> Ray Kolle
A veteran writer of Australian television, Ray Kolle has long been associated with Neighbours throughout its run, including as script supervisor, story consultant and currently as a writer. In an exclusive interview, he reflects on his time on
the show, the many characters he has written for over the years and the
battle to give Helen a proper exit...
Can you give us a little background on your career before Neighbours?
I began writing for television around 1967. My first assignment was writing
comedy sketches for a variety show called In Melbourne Tonight. I was also
working in a book shop, with ambitions to be a playwright. I had had one
play - actually, a musical for which I had written the book and lyrics -
produced quite successfully. Then one of the first Australian TV serials
began to be shown; it was called Bellbird. After watching a couple of
weeks of it, I submitted a script for consideration. I was asked to join the
writing team and was able to give up book-selling! I wrote for that show for
seven years in all, becoming both a story-editor and script-editor during
that period. (The very successful A Country Practice was actually a
spin-off from Bellbird.) I also wrote a one-shot play for the Australian
Broadcasting Commission (our equivalent of the BBC), and had my second stage
musical produced. After this, I freelanced for Crawford Productions, writing
for Homicide, Cop Shop, The Box, The Sullivans (for which I won an
Awgie - the Australian Writers' Guild Award), and several other shows. I
also story edited and script-edited on most of these programs. I first
worked for Grundy's as a writer on Prisoner (and became story editor for a
while). They then asked me to move from Melbourne to Sydney to become
story-editor on Sons and Daughters. I re-located and worked on that show
for several years. I then left to become story/script editor on Return to
Eden, at another production company. At this time (1985), Neighbours was
on Channel 7, then they dropped the show as it's rating were not great.
However, in a very unusual move, Channel 10 picked it up. I was asked by
Grundy's if I would come back to them and story-edit the show. I replied
that I would only return if I could be in complete charge of the script
department. Grundy's agreed.
What did your job as story editor on Neighbours entail?
I actually became what is now known as Script Supervisor, which meant that
the scripts were my responsibility from story through to final drafts. We
had an excellent story-lining team of five, a mixture of male and female and
a good range of ages, most of whom also wrote scripts. In addition we used a
few freelance writers.
Can you take us through the process of writing a typical episode of
Most of the stories began with me or in general discussion, then I developed
them with the story-lining team. Together we would shape them into episodes
for each specific night, then the story-liners would type up scene
breakdowns (a detailed scene-by-scene description of each episode). The two
script-editors would comment on the scene breakdowns and amendments would
sometimes be made. I would do a final edit of these, then the scripts would
be written, heavily based on the breakdowns. The scripts would be edited by
the two script-editors, and I would do a final over-edit, then - hopefully -
they were ready to be shot. However, there were often last-minute
adjustments that had to be made, or sometimes panicky rewrites if a member
of the cast met with an accident or was taken ill.
Are there any characters you have been personally responsible for creating?
Yes, over the ten years I was in charge of the scripts I created many, many
characters. One was Mrs Mangel. She was brought in originally as a 'daily'
(that is, a character who only appears in one episode) to be a difficult
customer at the coffee shop. I immediately sensed that such a character
could be very useful on a long-term basis and so Mrs Mangel, as we came to
know her, was born. Vivean Gray was wonderful in the part. If I recall
correctly I also created Jane Harris, Joe Mangel, Kerry Bishop, Mike Young,
Dorothy Burke, Lou Carpenter and dozens of others. To be fair, when I say I
created them, I mean I suggested the core character. The details of the
characterisations were worked out with the whole team of story-liners and
editors. I don't think you could truthfully say that any one character was
completely created by only one person, except for the very original
characters who were the invention of Reg Watson, the creator of the show.
Charlene was a character that Reg Watson had in mind for a long time before
she appeared. The story-editor at that time, Ginny Lowndes, had a lot of
input into her character as did I. Reg also suggested Harold Bishop and I
remember we had a lot of trouble getting his character right. He had to be a
moralistic, pompous do-gooder - but loveable! That was a hard combination to
pull off. But we - and particularly Ian Smith - managed to make it work. I
remember that when we first started writing Harold we deliberately made his
dialogue very pompous, using long, involved sentences and always taking the
longest way to say the shortest thing. Ian Smith approached me and suggested
that we just give Harold normal dialogue and that we let him add the
pomposity in his performance. He pointed out that if it was both in the
writing and the performance it became too much. He was perfectly right and
we pulled back in the dialogue and let the actor do his job.
