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Interviews > Louise Le Nay

Louise Le Nay has been associated with Neighbours for almost twenty years, stretching right back to the original Channel Seven episodes when she played Barbara Hill. In the years since, Louise has worked on the series as a script editor, storyliner, and scriptwriter. In this exclusive interview, Louise speaks of her experiences both in front of the camera and behind the scenes on Ramsay Street...

As well as your lengthy career as a writer, you have also acted in various Australian productions. Can you give us a little background on your career? Do you have a preference between writing and acting?
I started out as an actor, studying at NIDA - the National Institute of Dramatic Art - in the late seventies. I worked in theatre in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, appeared in all the current television shows of the time and a couple of feature films - Emoh Ruo and The More Things Change. I was Top Dog, Sandy, on Prisoner for about a year. Having said all that, I see myself as a writer, though. I've written all my life, but didn't initially see it as a way of making a living (it's still a fairly difficult way to make a living!). I guess I've come to realise that writing is the thing that makes me really happy. Acting is fun, and sometimes challenging, and sometimes difficult - it involves a lot of socialising, and sitting around. But writing is the place I come home to. Just me and the blank paper - a keyboard, really. The place where I can put my thoughts in order, think about life, the universe and everything...

Many Neighbours fans are also familiar with you from Prisoner in which you played the role of Sandy Edwards. What are your memories of that role and your time on the show?
Prisoner was great. I wasn't a very experienced TV actor at the time I took the role, so as well as being fun, it was also a steep learning curve for me. I was working with really talented women - that was the Prisoner thing; a lot of talented experienced actresses, rather than the modern inclination to cast for "looks". I feel really privileged, when I look back, that I had the opportunity to work with Elspeth Ballantyne, Sheila Florence, Collette Mann, Judith McGrath, Maggie Millar, Betty Bobbitt, and Olivia Hamnett - who sadly, recently passed away. I was pregnant with my first child during my time there - they shot around it, mostly, but there are certainly scenes in the latter part of my contract where my pregnancy is evident. I'm really grateful for the Prisoner experience. I feel I've been a part - very small part - of Australian television history.

. . .

Louise in her Prisoner days with Maggie Millar and Olivia Hamnett.

Your first stint on Neighbours was in front of the camera as Barbara Hill back in 1985, in the early days of the show on Channel 7. What are your memories of that time? Who amongst that early cast did you enjoy working with? Given that you were appearing as Barbara in the final episodes on Channel 7, what was the atmosphere like on set?
My job as Barbara Hill on Neighbours was something I was delighted to do. I was living out of town at the time, in the country, and used to leave home at 4am to make the 6.30 make up calls. But it was all good fun. Unfortunately, the show was axed just after I began my three months. They would still go ahead with filming, but it would end forever (we all thought) after the three months was up. This depressed most of the cast rather a lot, and there was an air of resignation around the place. I was working with a great actor called Ross Thompson (Charles Durham) - we were partners in crime in this particular story - and we were a little removed from the general unhappiness. I guess this was because we were only contracted for the three months and had not expected our roles to continue. Ross was of the opinion that you give your all, no matter what the future may be, and we pressed on - rehearsing together in the corridors, always trying to get it right. We used to try to get our lines, our motivations so carefully worked out that we could do a scene in only one or two takes. It was a good aim - didn't always work out though, of course. The cast was pretty philosophical. Anne Haddy (Helen) was full of good humour. After all, most actors experience an axing at some time. There was a big party at the end of the three months - absolutely no idea amongst cast and crew that plans were afoot to move the show to another network. Which was the best possible outcome for the show, as it turned out.

When did you first start working on Neighbours as a writer? Can you recall the first episode/storylines you worked on?
I started working on Neighbours as a storyliner and a writer in 1996 - just before my first novel was published. The first few episodes were about the death of Cheryl and its aftermath. Soon after that we introduced the new characters - twins Anne and Lance. They proved to be great fun and the actors stayed with us for a long time. Not long after that, we wrote the storylines involving Madge's return to Ramsay Street and soon after that, Harold's very peculiar rediscovery as an amnesiac!! Very silly story, really, but it was a quick and expedient way to bring a very popular character back, which we were all excited about.

Having written episodes ranging from the dramatic (e.g. The 2000 series premiere) to the poignant (e.g. Lou losing custody of Louise) do you have any scenes or moments you wrote that you were particularly pleased with?
I really enjoyed writing for Karl and Susan. I wrote and edited a great deal of the story that involved Karl's alleged affair with Sarah and the Kennedys' subsequent marriage breakdown. My script on the aftermath of Karl being asked to leave, was short listed for an AFI award - very pleased about that. I always enjoyed writing for Harold and Madge - particularly when they had Paul, and later Tad living with them. There was lots of opportunity for humour and pathos, and the general wear and tear of living with teenagers. I was living with two teenage children at the time; lots of the stories were inspired by my own experiences.

