> Luke Devenish
It's been nearly 2 years since we last chatted with him, and a lot has happened in that time. And so, to celebrate Perfect Blend's 100th interview, we took some time to chat with Neighbours' Supervising Story Editor Luke Devenish about the past, present and future of our favourite cul-de-sac...
Since our last interview with you, in late 2004, Neighbours has celebrated its twentieth anniversary on screen with an impressive reunion. How long did all that take to plan? Were you pleased with the final result?
We were thrilled with it - thought it came up a treat. It took ages and ages to plan. I can't tell you the number of meetings we had in the months leading up to it where we boiled down the list of returnees we wanted, and then pricked and prodded the list again when we started getting responses back from the former cast members. Contrary to newspaper reports, we had endless email to-ing and fro-ing with Kylie's management, and were quite prepared to film a little cameo of her as Charlene anywhere in the world. We'd been inspired by her guest spot on Kath & Kim where she sent Charlene up so hilariously. But she just wasn't interested, however. And because she said no, I suspect that's why others like Jason, Guy, Natalie Imbruglia and others didn't end up coming to the party either. Not that it mattered in the end - we couldn't have been happier with those we did lure back. (The other funny one was Craig McLachlan who kept telling the press that he was going to put the overalls back on, but never actually told us anything of the kind!). The returnees I was personally most delighted by were Jesse Spencer and Holly Valance - they were both just so enthusiastic about doing it and told the whole world how much they loved their time on the show.
2006 then saw the 5000th episode go to air. Did you deliberately try to make the tone quite different from the anniversary episodes the year before? Again, were you pleased with the way it turned out?
Well, we knew we wouldn't get quite the same amount of publicity as we did for the big anniversary (and were proved right), so we decided not to make such a big song and dance about episode 5000. But we did feel that psycho Robert trapping Paul in a mineshaft was something of a first for the show, and therefore worthy.
Paul Robinson has now been back on our screens for over 18 months. Many fans feel that the Paul of 2006 is a completely different character to the one who was around in the beginning. How would you respond to this?
I'm well aware of the controversy about the new Paul! And some days I want to chuck rocks at my computer screen when I read some of the posts about it in various forums. For my mental health I've had to go cold turkey on my daily dose of web forums. As strongly recommended by my colleagues Ben and Kim, I am presently living in a state of blissful ignorance as to what people are loving/hating about Paul (and everything else). But, having a horribly addictive personality, I'll see just how long that lasts. Here's how we justify the Paul change to ourselves: he was away for twelve long years, during which time he was on the run in Brazil, doing God knows what (fending off pirhana?), and later, he was locked up in gaol back in Oz. ANYTHING could have happened to him in that time - and indeed, as his storylines go on we will discover more and more of what DID happen - but all the audience needs to know is that his experiences, whatever they were, irrevocably changed him into a bad, bad man (with a little glimmer of goodness still left in him). And who doesn't change after twelve years anyway? Though, admittedly, not all of us turn into killers. We absolutely adore the new Paul here - he's so much fun to create stories and write dialogue for - but I do understand the dismay of some of the long time fans. My advice: get over it and jump on the fun bus with the rest of us. Failing that, watch something else. The show's a different beast than 1986, big bold villains are desirable and required by our network powers that be, and Stefan does it brilliantly.
The events that led to Paul returning to Erinsborough at the end of 2004 have never been covered - will we ever learn what happened to him in the years between 1993 and 2004, and why he was so vengeful when he first came back? Do you regret making him into an arsonist and murderer?
I regret nothing! See above. I think I've said elsewhere that we ended up changing our original plans for the Paul story when we extended Stefan's contract. It was initially only going to run for six months or so and the planned end was his unmasking. But that all went out the window when Paul/Stefan took off like a rocket with viewers again - and took off with us too, we love him. No doubt it was sheer insanity on our part to start with him committing such wicked crimes from the outset, however, what's done is done, and it's certainly memorable. Any long-term soap watcher will surely get why we can't send him off to the clink again just yet (there's only so many storylines to be derived from our Warrinor Prison set, after all), so, for story's sake, his wickedness must remain at large for the time being. We certainly haven't forgotten about it - it's frequently alluded to: this year's Paul/Izzy/Lynnie fandango dragged it all out again. But OF COURSE Paul will ultimately face justice for his many crimes, it just ain't happening tomorrow. But it will happen. Like that shampoo Rachel Hunter used to flog here in Oz - "just not overnight". In the meatime, Paul continues to suffer "natural justice" (like leg lopping) in all its dramatic forms. There's more of that stuff heading his way.