Who have been your favourite characters to write for, both past and present,
That's hard to answer because there have been so many: Off the top of my
head, I think my particular favourites have been Harold Bishop, Madge
Bishop, Mrs. Mangel, Charlene, Henry Ramsay, Des Clarke, Eileen Clarke, Paul
Robinson, Kerry Bishop, Lou Carpenter, Dorothy Burke, Toadie Rebecchi, Susan
and Karl Kennedy. I'd say the reason I've enjoyed writing these characters
so much is that they were all such colourful, strongly-defined characters,
played by incredibly talented actors. I also have a special fondness for
Helen Daniels. Anne Haddy (Helen) had played the romantic lead in the first
Homicide episode I ever wrote, then later she was Rosie in Sons and
Daughters, so I felt a certain sense of history with her. Like the others
I've mentioned (and many I haven't), Anne never let a scene down, never
'walked through' an episode. She always gave her all, right up to the time
she had to be written out because of illness. I had known Anne Charleston
(Madge) since Bellbird days. She had played a young nurse in that show. I
should mention that Maggie Dence (Dorothy Burke) was a favourite with myself
and the story-liners because she was the only actor involved with the show
who would regularly contact us and thank us for her stories. We usually only
heard from most of them to complain! Though Ian Smith was always very
writer-friendly also, and in fact wrote quite a few episodes himself. He had
also been a script-editor on Prisoner - as well as stage actor and singer
- a truly multi-talented man.
Do you have any scenes or moments you wrote that you were particularly
pleased with, and why?
Myra De Groot as Eileen Clarke gave us a terrific scene after she'd been
jilted by Malcolm (from whom she was divorced, but about to re-marry). We'd
plotted it so that the character was tearful and devastated. Myra decided
that Eileen's overwhelming feeling would be rage that this man had done it
to her again (he had walked out on her when they were married). Instead of
simply bursting into tears of self-pity, Myra upturned a coffee table and
flung it across the room. It was a shocking, but wonderfully dramatic moment
that I have never forgotten. Also Harold and Madge have given us many
wonderful moments. I remember in particular the story where Harold began to
have feelings for another woman, Robyn Taylor - played by the wonderful
Gerda Nicholson, who died far too young. Ian Smith was outraged when we told
him Harold was to 'lust in his heart' for someone other than Madge, but when
he finally saw the story he admitted it really worked and he, Anne
Charleston, and Gerda all gave beautiful performances in it. I must say I
loved almost everything Kylie Minogue did as Charlene. The minute she came
on the screen just lit up. I knew immediately she would one day be a big
star, but I expected it to be as an actress not a singer! There are just
too many other moments I have loved to go into here - you wouldn't have the
Is there a particular era of the show that you most enjoyed?
I'd say 1986 to about 1992. That was the really golden period as far as I'm
In 1988, at the height of the show's success, you co-wrote a prequel novel,
The Ramsays: A Family Divided with your fellow Neighbours writer, Valda
Marshall. Can you tell us a little about that? Where there ever plans to do
I think Grundy's were approached by the publisher and asked to do two books.
Reg Watson, the creator of Neighbours was too busy to do them himself, so
he asked Valda and I if we would be interested. We were and went ahead.
Unfortunately, the books didn't sell particularly well in Australia - though
they did better in the UK, I believe. Valda and I very much enjoyed doing
them as we felt so closely involved with the characters at that time. The
writers' credits on the published books were somewhat muddled as I recall,
mentioning Valda as author in one place and me in another.
1996 saw a much needed revamp to the series, which included the returns of
favourites Madge and Harold. During this period, you acted as story
consultant. What were your duties at that time, and what are your memories
of that revamp? Were you pleased to have Madge and Harold back?
I was brought in as a consultant because the show was floundering a little.
My job was to try to get the program back on its feet and support the
newly-appointed story-editor, Scott Taylor. I felt that part of the reason
for the drop in ratings was that many of the characters were fairly bland
and the show had gone very 'young', focusing almost entirely on the
teenagers. I insisted that we bring back Madge and Harold. I had been very
reluctant to write Harold out of the show years before and had only done so
under instructions from management. As Barbara Angell said in her interview,
we deliberately wrote him out in a way so that we could bring him back at a
later date. I was prepared to accept the inevitable scorn that would be
thrown at us by the critics for having a 'dead' character return. I felt it
was worth it. When I came in as consultant, I had them rewrite about six
weeks of scripts because I didn't think the storylines were strong enough
(we couldn't go back further than that without throwing the production into
chaos). We - Scott and I and the then team of story-liners - tried to come
up with stories that were more adult and had some excitement and edge to
them. We must have succeeded because the rating improved considerably.
Can you tell us about scripting Helen's final episode? How did it feel
writing the last episode to feature the show's most enduring character and
final original cast member?
