested by the writers. I start by receiving a scene breakdown, that is a type of 'shell' of a future script. This is the chance for me to see what the writers have in mind, to discuss options, begin casting for the role or even to call a halt to the idea if for some reason it is not possible. I can also suggest ideas to the writers if I have an animal that I think might make a good story (like Roxy the fox). Once I am forewarned by this scene breakdown, I begin casting and/or training with the animal for the part. When the script arrives it invariably has had some changes and additions made and we then have about two weeks in which to polish up.
How did you get involved in the film and television industry and what first interested you in becoming an animal trainer and agent?
I have loved animals all my life and began training when I was about twelve years old. I became an obedience dog instructor and then explored other types of training such as Schutzhund (a multi tasking German style) search and rescue and tracking. I also kept and bred cats and was approached to appear on a lifestyle program to explain to viewers how to groom a cat. From there I was asked to provide animals for a series the station was making and, when that series finished, started to receive calls from crew I had met, to provide animals for other shows they were working on. As I did not keep all of the animals required, I started to keep a contact list of everyone I knew who kept animals. It just grew from there.
You’ve been providing animals on and off for Neighbours since the show began. How did that all come about?
In this industry you develop contacts and, if you do a good job, they ask you back. I was working with a producer on another show and she moved on to Neighbours. The next time she needed animals, she asked me and I provided quite a few in the early days. When she moved on, they decided to introduce the concept of contracting a sole provider.
In 2000, you took over the as regular trainer and supplier of animals for Neighbours from Luke Hura. What brought about this change and what did this mean for the regular animals on the show at the time, such as Dahl, Casserole, Bob & T-Rex?
I was contacted in 1999 and asked if I would be able to become the sole provider of animals on the show. Obviously it was important that continuity be maintained and I therefore needed to be able to provide animals that could double for those already on screen. It had already been decided not to continue with the character of T-Rex and therefore the only problem I had was getting a 'Bob'. I was able to purchase a little dog to play this role and, as I already had a Galah and a Sheep who could double for Dahl and Cassie, it all worked out very well.
What does the casting of an animal for Neighbours entail? Are you given a specific brief of what animal they require, such as breed or colouring, or is it left to your judgement as to what type of dog would best suit the role?
There is always a brief given but my opinion is also sought as to the suitability of the animal. I run drama classes for animals at my farm and I have a good pool of animals to choose from as a result. After thirty-two years in the business, I have a fair idea of what might be asked for and these behaviours are concentrated on in the classes. This makes it easier to choose a suitable animal as I have worked with them and know their attributes.
How is the animal's name decided? Do they use their own or does the script sometimes call for something more specific?
The writers name the animals but sometimes we can persuade them to use the animal's own name unless there is a specific reason to do otherwise. Audrey for instance was bought for the show as a puppy. It made sense therefore for me to name her Audrey. Jake however, was an adult when he entered the show and already responded well to his name. The writers had originally named the dog Spud but were quite happy for him to be Jake. Animals like William the Turtle and Lambchop don't really answer to their names but to stimulus.
You currently provide 8 regular animals for the show, Tazzle, Jake, Dahl, Audrey, Chop, William, Bob and Harvey. Do you have any favourites out of those you work with and are some more popular or more mischievous than others?
I own all of the above except Harvey and Jake and, although they are both lovely dogs with endearing natures, I guess I love my own a little more. They all have their own personalities and each, in their own way is great fun to work with. Dahl creates havoc with the sound department (who would all prefer she was mute) but on the other hand, Tom Oliver adores her and is often seen walking around the studio complex with her on his shoulder! The actors who work with the individual animals all love them. Alan Fletcher has become quite the dog trainer and we often joke that I will go home and leave Audrey to him. Bob just adores Ryan Moloney and really loves going to work. I think you can see that in him on screen also.
The addition of vet, Steve Parker and the Erinsborough Veterinary Clinic to the show has opened up more opportunity for more animal related storylines. Have you seen an increase in your workload given the increase in the amount of animals required, or have the addition animals seen in the surgery been in place of screentime for the regulars?
