> Luke Devenish
This week sees the well-publicised 'Back to Basics' relaunch of Neighbours, with a new theme tune and titles, new characters and, to kick it all off, a wedding. Here, Supervising Story Editor Luke Devenish chats to us about this time of change, and what the future holds for the Neighbours...
In our last interview, you mentioned your dislike for the brush script logo. Are you glad that it has gone? What are your views on the new titles and theme overall?
Vale the old brush script logo. I couldn't be happier to see it dead and buried. Not a moment too soon for an update there. I love the new look titles and theme song. Big ticks from me for both of them.
Can you explain what the current 'back to basics' revamp entails, and why you think it was needed?
I'm not quite sure who coined this little phrase, but my interpretation of 'back to basics' is that the show is placing a greater emphasis on the sorts of storylines we call 'heartland'. Stories about the smaller things in life, the everyday - derived from the families and friendships of the street. I'm not sure that we ever stopped doing these stories in recent years, but we did do less of them than in our earlier periods, it's true. But now we're doing more. I've talked in the past about the importance we place on audience research - and of the weird phenomena of people on feedback forums always being about six to nine months ahead in their opinions expressed compared to opinions expressed by our slightly less passionate viewers. The most recent lot of research we did at the beginning of this year finally brought the two types of viewers into line. What some of you in forum-land had been saying for a while was at last what some of Joe Public were saying too. Trust me, I cheered when this happened, because it meant that at last we had a consistency of opinion. This was most definitely not the case previously. So, armed with all this useful info, we began re-tooling certain elements. The forum feedback since then has been, in the main, quite positive, so I'm feeling hopeful that we might have got it right.
Was it always planned to make Paul good again or was it due to audience opinion? Do you think Neighbours needs a bad guy character? Will someone be replacing "Evil Paul"?
The best long-running villain characters in soaps (well, I reckon so anyway) are the ones who are on something of a cyclic journey. Travelling from bad to good and back again across large stretches of time. We had always planned to do this sort of thing with this Paul. And, yes, I think villainous characters are very important to the show. But it's all a matter of degrees. Perhaps we went too far with some of Paul's misdeeds. In future, as he faces the temptations of the "dark side" again (which of course he must), I'm sure viewers will appreciate that his naughtiness will be somewhat more domestic and contained now. This will probably also serve to make it all the more shocking too, truth be told. But it'll always be fun for it.
The introduction of the Parkers has had a very positive response from viewers thus far. How much work went into creating the new family? And are you pleased with how they're working onscreen?
We're thrilled that the Parkers have gone down so well already - that's wonderful news. Considerable thought went into them and much consultation with our friends at Network Ten especially. I'm loving them all on screen and am especially enamoured of Bridget. And Pouch!
In some way or another, every family on Ramsay Street is linked, be it through a current character or a past one. Do you think these strong links and clearly defined family groups are part of what the show has been missing over the past year or two?
Long-running soaps are ALWAYS about families, and we're always at our best when we've got solid family units to play with. But one of our curses is that we can't hold on to our families forever because the actors always start wanting to leave in order to pursue new horizons. Then we're faced with families that rapidly shrink (the Scullys), or families that take on additional members through other means (take a bow, Kinski-Kennedys). So, yes, the show has perhaps been missing a strong sense of 'family' for the last couple of years, but this was rather more due to circumstance than design, I can assure you.
With the departures of Lolly and Sky, how do you see Lou and Harold fitting into Ramsay Street as the show moves into its new era?
Fear not, there will always be a place for Harold and Lou on Neighbours. Our press-dubbed 'new era' does not mean a wholesale expulsion of such wonderfully successful and much-loved characters.
The axing of the remaining Timmins family members was met with a largely negative reception from fans. Can you explain the reasons behind this decision?
No, I can't. But if it's any consolation, I sobbed louder and longer at their departure than anyone. But all good things come to an end, I guess.
As well as looking forward to some brand new characters, fans were delighted to hear about the permanent returns of some much loved favourites, Libby and Valda, for example. Did you think it was important to find a balance between the old and the new? Can we look forward to seeing more past characters revisited in the future?
