> Luke Devenish
The past 18 months have seen some dramatic changes for Neighbours, as the show heads toward its 20th Anniversary next year. Here, Script Producer Luke Devenish explains a little about his role, as well as revealing what we can expect from the show in the coming months...
How did you first become involved in television?
I’ve always been driven to write for performance, but initially I put all my efforts into writing for theatre – it seemed a far easier thing to achieve than writing for TV. I had quite a lot of success as a playwright: all of it critical and none of it financial! The poverty forced me to re-evaluate life (a significant birthday was on the horizon), and I subsequently abandoned the stage and put every waking hour into getting a TV break. I’d actually being trying in fits and starts for some years prior, but had been met with walls of indifference and negativity. This is the traditional experience. Eventually, however, the lovely Jude Colquhoun let me do a script submission for Neighbours in ’95 and I guess she liked my style because she hired me as a writer. By then I adored the show, which is significant. I’d tried to get onto Neighbours in the years before that time, but I simply didn’t like or understand it enough. It always shows. Those earlier Script Producers did me a favour in rejecting me.
Before you became Script Producer on Neighbours, you were involved in the successful Australian drama series SeaChange. Tell us a little about that experience.
Not long after I joined Neighbours as a writer, I got another terrific break with Sue Masters, who was then Head of ABC TV Drama. I worked in development with the ABC for about five years, working on a whole lot of shows from their initial concept stage onwards. “Development” is one of those mysterious processes the TV viewing public have trouble comprehending, but it’s actually very labour intensive and quite protracted for pretty much anything you see on the box. Shows aren’t just born, they’re carefully shaped, honed, questioned and assessed over months and years before you ever actually see them on screen. SeaChange was like this; a hell of a lot of work went into it by many talented people. It was a lot of fun though – I remember some quite hilarious meetings with the show’s creators Andrew Knight and Deb Cox. They’re two of the most passionate writers I’ve ever met, true visionaries. They also know EXACTLY what they want, which can be challenging when you’re in the position of not quite wanting the same thing.
Had you watched Neighbours before you started working on it?
When Jude Colquhoun so nicely gave me a break it came after I had been religiously watching Neighbours for about twelve months. And I mean religiously. I was watching and re-watching episodes in an effort to master the characters’ speech patterns and mannerisms, so that I would be able to write them convincingly, should I ever be given the opportunity to write a submission. They were, and still are, offered to people very sparingly. Having been rejected by Neighbours in the past (’92 I think) I didn’t dare even pick up the phone to beg for another chance without being totally confident in my mind that I knew the show backwards. I also had several friends who were long-term fans, so I mined them for backstory (one of the first questions I asked was: why are so many characters named after fish?). I had watched the show off and on ever since it began, but it wasn’t until I got serious about writing for TV that I also got very serious about Ramsay Street.
What does the job of script producer entail?
I’ll try to be brief – but probably won’t succeed. There are two of us (the other being the lovely Ben [Michael], of course) and we divide responsibility between “Script” and “Story”. I take the former, Ben steers the latter and works with the storyliners. But everyone has a say in the stories when we get together on Monday mornings to talk about where they’re all going. I’ve always got a LOT to say, for better or worse. The lion’s share of my week involves doing the third and final draft of whatever block of five scripts we’re releasing for the week. The third draft occurs at the point when the script is usually pretty good, having been kicked off from the scene breakdowns by the writer (Draft 1) and polished by the editor (Draft 2), so when things are working well I’m just buffing to a high sheen. I try to make the scripts funnier, sexier, more emotional (where needed), and clarify “meaning” to the point where there can be no misinterpretation once it’s released into the big wide world of actors and directors. Because I’m the last person to have input, I’m also the last point of continuity and consistency. I’m the one who ultimately determines style, attitude and tone in all the scripts – and in all the characters. I carry all of the backstory and the entire future story around in my head – I have the memory of an elephant. I’m constantly drawing upon this knowledge in third drafts. Sometimes we make directional changes between the plotting and scripting stages and I will amend scripts to serve these. I strive to make every episode seem like every other episode – so that it feels like Neighbours, and not some other product. A lot of what I do in the third draft is icing, and it’s fun to do. I strive for “texture” – extra lines, looks, actions and gags; unexpected connections between characters in scenes that weren’t planned, but that serve to make things all the richer for viewers. A lot of it is purely instinctual, it’s hard to explain it in words exactly – but it’s what they hired me for so I guess it all serves the end results. I also talk stories through with directors and key production crew when we do our weekly script meeting out at the studio, and I regularly meet with/talk to the actors to let them know where their characters are headed and what shocks/delights may be in store for them. On Fridays I read all the storylines that have been plotted by Ben and the Team for the week and occasionally put in changes etc, ahead of preparing these into documents to be sent to our two main networks, Ten and BBC, for their approval.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of the job?