I am obviously very happy with any increase in the use of animals in the show :-) . As a Veterinary nurse in a previous life, I can also assist in the setting up of scenes involving Steve. In some episodes, there may be a little less work for the regulars, as there is only so much time we have to shoot the show but it is offset by the increase in variety. It also gives the writers an opportunity to include the regulars in more dramatic action as will be seen shortly with Bob.
The arrival of Steve Parker also brought about the addition of Neighbours’ first kangaroo in Pouch. How easy is it to train a kangaroo? Is there much call for native animals to be used in television shows such as these?
Kangaroos are quite difficult to handle and need special attention and training aids. Pouch is a bottle fed baby who was orphaned in real life and so has been brought up around humans. This made the surrounds seem quite normal for her. We are often asked to provide native animals on other shows that we work on and, the producers of Neighbours are aware that the British viewing public in particular are very fond of Australian native wildlife.
Dahl notoriously has a dislike for Alan Fletcher who as Karl Kennedy has half of the regular animals living at his on-screen house. How do the actors get on with their animal co-stars and are some actors better with them than others?
Alan is very good with all of the animals and Dahl actually really likes him. They often have a cuddle on the Kennedy couch and he is very natural with her if she starts to squawk during dialogue. Sometimes you can see that she is sitting in his lap during a take and that may be because she has decided she prefers to be there instead of on her perch! Some actors are definitely better than others with animals. I have worked with one who refused to touch them at all. We have a couple of hysterical out-takes involving Dahl.
The animals on Neighbours had a big year in 2006, playing a major part in the reunion of popular couple Karl & Susan through the death of long-term resident, Casserole ‘Cassie’ the sheep, the new beginning through lamb Chop and dog Audrey’s dislike of Karl. How was it to have your animals pushed into the foreground of the show for what was clearly an important time for the show and its fans?
It was very exiting to be involved with the beginning of the make over and to receive good feedback from fans. I have no doubt that the animals contribute to the family feel that the show is trying to convey.
2006 also saw the sudden death of the dog playing Bob and his subsequent recast, which although clearly not as noticeable to everyone as the recasting of a human actor, just as important. How do you decide what to do in a situation such as that, to replace the animal or to kill off it’s on-screen counterpart?
The producers understand that, just like humans, an animal may become ill or, in more tragic circumstances, die. They therefore have contingencies in place to allow for that. The options are to kill off the animal in the script, re-cast with an 'as close as possible' look-alike or, to never mention it again if it were not well known. Little Bob is well loved with viewers and the producers did not wish to lose the character from the show. In this case we discussed our problem and chose two options. Luckily Bob was not in the middle of a storyline where he was going to be greatly missed for a short while so he was not mentioned whilst I searched for a replacement.
Dahl, Pouch and Jake also played a big part in the publicity campaign for Neighbours’ move from BBC One to Five in the UK. What did the creation of the trailers and publicity shots entail and why do you think the animals became such a core part of the promotion?
It was a very hectic week! We had our normal shooting schedule as well as a schedule for the Five promotion. We worked every day in one capacity or another. Some of the shots were done in studio on blue screen (e.g. to create five Dahl's) and some on location in Ramsay Street. I think the producers understand that our animals are regarded as important to the viewers and they wanted to show that there would not be any changes in that regard when the switch to Five was made. It was also an opportunity to promote the Aussie look by including native animals that are known to be popular in the UK. The Five camera crew certainly were very taken by Pouch and Dahl!
How important do you feel the addition of animals is to a show such as Neighbours?
Animals are an integral part of family life. In a show like Neighbours, animals bring a sense of normality. Even if you do not have an animal, you will have neighbours who do. Real life situations can be created around animals. They are your friends during your darkest hours, they run away, they get hurt (will they live or die?). They create pathos, comedy and drama. There are just so many situations that can be created around them. It just wouldn't be the same without them!
Finally, after more than 23 years, what do you think is the secret to Neighbours’ enduring success?
The storylines are of human interest and contain both comedy for light relief as well as drama. It allows people to forget their own lives for a time and indulge in some escapism. After all, Erinsborough is always sunny!
Interview by Callum. Added on 29th March 2008