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Interviews > Jason Herbison

A little under a year has passed since we last spoke to Neighbours' series producer, Jason Herbison, and he promised that it was going to be a huge one, kicking off with the 30th Anniversary. We find out his thoughts on the year just gone and what to expect for 2016...

Spoiler Warning! Please note that this interview contains spoilers!

Last time we spoke we were preparing for the 30th Anniversary celebrations to begin on screen. How happy were you with the way the 2015 season turned out on screen? Did anything work out better than expected and was there anything that didnšt translate so well from script to screen?
2015 was a huge year for the show and there were many highlights for me. I loved the nostalgia of the Erinsborough Festival, Naomi's many escapades and Steph's return, just to name a few. That said, when you make 240 episodes a year, there are always going to be things that don't turn out as well as you hoped. Many factors can determine whether a scene, an episode or an entire story works - sometimes the reason is beyond all control. For something that didn't translate, perhaps I'll say Toadie's jumping castle accident. We had every production challenge in the world - including wet weather - and the stunt and fanfare didn't quite have the gravitas that we imagined. The subsequent episodes in the hospital were fantastic though, so it's not a comment on the whole story. I think it's the nature of fast moving serial television. I am in constant awe of the cast and crew - what they deliver on a weekly basis is incredible - and we are always constantly learning from our experiences.

I am also very proud of the fact that we achieved our highest lunchtime ratings in the UK in over 5 years before Christmas. That was a great way to cap the year off - so thank you to all our viewers.

2015 saw a host of old faces return as part of the year long anniversary celebrations. Which would you say you'd most like to see back again? Can you give us any hints about who else we might see back in Erinsborough during 2016?
I loved all the returnees. Any of them could return in the future with the possible exception of Madge, as I think you can only do a ghost story once. As for 2016, we have already announced the return of Lyn Scully and a recast Charlie Hoyland. We have returns in store for Lou and two members of the Willis family will reappear. We also have actress from the early years of the show filming with us, however she will be playing a different character, one with greater future potential.

Since the main anniversary fortnight we've seen recurring visits from Hilary, Lucas & Vanessa as well as the continued visits from Doug. Do you think these returns are important to show that life and the relationships built don't just end once they leave Ramsay Street?
Absolutely. I think it's very true to real life - friends and family move away - yet it's always wonderful when they come back to visit us. I think it's the same for the audience. That said, I'm wary of bringing people back just for the sake of it. It's also challenging to bring a lot of people back at once because you can't service every story and the regular cast at the same time. For example, with the 30th, we had so much going on that many episodes came in long at the edit stage. The returnee moments were often the ones that ended up on the cutting room floor simply because they weren't essential to the story.

The past year has seen lot of changes in ownership to the Ramsay Street houses, with Terese, the Brennans, Sheila & Lauren all now owning their own homes and Sonya having been given half of Number 30. Was it a conscious decision to tie up all of those loose ends or did it just happen naturally as the story developed?
A bit of both. Lauren's ownership of the Turner house tied up a loose end - we also wanted the kids to lose the money they made from the sale, because kids with money is limiting for story and makes their lives too easy. Mark's purchase of the Brennan house also made sense as Ajay is no longer in the show and it felt authentic for him to want to be a home owner. Sheila and Terese's purchases of their homes came out of Paul losing his empire. There actually wasn't much story in Paul owning half the street - it didn't serve us a lot of purpose in the end.

Many fans were surprised when it was announced that Steph would have a female love interest upon her return. Were you pleased with the way that the story, and Steph's return in general, was handled?
Very pleased. I had some initial reservations mainly because I didn't know if it was true to character, but Carla embraced it and this set my mind at ease. She agreed that it could be played as a love story, regardless of gender. Her performance has been outstanding - she brings so much history to the show. I particularly love her friendship with Toadie and the way it puts Sonya ever so slightly on edge. This feels very true to character. There was a recent scene between the two of them in the hospital where Sonya admitted she felt threatened and she didn't like herself for it. Those scenes are gold to me.

The three-hander with Terese, Brad and Lauren was incredibly successful, with the performance by Rebekah Elmaloglou as Terese being especially praised. Many viewers have noted that the three-hander was almost a turning point in viewer sympathy with it switching from Lauren to Terese. Was this the way the story was intended or do you think Rebekah's performance won people over?
It was always intended that viewer sympathies would shift back and forth. We've tried to play all three as genuinely flawed individuals and capable of both good and bad decisions, as is often the case in real life. Rebekah definitely found the vulnerability in Terese and your heart broke for her, whereas earlier in the story arc she may have been less empathetic. Kate and Kip did an amazing job too. All three actors committed to the material and it was exhilarating to be part of.

What were your thoughts on the episode and would you look to do more episodes like this in the future?
I was really proud of it. I wanted to be very simple and domestic in nature - three people in their home environments and the whole thing unravelling. My only regret is that I wish the drone had been set up better. I thought it was a fresh way for Terese to find out - and fresh ways in a soap aren't easy to come by - and we had another story to explain why the council drone would be flying around and why Paul might be paying attention. Somehow, we didn't quite join the dots and the explanation was only briefly given in a later ep. As for the future, I'm sure there will be another one, two or three hander one day. The story has to warrant it and you can't do them often or they lose their impact.