The instant feedback we get from the website forums (including Perfect Blend); the lovely ratings; the mountains of publicity we generate: these are all great delights because it tells me that we’re doing the job well – lots of people are enjoying the show. But I would have to say that the most satisfying part of the job is truly the joy of creating something that I know is the best we can possibly make it. I labour hard on the scripts (as does everyone else in the department here), I am something of a perfectionist, and I always want the scripts to go out into the world as the most entertaining 40-something pages we can possibly make them. I sell the scripts and stories passionately to one and all, but can’t do that if I don’t believe in what we’re telling. Fortunately, I always do – thanks to our dedicated and brilliant team (and my own obsessiveness!)
What characters have you personally been responsible for creating?
I guess I’ve had a hand in every new character that’s come onto the show from the point when Stuart came out the Number 30 bathroom wearing nothing but a towel, thus fuelling uncontrollable lust in Dee (this was my first input on my first day in the job, back in 2001, when I was paralleling Chris Gist for a few weeks before he left us – I felt we needed more gratuitous nudity from Blair [McDonough], considering how much he gave us in Big Brother!) But I don’t think I can claim sole authorship of any character because they’re the joint product of all us here who work in creating them. I know I’ve named a few (I made Valda’s surname Sheergold because characters like her are “sheer gold” in soaps). My biggest input is probably in flagging certain character types that I feel we need in advance of us actually creating them as a team. This happens in my long (occasionally wine fuelled) chats with Ben and the Team on Fridays in particular. I long felt strongly that we needed an Izzy character before we got the go ahead to create her, for example – but then again, so did everyone, including the audience!
Do you have any favourite storylines?
This changes constantly and usually my current “favourite” is something fabulous that we’re in the middle of plotting/scripting, rather than something that’s been filmed and feels over and done with (from my point of view anyway). At the moment certain characters are providing us with sensational storylines in the current plot. Paul Robinson’s story is going to have you all doing cartwheels of horror and glee, we’re having so much fun with it here. We’re also in the middle of something rather unexpected with Sindi that Oz audiences will start to see around May 2005, that I think will work a treat. Plus we’ve got a new family on the street that is providing heaps of hilarity – the Timminses. Oz audiences will have already met Stingray’s amusingly appalling mother, Janelle, and a whole raft of further Timminses will be following in the weeks and months afterwards. Be warned! We’re loving the Timminses – and hope you will too.
And any storylines you disliked or hated?
Because I have to sell them all so passionately, I certainly never hate any of them – in script form at least. Admittedly some things don’t end up as glorious on screen as they seemed on paper, but hey, soap-making is an imperfect science! The ones I dislike are probably the ones that, for whatever reason, got re-plotted/re-scripted due to disasters beyond our control (sick/sacked actors etc). I hate it when this happens because the end results are never as good as the stories we originally intended. We got majorly scuppered by one of these disasters a few months ago (I’ll leave it to you to spot it when it comes on air), but fortunately they’re few and far between.
You have seen so many characters come and go over the years - which ones would you have in your ideal cast?
Check my answer re the 20th anniversary celebrations below and you’ll see that some of my wishes are actually coming true! My ideal cast would probably number in the dozens because so many past Neighbours characters have been indelible. At this moment in time my ideal cast would be exactly those we have now plus a couple of additional returnees. The returnee I’d love most would actually be Flick. Holly was so utterly terrific and Flick was always a joy to play with in plot. If we had her now, we’d use her a little differently, not quite so sweet, a little more world-wise and self-aware, and a tad closer to the Izzy model (but without the borderline personality disorder.) There’s a story that we’ll be reaching in plot in a couple of months and Flick’s presence in it would launch it into the soap sublime… Maybe I’ll be lucky!