What are your thoughts on the current opening title sequence? Do you think that it accurately represents Neighbours?
I love it. It's inspired by the works of the late contemporary Australian artist Howard Arkley, who died a few years ago in tragic circumstances. His paintings sell for hundreds of thousands. How I wish I owned one. This'll put the cat among the pigeons: if was up to me (and it's not) I'd dump the classic Neighbours type face, however. It looked tired in the 80s, I reckon. But that's not my call - which is probably just as well. Others think the type face is a very important part of our brand and I'm sure many fans do too. It's time to update the theme song, however, and I suspect this will be happening in the not too distant future.
The cast has lost one of the biggest and best recent characters in 2006, as Natalie Bassingthwaighte (Izzy) left the series. Will you be making a conscious effort to fill the "bitch" role?
We have to be careful there - otherwise it's all a little too obvious! We always need a good vixen of course, but it can't just look like a baton change, even though we'll still be accused of it when we bring in our next one, I'm sure. Elle, to a degree, has taken up the reins, but she's quite a different character to Izzy. I reckon she's even more unstable! She's certainly got quite a vicious streak - but she's like the sorceror's apprentice - she hasn't got the big bag of tricks that Izzy had. She makes dreadful blunders. She loses her nerve. But she's also prepared to go further than Izzy ever did, which makes her increasingly more compelling and dangerous I think. Pippa Black's one of our best finds in recent times - I love her work. Just like Nat Bass, she's always prepared to grab a wicked storyline with both hands and just go for it!
Number 30 has also seen some big changes in 2006, with the departures of Stuart and Connor, and the arrivals of four brand new faces - Pepper, Rosetta, Frazer and Will. Why such a drastic change? Why didn't you simply bring in a third male to join Toadie and Ned?
We were all a bit over the House of Trouser, it was time for something new. Bored with the boysiness. At their height, the Stu/Connor/Toadie triple act gave us all great joy - they were great mates off screen too, which gave their on-screen hijinks a lot of naturalness I think. They genuinely liked each other. But the era passed, as all good eras do. Plus, our friends at Network Ten were very keen to get more 20-something sexy-something characters onto the show ASAP. We agreed with them - we were missing characters in that age group post Izzy, Libby, Dee etc. We had quite a long time to work on the newbies, and it paid off. They're great characters and they generate heaps of story, as you will see. They've brought something fresh and fun to the show, while also being quite intriguing too. Naturally they've got truckloads of secrets. Pepper's a particular joy to me - she's hilarious.
Almost every fan reacted extremely positively to Fiona Corke's return as Gail Robinson. Were you happy with the way Gail fitted back into the 2006 cast? Any chance we might see Gail back in Ramsay Street again?
She was glorious. Gail may well be back, we'll see. We had a Gail idea in the story room just the other day, actually. Might use it, might not. We'll see how Paul's storylines pan out for the latter half of 2007 - we've got a fair idea of the startling way Paul will be finishing the end of next year's season already. I'm anticipating the blistering posts already - but will I be reading them?
What was the reasoning behind Harold losing all of his family in one go? Do you ever regret killing them all off?
Contracts were up, we wanted to bring in some new characters, seemed like a golden opportunity to do something (literally) splashy and memorable, and the networks were very much all for it. This was not a move we would have made without their wholehearted enthusiasm, I assure you. Name a soap that hasn't taken a bold move like this every once and a while? It was our turn.
The sudden departure of Kym Valentine as Libby Kennedy back in 2004 brought about several rewrites. What did this character have in store for her originally, and were those storylines reused with another character?
God, I can't even remember now. I don't think we gave her stories to anyone else - which is certainly our usual trick in such circumstances (you know us too well!). If we'd kept her for longer we definitely would have reunited her with Darren on screen, rather than off. Never say never with Libby, however. Although we haven't plotted anything, Kym has always expressed her keenness to come back again. She's a great performer and Libby's a much loved character in the story room.
The last two years have seen numerous returns from past characters, the majority of which have proved extremely successful. Are there any others that you would ideally like to bring back in 2007?
I think we're all a bit returnee-ed out, truth be told. I can think of a couple of others I'd love us to revisit, but for the moment we're very focused on creating new characters for the show. We'll dig up the past again after a wee interval.
Will we see more of Angie? Could you ever envisage her back in the regular cast, or even living nearby, in a semi-regular status, similar to Eileen Clarke in the 80s?
Angie probably won't be regular again, but we love bringing her in for regular guest stints. She's a scream to write dialogue for - I gave a great deal of myself (or more accurately, I gave a great deal of certain unwitting mature ladies from my extended family) when doing my pass over her dialogue. All the writers seemed to love the character too. Angie and Janelle were a dream pairing.