Writing Helen's last episode was very messy! I wrote three versions in all,
then the version that finally went to air had to have many last-minute
adjustments. The powers-that-be felt that as Anne Haddy was far from well,
we should write her out quietly by sending her off on a cruise from which
she simply never returned. I strongly disagreed with this. I believed that
to write such an important character out we had to have her die and give her
her due with the full funeral and all the resultant sadness and memories. We
battled about it. They pointed out that if the actress died - which we knew
was a very real possibility - before the episode was aired, it would be in
very poor taste to then have it go to air. They also felt that they couldn't
ask an actress in such ill-health to play a death scene (too close to home!)
In the face of this argument, I gave way - Helen would go on a never-ending
cruise. When Anne Haddy saw the script, however, she hated this idea as much
as I had and insisted she must have her death scene. She won the day and I
wrote a script with her dying quietly at home surrounded by her loved ones.
I think it was a good script, really touching. But then Anne became so ill
she was unable to continue and we had to write her out of the episodes that
were in the studio. She was hospitalised and it seemed pretty clear she
would not be able to come back to do any more scenes. We reworked several
weeks of scripts with Helen off-screen in hospital - as was the reality -
and I rewrote the script in which Helen died so that the family got word
from the hospital that she was failing and rushed there, but too late -
Helen had passed away. This version was shot, and Rebecca Ritters as Hannah
Martin gave a stunning performance, collapsing at the news of Helen's death.
That performance was never seen on air. Anne Haddy rallied, and - wonderful
trooper that she was - insisted that she play Helen's death scene. There was
frantic rewriting and re-shooting to accommodate this. My original script no
longer existed, having been written over in the computer with the new
version, so it was hastily rewritten. I think because of the haste of it
all, the episode didn't have the full impact that I felt it should have.
However, it did to everyone associated with the program because we knew how
very ill Anne was. Neighbours had become her life and it was with great
sadness she left the show. She died not too long after.
How did you approach writing Madge's funeral episode, given that there was
obviously going to be many notable absences, such as Charlene and Henry? Many fans were upset that there was no reference to the kids or any of
Madge's family - why was the decision made to leave such references out?
I was working only as a writer at this stage. I had no input into the
plotting of the material, I just had to work from the scene breakdown I was
given. I imagine the reason behind leaving out the references to the absence
of so many family members was that it would have simply highlighted the fact
they were not there. It would have been impossible - for budgetary and other
practical reasons - to get so many of the old cast back.
What other projects have you been involved with, besides Neighbours?
I have worked on (as writer, story-editor or script-editor - or sometimes
all three) for about 25 television shows in all, a mixture of series and
serials. I have also had three stage musicals and one play produced. The
play was produced in the UK at The Mill Theatre in Sonning . It was very
successful there and was to move to the West End, but - for reasons too
numerous to mention - it never got there.
What do you think of the recently announced impending returns of David and
Sky Bishop, two characters who were last seen in 1988 and 1991,
respectively? Do you think Neighbours should use its rich history and
heritage more? Are there any characters from the past that you would
particularly like to see return?
I was delighted to see them bringing back characters from the show's
history. It has worried me for some time that there was really no one
involved with the show now who would know the history of the show beyond the
last few years - except for Jan Russ the casting director, who has been with
the show from the beginning or soon after. However, someone has obviously
been delving into the history to come up with Sky. The problem with bringing
back successful past characters is that most of the actors have moved onto
other things and would not be available. I don't really see the point of
using the characters again unless they can be portrayed by the same actors
who made them successful in the first place. Of course, if the character was
last seen as a child, then recasting is perfectly acceptable. They could
also bring back the character of Toby Mangel.
The new executive producer, Riccardo Pellizzeri, has set out some clear
ideas on the direction he wants to take Neighbours next, which has been
largely welcomed by fans. What do you think the coming year(s) hold for
Let's wait and see. I couldn't hazard a guess at this stage.
What have you most enjoyed about your long involvement with Neighbours?
For the first seven of the ten years that I was Script Producer (or Script
Supervisor was the title then), I was in love with the show and the
characters. I found them a joy to create stories for. Since then the show
has not had quite the same strength of overall cast.
What do you think accounts for the huge success Neighbours has enjoyed?
I think it's the strength and attractiveness of the cast, and perhaps most
importantly the strength of the stories. It's basically a sunny, feel-good
show with identifiable characters and a certain nostalgia for a sense of
community that doesn't really seem to exist these days. I hope it keeps
running for another eighteen years!
Interview by Moe. Added on 28th June 2003