Who have been your favourite characters to write for, both past and present, and why? Did you ever have a hand in creating any characters?
Karl and Susan, Harold and Madge, Lance and Toadie. I helped create Paul, Tad, Drew, the Scullys, Joel and probably quite a few others. This was along with many others; it's never a single-handed affair.

Is there a particular era of the show that you enjoyed most?
I enjoyed the period when the Kennedy family was still largely intact, with Billy and Libby at home and Toadie living there, too. I enjoyed the "family" nature of the stories at the time. I think Neighbours is at its strongest when it's all about family. I enjoyed having Judith Colquhoun as Script Producer. Judith has a breadth of experience writing for television and I learned a great deal from her. I also enjoyed working with Ray Kolle - these people (Judith and Ray) have provided the foundation for modern Australian shows - both of them began their careers on Bellbird. Their understanding of structure and story-telling is second to none.

What do you think are Neighbours' greatest strengths and its greatest weaknesses?
The strength of Neighbours is that it doesn't try to be something it's not. It doesn't try to be deeply meaningful, or a public service for discussing serious issues. But it occasionally touches on real family dilemmas and the little glitches and moments between people in ordinary relationships. Its weaknesses are when it tries to be too serious, too racy, too topical. In an early evening timeslot, you can't really address serious issues seriously. When the show tries to tackle serious topics, it runs the risk of trivialising them, and that doesn't serve the community well. Of course, a lot of the stories are always on the edge of being silly - the nature of soap is that you have to make a mountain out of a molehill. Sometimes that's funny, and pays off, sometimes it fails.

During your time as storyliner, and later script editor on the show, were there ever any storylines you can recall that never went ahead?
Lots of stories are flagged, all the time, that don't go ahead. They're usually to do with what is acceptable in a 6.30 timeslot - stories about drugs etc. There was a real sense, when I worked there, that it was best to steer clear of stories that might suggest to a young audience that taking drugs and having sex indiscriminately was in some way acceptable. I totally concur with that attitude. Particularly since so many young kids (girls especially) watch the show. I think we have a responsibility to the viewing audience not to promote dangerous or damaging practices. I think the guidelines for content have altered a little since I worked there. I'm not sure how successful the more teen-based stories are.

Having worked as Assistant Script Editor at the time of Helen's death, can you give us an insight into the planning and lead-up to the departure from the series of its longest serving original cast member, Anne Haddy? Although the characters of Rosemary and Michael returned to the show for Helen's funeral, other family members were missing. Where other actors - such as Stefan Dennis (Paul) or Melissa Bell (Lucy) - approached about reprising their roles for the storyline?
In fact all the scenes relating to Helen's death were written by me - including the death scene, itself. That was my job at the time. Anne Haddy was extremely ill, but trying hard to work every day and do the job that was given to her. This wasn't always possible, and she would leave the set unexpectedly when she became ill, leaving the job of rewriting to me. It was a difficult time and I have nothing but admiration for Anne Haddy and the work she did. Quite often, bringing people back is problematic for lots of reasons - they're often not available, they're often too expensive to bring back for one episode. All the relevant characters to Helen would have been discussed as possible returns, but it would have come down to pragmatic things, like availability.

Aside from continuing to write for Neighbours, what other projects are you currently involved in?
Currently I'm working at the ABC as script editor on MDA (second series) which is tremendously stimulating. I've also worked on a new kids' series The Sleepover Club, and I have a feature film in development.

One of your most notable Neighbours scripts was the wedding of Libby and Drew in 2001. Can you tell us a little about scripting this special episode?
We had great fun with this. I suggested the character of Fergus - Drew's mad uncle - and Tommy Dysart was wonderful in the role. The actors embraced the story, the fun of it, and we really went to town. My boss, Judith Colquhoun, suggested the song that Drew sang to Libby - with Harold's help. It was a song that I used to sing to my kids at night when they were little, so that delighted me. We often try to find ways to allow Harold to sing. Ian Smith has a terrific singing voice.

What have you most enjoyed about your long involvement with Neighbours?
I learned a great deal about writing fast, furious and to suit an audience. I'm very grateful for the opportunities that Neighbours has given me.

What do you think accounts for the huge success Neighbours has experienced in the last 18 years? How long do you think it will continue?
Neighbours has tried to be about ordinary people. Of course, it's a bit extraordinary that people in the same street all know each other so intimately -in the real world, it'd probably send you crazy! But that's television; it's never really real. I think the show's success is due to its combination of humour, youth, silliness, melodrama and occasionally real drama. I think it's a great boon that Neighbours is a show that has never been deadly serious about itself. It lacks pretentiousness. What a relief, in a world that's full of it! As for how long it can go on - I wouldn't like to predict.

Interview by Moe. Added on 20th September 2003