How much input do the actors have in the story process?
Very little in the actual story generation process. They leave that up to us and we leave the acting up to them! I do tell them where their storylines are going, of course, but cries of shock and outrage are actually very rare. They seem to like what they get, thank heavens. They have more input once they’ve received their scripts, and will occasionally ask for minor line changes etc, which is all good.
We’ve seen a huge change in the overall presentation of Neighbours in the last two years or so, in all aspects of the show, ranging from bolder storylines (e.g. Jack’s drug habit, Lana’s arrival) to the introduction of episode titles. Can you talk us through the direction the series has taken over that time?
With Ric Pellizzeri’s arrival near the end of 2002, the whole production was given the opportunity to make things more “now”, if you like. This is not to denigrate Ric’s predecessor, Stan Walsh - a lovely man who steered the show well for a long time - but it’s healthy to change captains every few years, and Ric’s arrival has proven to be very healthy for us indeed. The risk with any long-running show is that things can sometimes get a bit stale, and I think we were running that risk. We were looking a bit stuck in a time warp. In the Script and Story Department, at least, we had a whole raft of new ideas for characters and stories that we wanted to try but hadn’t been able to in the past. Ric was open to shaking things up a bit, so we went for it, and shook things up rather a lot, as it turned out. Basically, we want Neighbours to remain what’s called a “watercooler” show – a show that people talk about. Any audience response is valid (even the conservative backlash we’re wearing in Oz thanks to Sky and Lana) because at least we’re getting a response, as opposed to just plodding along unnoticed. We want the show to feel contemporary in terms of the storylines and new characters – and also in relation to other soaps around us. We know what our niche is of course (“sunny skies”), but we also know that a show where EVERYBODY is nice ALL THE TIME is not sustainable in today’s fickle TV viewing climate. Hence Ramsay Street has seen a little more of the “dark side” emerge.
There’s been a lot of rewrites needed in that time too, with Madeline West’s accident, Delta Goodrem’s illness and Shane Connor’s departure. How do you cope with such rewrites?
We’re masters at it now. We just swing into what we call “Operation Delta”, which is really just “Operation Dee”, which was basically a variant on the original “Operation Drew”. Essentially, whenever we now face a re-writing crisis we assess the size of re-plotting/re-writing involved, and then bring in extra people to do the work to our direction. The biggest challenge is not to disrupt the ongoing plotting/scripting process – the Neighbours plotting can stop for no man (or woman)! We might be re-plotting Blocks 933 to 940, but we cannot stop plotting this week’s Block 955 to cope with it, otherwise the wheels fall off completely. This is why we bring in old faithfuls. Marty McKenna and Piet Collins are the two who most often get yanked out of their quiet solitude in such times.
We’ve also seen a lot more returning characters and dipping into the show’s history in the last few years – e.g. the returns of Sky, David, Darren, Angie, Mal and storylines like Sky meeting Kerry’s killer. Can we expect more of this?
Indeed you can. There’s been a significant attitude shift here in the last two years as to the value of old characters coming back. I’m a great celebrator of the past because encountering it unexpectedly can create such rewards for long-term viewers. One of the best things about the show being twenty years old is that there are also all these former babies who are now aged in their tantalising teens…
The return of Paul Robinson was possibly the most exciting Neighbours news in years – can you give us an idea of what we can expect from that?
A great deal of bad behaviour, I can promise you that! The Paul you will be meeting in 2005 is very much the same man we last glimpsed in the early 90s – just considerably worse. Where once he had Helen and Scott to act like a conscience to him in his activities, this time he has no one at all to pull him back. So, think about what that might mean, just as we have… Paul’s been hardened by his experiences (having been on the run in Brazil and subsequently gaoled upon returning to Oz); he’s estranged from his various wives and children, as well as his brother and sister. He’s bitter and damaged, but is also more charming than he ever was, and his fatal flaw remains… WOMEN.
Izzy Hoyland is a character that has injected a touch of Alexis Colby into Neighbours. How important do you think her addition to the cast has been, and how important do you think it is to have a ‘bad’ character in the cast, like Izzy or Darcy?