We weren't really thinking 'old and new balance' with returning these two characters, it was more that they were both such much loved favourites in their day that we figured it'd be a good idea to lure the actors back again. Simple as that! Plus we've had a wee bit more money to spend this year, so ideas like this suddenly no longer seemed beyond the realms of budget-bound possibility. I couldn't be happier. Both Libby and Valda are a joy to write for. As to any other oldies, well, you'll just have to wait and see. But you've already had Stonie and Gail this year too - how many more do you want?!
With Nicky Whelan's upcoming departure, a lot of the comedy will be lost from Ramsay Street and particularly number 30. Do you intend replacing her with a similar character? What was behind the decision to let Benjamin Hart go a few weeks after Nicky left?
I truly loved our Pepper and I curse a certain Hollywood comedian for dazzling her with brighter lights and sweeter promises. Yes, she's a loss, but then, isn't that true of every good character? We'll come up with someone else to make you laugh. And I'm not sure about the reasons for Benjamin's departure (I was on leave when all that happened, I think) but he was probably missing his family in the UK. He was a true gent and lovely guy.
The Ramsay Street sticky beak is often mentioned by fans as something that's been lacking since the days of Mrs Mangel. Any plans to bring in such a character?
Tell me what Valda is then if she's not a sticky beak, God love her! This time round, Valda will be more involved in the lives of her neighbours than she has been in the past. With less family near to administer to than normal, she'll be finding herself with time weighing heavily on her hands... Enough said?
The news that Natalie Saleeba and Ben Lawson will be leaving their roles as Rosie and Frazer has recently broken. How will their departures affect the Ramsay Street set-up, in your opinion?
Another loss, yes, because both actors (and their characters) are truly wondrous and a pleasure to write for. But I can promise you that their departure story will warm the cockles of your hearts and put a substantial dent in your tissue boxes. And every exit brings the possibility of an exciting new entrance for someone else, doesn't it? But I do wish news of these departures could be clammed up for longer (yes, I'm pointing at you, Sunday Herald Sun) because Frazer and Rosie will still be on your screens waaaaay into next year.
A lot of fans felt that, in the past few years there had been a few too many teen characters and concentration on their stories. With the arrivals of Rebecca, Steve, Miranda and the return of Valda, this appears to have been addressed. Do you feel that a balance between the old and young characters is important for Neighbours?
Well, yes, Neighbours being a multi-generational show. But a huge proportion of our viewers are of the same age as our teenage characters and we'd be letting them down if we didn't do big stories about the joys and perils of adolescence. There are actually some more teenage characters joining the mix later this year. I'm a big fan of all our teens, but I've particularly enjoyed some of the stuff that Rachel has been involved with in recent storylines (to air later this year and into the next). She's an extremely complex young character, and her relationships with Zeke, Susan and Libby are, for me, especially involving.
In the few months before the revamp a huge on and off-air advertising campaign was launched to promote the show. It was warmly received by fans and piqued the interest of casual viewers. Since this, however, promotion seems to have stopped, other than the daily previews at the end of each episode, which are often poor or quite misleading and fail to properly represent the brilliant quality of the show at the moment. Do you think the way Neighbours is promoted plays a large part in how people perceive the show and thus, the viewing figures?
There's no doubt that promotion plays a huge part in the way the show is perceived, yes, and our biggest viewing figures for the year certainly coincided with that heavily promoted period in June/July. But networks only have so much on-air promotion time available and every show is competing with every other show for a bite of the cherry. I guess Ten have other shows that merit the promotion time more at the moment, which is fair enough. As to all the other highly inflammatory statements in your question, I think it would land me in more hot water than I am no doubt already in if I provided any sort of comment at all!
Can you give us any hints about what to expect from this year's finale and going into 2008?
Hmmm. Think of the most memorable line from that old kiddies' fairytale 'Chicken Little'. That's all I'll say.
by Steve. Added on 15th October 2007