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Interviews > Paul Gartside

Having started as a trainee storyliner, Paul Gartside has worked his way up to the role of Story Editor as well as writing some key episodes over the past few years. Here, Paul talks to us about his work, the perception of Neighbours in Australia and the naming of Izzy Hoyland's boyfriend...

Can you give us a background on your career prior to Neighbours?
To be honest, I didn't have one. I'd studied writing and media at university, but I was working in admin at a family friend's small business. I wrote a lot in my spare time, but wasn't making a career of it.

How did you come to work on Neighbours as a Trainee Storyliner?
One day my friend Sarah Dollard - who was Story Editor at Neighbours at the time - rang me up and said, "You should take a day off work this week and come to work with me instead." I did - I spent a day sitting in on the story room. And it blew me away - you could earn a living talking about characters and passionately discussing their stories! Of course I'd already known that, but to see it in action was incredible. I badgered David [Hannam] and Lara [Radulovich] (who ran the Department at the time) until they gave me a one week observership, followed by a six week traineeship. At that point I quit my old job. It was a huge risk and one I'm very glad I took. I had my foot in the door, and from there I worked my butt off and (barely) managed to prove I deserved to stay.

What did the role entail?
Storyliners do pretty much what the name suggests. We sit round a big table and decide, scene by scene, what will happen in every episode. We have to juggle restrictions on the number of sets and locations that can be used, how many times in a week each character can/must be used, where the commercial breaks must fall, how many night scenes we can have, our G classification, etc etc. All while trying to create a balance of stories that will be both entertaining and full of heart, as Neighbours audiences have come to expect. When I started we plotted five episodes a week, and now it's six. We laugh like lunatics, we sometimes butt heads, and we leave every day exhausted. It's intense, draining and, at its best, incredibly inspiring.

Were you a fan of the series before joining the show?
Absolutely. I can't say I'd watched consistently through the show's entire history, but I'd been through phases where I watched pretty religiously.

You progressed into other positions, including Script Co-ordinator and Writer? How do these roles differ from that of a Storyliner?
The Script Co-ordinators are the logistical engine-room of the Script Department. They take care of absolutely everything administrative to do with the creation of scene-breakdowns and scripts, and then making sure those documents get to everyone they need to, when they need to. They also do a lot of the research needed for many of the stories.

Writing on Neighbours is a bit different to most other shows. Many of the Writers are also permanent members of the Script Department, but many are freelancers who never actually set foot inside the building. The Writers receive a detailed scene-breakdown document which has been created by the story team, and they're responsible for turning it into a script. But they don't actually decide what happens in the episodes, as such.

My main role on the show now is actually as a Story Editor. There are two of us, and I guess we're kind of like team leaders to the Storyliners.

How does a typical writing assignment on Neighbours work?
Like I said above, as a Writer you receive a scene-breakdown which outlines what each scene of the episode is: where it's set, which characters are in it, and what happens. Then you create the dialogue and specific action within that framework. You have two weeks to write your script, then it's out of your hands. But after that the script still goes through about another four to five weeks of revision and amendments, which is done by the Script Editors.

Who have been your favourite characters to write for? Is there any past character you wish you'd have had the opportunity to write for?
Plotting and writing for slightly "out there" characters like Donna and Tash is always fun, because they're so very different from me, it's a bit like escapism. My favourite couple at the moment would have to be Toadie and Sonya - they're so warm and relatable. I'm also very attached to Chris. As for past characters, I always loved Gran [Helen Daniels] when I was growing up, so it would have been great to write for her. And Izzy of course - it's always fun to explore the messed-up psychology of someone who does destructive things for complex reasons.

Do you have any scenes or moments you wrote that you were particularly pleased with?
I've only actually written five episodes at this point, but as part of the Story Team I've been involved with plotting hundreds, so there are lots to choose from. It sounds a bit sick, but I tend to like the intense, emotionally gruelling scene-breakdowns. For example I really liked writing the Parkers' car accident, as well as Steph's final episode. And there was another incredibly exciting story that left me typing and crying at the same time, just a couple of weeks ago. But of course I can't tell you about that yet.

What was it like to have Izzy Hoyland's footballer boyfriend, Pete Gartside, partly named after you?
Haha I have Sarah to thank for that. I loved it. Somewhere I still have one of the scandalous tabloid front pages about him.

What do you think are Neighbours' strengths and weaknesses?
Obviously I'm biased, but I genuinely believe it's a great show. I think Neighbours thrives on its mix of interesting characters, and its blend of fun light-hearted stories with darker dramatic arcs. Of course there are limitations in terms of the speed we work at, and the restrictions we work within. But I'd actually argue our biggest weakness is one of perception, particularly in Australia. People I talk to tend to dismiss the show as naff or lame, and then admit they don't actually watch it. I think that's unfair.

How important is the comedy in Neighbours, in your opinion? Is it something that you are particularly conscious of when writing for the show? Do you think the show focuses less on this now from when you first joined?
I think it's absolutely crucial, and yes its importance is something we're very conscious of. I don't think it's something we focus on any less. If anything we're moving to make it a higher priority. Unfortunately I'm personally not that great at it. Or at least it doesn't come naturally to me. Like I said, I'm naturally more geared towards the intense, heart-wrenching storylines. But there are people in the Script Department who are brilliant at plotting and writing comedy. That's what's so great about the collaborative way we work. Everyone has their own strengths and when they all work together, it's fantastic.

You had the difficult responsibility of writing the aftermath of Chris' coming out as gay, did you find it difficult to focus the story on this without making an issue of his sexuality?
As always, that whole storyline was a collaboration between a lot of people. But it was a storyline that was particularly close to my heart, and which I'm particularly proud of. And that's still true of the storylines we're plotting for Chris now, two years since his first appearance. I don't think we've ever tried to avoid making an issue of Chris's sexuality. His sexuality was and is an issue, and will always be a part of his character. The key for us was to never let it be the whole story, or the whole character. We want Chris to be a fully rounded, interesting person who is also gay. So some of his stories will be about his sexuality, to varying degrees, and many of them won't be about it at all. And I think that's the way it should be.

How do you think the show has evolved during your time working there?
I think that's hard for me to judge, from the inside. Certainly I'm sure there have been changes as characters come and go onscreen, and staff come and go behind the scenes. But I think Neighbours is bigger than any of us as individuals. It has a life of its own and we're just here to help it out along the way.

Finally, what do you think is the secret to Neighbours' success?
Who knows? If anyone could really answer that question, there'd be a lot more shows that lasted twenty-seven years! I guess I can only describe what I love about it: It's a world I recognise as somewhere I come from, and somewhere I still love to visit. It tells stories that, even when they're taken to dramatic extremes or comedic excess, are grounded in truth and heart. It depicts a community of characters that, despite their flaws, are people I genuinely enjoy spending time with.

For more from Paul follow him on Twitter @mindlessmunkey

Interview by Callum. Added on 17th March 2011