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Features > Interview: Dean Francis

Currently appearing in the UK Gold repeats, Dean Francis guest starred in Neighbours back in 1997 as Tim Buckley, a student who fell helplessly in love with his teacher, Susan Kennedy. Since that appearance, Dean has gone on to achieve great success in all areas of television and film, thanks largely to the foundation of his own production company, jj.splice. He took some time out from his busy schedule to recall his part in the Neighbours saga...

Can you give us a little background on your career before appearing on Neighbours?
I had appeared in a number of children's TV programmes in Australia as well as on the stage in various roles - both musical theatre and drama. Neighbours was my first experience working on a soap.

How did the role of Tim Buckley come about? How did the auditioning process work?
I got the audition through my agent, who at that stage was putting me up for anything between the ages of 16-23 (I was 17). I remember the audition being surprisingly laid back. I sat in an office with Jan Russ, the casting director, while she read opposite and filmed me. Some auditions can be very confronting, but Jan has a knack with making young actors feel comfortable, which means she is able to see them for the actors they truly are. A few days later I received word that I had the role - no rigorous call-back or anything - it was an actors' dream come true!

What was it like joining such an established cast? Had you watched the series beforehand?
Being still in high school, I was very aware of the massive following Neighbours had. Kids would discuss the storylines in the canteen with the usual blend of teenage scepticism and adoration. The idea of being a part of this - and open to such scrutiny - was as exciting as it was petrifying. It was a little confronting having comparatively little screen acting experience and needing to fit into a cast most of whom didn't need to think twice about delivering their lines perfectly. But I found everyone to be extremely friendly and accommodating and after my first week I felt like I too had been at it for years!

How would you describe the character of Tim?
He was incredibly naive and didn't understand the complex web of politics which operates in Ramsay Street. It was a really mind-blowing experience for him being exposed to such a rich cultural tapestry and he fell in love with it at first site. I don't think he realised the impact his actions were having on those he cared about.

Tim stayed with the Martin family during his time on the show. Can you share some memories of working with the late Anne Haddy, the show's longest serving cast member?
I remember the late Anne Haddy being very frail on set and having great difficulty walking. I was amazed at the transformation which would occur the minute the cameras began rolling and suddenly all her physical ailments would seem to disappear as she transformed before our eyes into the screen legend we all knew and loved. It was truly amazing. She was a very thoughtful person who took great personal ownership of her character and also had a strong sense of history. I remember Anne's stories about the time before actors unions in Australia when actors had to arrive in their own costumes and apply their own make-up sometimes in the gutter or pavement as there were none of the modern comforts actors take for granted today. It was a tremendous privilege working with such a fine actress.

Tim's main storyline involved his crush on schoolteacher Susan Kennedy. What were your thoughts on this storyline? How did you find acting with Jackie Woodburne as Susan?
When I read the storyline I was honestly surprised that Neighbours would go with something so potentially confrontational. The way it was handled by the script writers was great and felt quite real to play. These situations do occur in real life and are worthy of exploration on the screen. Jackie was tremendous fun to work with and we became quite close during filming. She made me feel so relaxed as a performer and she took such a very naturalistic approach which meant there was never any awkwardness about what we had to do.

Was there anyone in the cast you particularly enjoyed working with?
Everyone was so great to work with on Neighbours - it's just such a fun working environment where everyone is an equally important part of the team. It's difficult to single any one person out - although Alan Fletcher (Karl) did have a tendency to keep the entire cast and crew entertained with his crazy jokes... he would sometimes do or say things which were totally subversive and hysterical but delivered in the character of Dr Kennedy... it was very funny, but you had to be there!

Can you describe a typical day on the Neighbours set?
It's 6am. I am fast asleep, snoring on my stomach. A runner bangs on my front door trying to rouse me... Eventually, I get driven across town sipping coffee. I get given another too-small flannelette shirt to wear, along with my trade-mark tight jeans and blunstones. I wander into make-up and sit for half an hour sipping more coffee and listening to TV soap gossip, discussing storylines. I scramble to the canteen for breakfast and more coffee. I run into an actor, we go outside for a line-run. I fall asleep on the greenroom couch only to be woken minutes later by the friendly second AD who wants me on set. Walking through the surreal room containing all the Ramsay Street interiors, I think the lines in my head. They are still tweaking lights. We do a blocked run-through, then a take and it's all over. Back to sleep. More food, more sleep, another prod from the second AD until its time to go home... Another day passes.

Have you kept in touch with any of your Neighbours co-stars?
Not really - they lead such frantic lives, as do I and it's often difficult to socialise outside the production.

Since Neighbours, you have achieved huge success as an independent film maker, amongst other things. Can you tell us about your career since your days on Ramsay Street?
Since Neighbours, most of my involvement in film and TV has occurred on the other side of the camera. I directed and produced a sitcom called I Can't Even Think Straight!, which is a p!ss-take of the eighties sitcom genre (with some Neighbours cross-over!). This is available in 14 parts on the web at www.jjsplice.com.au. My other credits include the short feature film Crazy Richard, which is about the on-camera suicide of an ex-child star as well as four other short films, some of which have won awards for direction and cinematography. My work has screened at film festivals in fifteen countries and I also teach filmmaking at the University of Melbourne. I exorcise my performance urge as the lead singer / guitarist of local Melbourne rock four-piece One Trick Pony

Do you ever watch Neighbours now? If so, what do you think of it?
Sometimes I put it on for a bit of nostalgia, but I don't have the devotion to be up with all the storylines. It hasn't really changed very much at all throughout its life, still a great show with mass appeal and lots of great characters.

What do you think accounts for the huge success Neighbours has experienced in the past 18 years?
It sets out to achieve very simple objectives and does so very well - Neighbours is never too boundary-pushing or confrontational and it contains many fundamental human truths about existence. We see our own lives reflected in the show and like a mirror we find ourselves self-analysing through the eyes of the characters. It's kind of like a little dose of therapy delivered up to the masses with fresh intrigue each day. It's a winning formula which will work for as long as humans remain human!

Interview by Moe. Added on 16th August 2003