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Interviews > Barbara Angell

As writer and script editor, Barb Angell was involved in an astonishing 500 episodes of Neighbours from 1990-1994. Overseeing a period of massive transition which arguably secured the show's long-term future beyond its 1980s heyday, she discusses her unique contribution to Ramsay Street and the show's format.

Can you give us a little background on your career before Neighbours?
I have been in this business for 47 years. I began as a dancer, then became a singer and comedian, writing much of my own material which I performed on stage, television and in cabaret internationally.

Early on, I formed my own revue company and co-wrote and produced a series of successful stage shows. There followed many years of television as well as stage appearances. I was an original writer of the satirical Mavis Bramston Show and ended by starring in it as well as writing for it during its four years of production. I spent the next 20 years in England, appearing in Television dramas and comedies including Doctor in the House, Anne of Avonlea, All Creatures great and Small, Shoestring and Angels . I also worked under contract to the BBC as a script reader and assessor.

How did you come to work on Neighbours?
I had been living and working in the profession in England for 20 years but I had returned to Australia, my homeland, on and off and during that time and had worked for Grundy Television, sometimes on the production side but also as an actress in the television series Prisoner. In 1989, Grundy invited me to return to Australia to work for them permanently. I began as script producer for a drama-doc series called Australia's Most Wanted, then switched over to Neighbours, on which I worked from 1990 to 1994. During that time I wrote about 70 episodes, and I edited more than 500 episodes of the series.

What do you think are strengths and weaknesses of the Neighbours format, and how did you tackle them?
In my opinion, the strengths of Neighbours lie in the strong team of writers and editors that put it together. At any one time there were about 20 writers, plus around eight storyliners working on it. In my time this team consisted of very experienced people, and we set out deliberately to raise the ratings again after a period of a drop in popularity. We succeeded. The weakness of Neighbours now lies in its failure to appeal to a wide enough audience. It aims too narrowly at the teeny bopper market. If it would widen its horizons, a much broader range of stories could once again be tackled.

Are there any elements of your time you are particularly proud of?
I pride myself in being responsible for developing the character of the school mistress Dorothy Burke, played by Maggie Dence. When I read the first of her scripts, she had been scripted as the school ma'am stereotype. I said "No, let's not go that way! This woman was at university during the 60's - she was part of the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll era. Let's make this woman cool!" And we did, and Maggie Dence was delighted and Dorothy Burke became one of the show's memorable characters. Will you ever forget her getting drunk with Jim, and them dancing the lambada and waking up together on the floor the next morning?

What was the most rewarding aspect of working on the show?
The team of writers and actors with whom I worked, some of whom have become my close friends.

What was the least rewarding aspect of working on the show?
It is a demanding show to edit. You have to produce five half hours a week, and at any one time the script editor has to have at their fingertips all the information pertaining to 25 episodes of the show - from its first conception to its last day in the studio. Changes can be made to any one of those scripts at any time during the process, and when one script is changed, all subsequent scripts have to be checked for continuity. When, despite all your effort, something does not work, the writing team always gets the blame. That's showbiz!

1992-3 seemed to have a darker, more adult tone. Was this a conscious move?
Thank you, and I entirely agree! Yes, we were deliberately appealing to a much wider audience. We were also conscious that the show was being seen all over the world in all languages, and we tried to convey Australian suburbia as interesting and diverse.

Jim Robinson's death was one of the most brutal stories in the show's history. What do you remember about its conception?
We had planned for many months that one of the dramatic high points of that year would be the death of Jim. We worked steadily towards that point, though we originally planned that another character would be responsible for his death - and would stand there and just watch him die. However we had to hastily introduce the character of Fiona Hartman when the original actress was unavailable because of other commitments. Nevertheless, I believe that it worked just as well, and exactly as we had planned.

What have you been doing since leaving the show?
Plenty. My latest book is due for publication this coming September - A Woman's War: The biography of Wilma Oram Young is to be published by New Holland in Australia. Watch out for it.

What do you think has made Neighbours such an enduring show?
It is hard to define, but certainly some of its endurance is due to those long-running characters who have given the show continuity, no matter what directions it might take. I especially refer to Helen, and Jim, and Madge, and Harold - whose eventual return after his long disappearance I planned right from the moment he disappeared off those rocks! And of course Lou, characters like that. Yes, the older characters are the mainstay of Neighbours. As long as the producers retain those kinds of threads, the show will endure. Obviously actors come and go, but when the show uncovers a really effective personality, the producers should have the guts to contract them and hang on tight! Without them, it will fall apart.

For more information on Barbara's career, visit www.angellpro.com.au

Interview by Stuart. Added on 17th April 2003