Villains are essential for any good soap, and with the addition of Paul to the mix, we now have “two poles of villainy” (as I like to pitch it) up to no good in Erinsborough. The bad guys create story like nothing else, and they’re wonderful characters to play with because, unlike most Ramsay Street characters, they will happily make the wrong decision. When we created Izzy we wanted to have a female character who could get up to no good on a full-time basis, rather than our traditional guests who were only ever around for short bursts. The vixen is a soap staple and we really felt the lack of one in Ramsay Street. What makes Izzy Neighbours-friendly is the fact that she isn’t two-dimensional, and that she’s also capable of loving and caring for people. Yes, she does some unforgivable things, but you understand why she does them – and the reasons why are the things that make her recognisably human and real. The more we explore Izzy in story, the deeper we come to understanding what has made her the way she is. We’re introducing Max and Izzy’s dad into the show in 2005 and his character will go a long way to explaining why his children have turned out as they have.
How important do you think recurring characters are to the show – characters who pop in from time to time like Gino, Candace Barkham, Lisa and of course, the legendary Valda?
I love all our recurring guests because they’re nifty little devices for making the Erinsborough universe appear far larger than it might otherwise be. They’re like a bunch of Halley’s Comets to all our regulars’ planets. You don’t realise they’re coming, but when you do, you’re always pleased to see them. People probably forget about Valda when she isn’t there, but as soon as she reappears, suddenly the significance of her complex backstory comes into the picture again and everyone remembers all the stakes that come with her. Same with others like Gino, Lisa, Svetlanka etc. There’s pay-off value in it too for the audience, plus all the serial guests are proven performers, so we know we’ll always get good value out of them. Often when a new story is proposed I’ll ask whether any of our serial guests might be able to carry it, rather than creating someone new. This has certainly led to some funny Gino stuff in the past, at least!
With the 20th anniversary occurring next year, will there be plenty of celebrations to mark the occasion?
We’re treating the entire year as a celebration. Most of the sets are being renewed (via fires, vandals and good old home decorating); there are new opening titles; funky new stock shots; great new music (no, not the theme song! and a whole host of other updates. There will be one special week where we’ll certainly be going for broke in terms of blasts from the past and other bits of fun and nostalgia, but there are actually going to be a number of returnees appearing in meaty chunks of story throughout the year, to reward all those who have stuck with Neighbours through the decades. Paul Robinson is the first.
What do you think accounts for the massive success Neighbours has enjoyed over the last 20 years?
This is too big a question to answer in anything less than a week! Pete Dodds, Ben, Philippa Burne and I recently attempted to answer this at a presentation for Fremantle Media’s Drama 2004 Conference in Cologne. We ran out of time and barely covered half of it. One important factor, I think, is that we have a very clear niche among all the other English-speaking world soaps, and we’ve always stuck to it. We’re not Corrie, Home and Away or The Bill. People know what to expect from Neighbours, and while we occasionally like to surprise them by going against expectation, in the main we always deliver on it in ways that are consistently entertaining and addictive. Another factor is that the show has constantly reviewed itself and questioned the ongoing usefulness of the show’s essential premise/characters/stories etc. The show has reinvented itself a number of times since 1985, and will do so again and again. The world is forever changing and Neighbours has managed to change with the world, while still maintaining that essential “core” that makes it special and unique. The people who make Neighbours also care deeply for its ongoing success. It’s no accident that so many people here have been working on the show for years and years. Some people have been with us since the beginning. This, I am sure, is also a significant factor. Something we all agree on here, though, is that if Neighbours hadn’t been created by Reg Watson back in 1984, someone else would have come up with the concept sooner or later. There was a place in the market for a show like this at that time and Grundy were astute enough to fill it.
Do you see the series lasting another 20 years?
I truly see no reason for it not to, so long as it continues to grow with the times, while still remembering what it is. Lots of doomsayers are predicting the end of television in future decades, and while it’s true that the medium will never garner the audience numbers that it used to (thanks to competition from so many other media now), the unique experience of simultaneously sharing a serial drama with millions of others on a daily basis should not be underestimated. This experience is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s enough of a passion for enough people that Neighbours (and many other soaps) should be around for a long, long time yet.
Interview by Moe. Added on 20th November 2004