The Robinsons are perhaps the strongest they've been since Paul returned, with Paul, Daniel, Amy and Jimmy plus Hilary & Lucy popping in and out. Do you think we'll see a Robinson house on Ramsay Street again soon and will we see any more family members stop by?
It's possible. At the moment we are getting fantastic mileage out of Paul and Terese being under the same roof. We can see a day where Amy and Jimmy may live with him but that would be well down the track. We love Hilary and you will continue to see more appearances from her. She will also get a job in the community which is quite useful. Lucy is off on maternity leave in New York but I hope we will see her again soon. We will also be introducing a new Robinson relative within the first half of 2016.

With most of the Turners departing over the last 12 months, the street is now lacking a big family unit once again. Are there any plans to address that this year?
It's always a challenge to maintain big family units when cast leave. We are very aware of the importance of this and you will be seeing new characters fill out the households. We always strive to make the households believable. You have to watch and believe that all the people living under the roof are connected, whether that's through family or friendship or plausible circumstance.

Many fans have been confused about the status of Ben Kirk. Is he going to become a permanent addition to the cast in 2016, or will be continue to pop in and out?
Ben is a regular. Felix Mallard was doing his HSC last year and it made sense for him to come in and out, but he is now filming with us permanently.

Some fans have struggled to connect with the character of Piper since she arrived, with so many scenes centring around her rebelliousness. Will we see a softer side to Piper in 2016, and will we ever find out what her mysterious text messages from Chas were all about?
It often takes the audience a few months to warm to a character although I have certainly seen a lot of Piper fans out there. The writers always strive to find moments to show the softer sides of characters - and scenes which access why they behaving badly if that's the case - and you will see more of these with Piper. I think Mavournee is terrific and she is certainly inspiring the writers with her performance. And yes, the identity of Chas will be revealed in the not too distant future.

The 2016 upfronts from Ten Network mentioned that there will be new faces, with Xanthe Canning being one of them. Who else can we expect to meet this year? It's been mentioned a few times now that the Brennan brothers have a mum and sister in Adelaide. Is there any chance that they'll be amongst them?
As always there will be a number of new characters coming in and out, both regulars and guests. Xanthe is a fun character - we have been discussing her as a 'young Naomi' and by hook or by crook, Sheila is not going to repeat the mistakes she made with Naomi. So there will be a great battle of the generations there with Xanthe determined to push the limits. There will be another Robinson, which is fantastic for Paul, Amy and Daniel. It's highly probable that we'll see the Brennan mum and sister one day. The main challenge with the sister is that there are currently not many young available men she could date that she isn't related to!

New faces inevitably mean that old ones are on their way out. We know that you no longer like to announce cast departures in advance, but can you tell us if we'll be waving goodbye to anyone in the months to come?
Most years see actors come and go. I think 2016 will be the same in that respect but it won't be a massive turnover. The vast majority will be staying which is fantastic for the show. The longer people stay, the more the audience invest.

Over the last few years, the incidents such as the eclipse, the tornado and the school fire have proved popular, pulling together lots of characters and stories, and sparking new plots. Do you intend to do a similar disaster story this year?
We see great value in these noisy stories so you can certainly expect to see more from time to time.

Rumours from the tour have mentioned that Lassiter's is being revamped. With the interior sets of the Lassiter's complex looking the best they've done in a decade, is it finally time to lose the battleship grey of the exterior? Are there any plans to change any of the sets for the Ramsay Street houses, as it's been a few years since any of those were updated?
We are constantly making improvements to the sets and locations when the opportunities arise, the hotel included. You can expect continuing tweaks to the houses but the big set we are currently updating is the school, post fire. The other big news is that we are working very hard to increase our off-site location. For example a couple of the characters will become involved in an enterprise that will take them into a new playing area.

As of January, Australia and the UK are now airing episodes on the same day. What has it meant logistically to break down that two week barrier? Will not having to script two finales mean we can expect a bigger finale this year?
It's fantastic to break down the barrier. It also means our office white boards are much tidier as there is just one set of dates to add! And yes, we have plans for a brilliant season finale to hit both countries at the same time.

Are there any plans for more webisodes this year?
We have a very active and talented digital producer. We are constantly looking at ideas for webisodes and shareable content.

Since the 2016 premiere, we've seen the show feature a new format of recap, new scene, opening credits. What was the reason behind this move and is it here to stay?
It came out of some audience research. The format works very successfully on some of our European sister soaps and we felt it could work for Neighbours. Like any change, we are fine tuning it. We certainly feel that it works best when it's sharp and hooky. I think we all agree it's not quite there yet.

You've received a lot of praise from the cast and viewers for the direction you've steered the show in and for underpinning its foundations. Do you see Neighbours as your home for the foreseeable future or are new horizons on the cards?
That's very gratifying to hear, thank you. I love Neighbours and I'm supported by an incredible team who also love the show, from the story department through to post production and publicity and marketing. It's an honour to work with them and I'm certainly committed in my role for the foreseeable.

Finally, how would you summarise your plans for the show over the coming year?
My objective - which I share with everyone on the show - is always to make Neighbours the best it can possibly be. In story terms, that means well-rounded, relatable characters that the audience will want to invest half an hour of their daily lives in. Whether the storylines are big or small, the audience isn't going to watch if they don't care about the people. In production terms, we're aware that the world has become a little small with shooting mostly confined to the studio and back lot. We've been working on changing this for some time and you will see the results of that as the year progresses.

Thank you for your continuing support Perfect Blend. You guys are awesome.

To discuss this interview and what's to come in 2016, click here. The password is 'spoilers'.

Interview by Callum and Steve. Added on 6th February 2016