Mishka has proved to be one of the most popular guest characters in recent years. Do you think she could have a permanent place in the show?
Well, Mishka's now back on screen in Australia. She's fantastic - we love her as much as Angie. She's not a character we intend discarding.
Karl and Susan's reunion has been a huge highlight of the year for many fans. Was it always intended to reunite them, or did it come as a result of viewer feedback?
It was ALWAYS intended to reunite them, we just wanted to take as long as humanly possible to achieve it. Thank God for Izzy. And Tom. And Alex. And Jenny. Oh, and the baby that wasn't, of course. What's amused me is that now that they're together again (more or less), I was reading forum posts from people who think they're a lousy couple! What's wrong with you people!? Another reason for going cold turkey.
The Timmins family have been generally very well-received by fans - are you happy with their development? Could we be seeing any new additions to the family? Is Loris Timmins the matriarch the show has been missing?
The Timmins family are personal favourites of mine - and indeed the whole script and story team. They were so fresh and different for the show - indeed, the fear from many fans was that they were TOO different initially! - but people really seem to have embraced them now, which is nice. Loris has quite a meaty stint on air this year. I too would like to see a permanent matriarch on the street - whoever it is will probably end up marrying either Harold or Lou (or both! Now there's a storyline...). Let's just see what happens, shall we?
It appears that many 'long-term' fans are switching off, unhappy with the slightly more dramatic, sensationalist plots in recent times. Is this something you are aware of? If so, are you making attempts to stop the loss of viewers?
Well, I'm aware of longterm fans (who also happen to be regular forum posters) CLAIMING they are turning off, but they still seem to make continued forum posts about it, so I really don't know how seriously to take all their proclamations. Me suspects they're still watching... Would I be right in saying that the ones who hate present stories/characters the most are also the ones who revere the past the most passionately? The longer you watch any soap - especially if its across several decades - the more aware you will become of the way its all put together. You start to see the strings - how can you not? You start to anticipate story directions, and for this reason, it becomes harder and harder to be surprised by the show. I'm not sure how we can ever combat that. There are only so many stories that work well in soap opera, and the good ones are endlessly recycled/reinvented (and not just on Neighbours, of course) purely because they work so well. We always try to find a new spin on the old favourites - and invariably do - but still, they is what they is: classic soap. Once you've seen your fourth 'long lost daughter' story of course you're going to start saying that it was no where near as good as the first one you ever saw. In truth, the first one might have been crap, but because it WAS the first one you experienced it had considerably more impact - also you were younger then and a lot more impressionable. The only thing we can ever do to address this so-called turn off is just continue to make the show as entertaining as we can - and in that we either succeed or fail. If it no longer entertains YOU, then for God's sake stop wrecking everybody else's fun by banging on about it and just find something else to do that yanks your crank. In recent times I abandoned Home & Away after many years of loyal viewing - and I know I was against the tide with this because the show is more popular than ever. I just got a bit tired, that's all. But lately I've been drifting back again. I quite like Amanda and Belle. And I want to see Sally find love again!
When we last spoke to you, you mentioned the gradual process of making the show more "now" and modern. Do you think this has now been achieved, in terms of look, characters and storylines?
This is a process that will be forever on-going. The minute we stop is the minute we start smelling stale. I think we're doing pretty well at the mo - and the hospital set has finally got a make-over! If that doesn't get lost viewers tuning back again in droves then nothing will.
Which of the recently departed or soon-to-leave characters will be the biggest loss to the show, in your opinion?
For me, beloved Izzy. But we will survive it. No single part is ever greater than the sum. Having dimmed in my love for House of Trouser silliness I have also come to miss Connor and Stu a bit too, now that they're both gone. They were fun to write dialogue for. The ludicrous 'Father O'Neill' episodes still make me laugh.
Can you give us any hints on what to expect from Neighbours in 2007?
Lord. Some very fine scheming from Elle - coupled with some tortured love. A very, very fine heartbreak, of which we're all very proud (get your hankies ready). Much hilarity from Pepper, who takes over dear demented Sindi's stilettos in the blonde bombshell stakes with great style. A couple of very sexy, very naughty con artists. Some fab new teens in Lolly and Ringo - two more personal favourites of mine. Some big love for Janelle. Big love for Toadie. Poor Ned as Paul's slave - don't ask. And three Ramsay Street darlings setting off fireworks in London! How's that?
Interview by Steve. Added on 4th November 2006