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Interviews > Jenny Lewis

The name Jenny Lewis has regularly featured in the writing credits of Neighbours over the years, particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s when she also worked as a storyliner and story editor. Last summer, Jenny returned to work on Neighbours Ďin-houseí for the first time in ten years, and we caught up with her to chat about old times - and new...

Can you give us a background on your career before Neighbours?
I worked as a travel agent in Melbourne for most of my working life and, although this afforded me opportunities to travel the world for free, I was very disenchanted. Iíd always wanted to be a writer and the fact that I wasnít reaching for my heartís desire made me very angry with myself. So I started writing and I was lucky enough to be noticed by the Executive Producer of the Comedy Company, a successful local comedy show in the late 1980ís and he invited me to join their writing team. Shortly after that Ė sometime in 1988 I think - I was offered a storylining position with Neighbours in Sydney.

How did you come to work on Neighbours?
Iíd always enjoyed Neighbours so, when I decided to get into the TV industry as a writer, this seemed like the most obvious production to approach. My expressions of interest were ignored time after time so I just kept nagging the producers and story editor until they finally gave me an opportunity to work for them Ö probably to shut me up more than anything else. This, of course, was the first time Iíd worked with them. It was the late eighties and I was about 27.

How does a typical writing assignment on Neighbours work?
Iíve been talking about storylining up till now, and writing is a totally different kettle of fish. While I was employed as a storyliner, I also wrote scripts and I have been off and on since way back in the eighties. A writer basically is given a block of scene breakdowns from the story department and they are assigned one episode to write. The scene breakdowns are quite detailed and they provide all the information the writer needs to write a script. The writer puts the episode into script form. Itís given the once over by an editor and this is used as a shooting script.

As well as writing for Neighbours, you also worked as a storyliner, and later as a story editor in the early 1990s. What did these roles entail?
How do you know all this stuff about my background?! Freaky! Working as a story editor... I can tell you itís the hardest job in the business. My skin is not thick enough for all the responsibility. Ben Michael who story edits now (the role is now called Script Producer), is so calm and laid back (and talented), but I was always a mess! Storylining is actually a lot of fun; you sit around a table with a few other storyliners and throw ideas around and the story editor decides what stays and what goes. The stories are divided into episodes and we all structure the episode, scene by scene. The storyliner is then responsible for writing up one or two episodes per week in scene breakdown form, and this is mailed off to the writer. When youíve got a good team, itís a fabulous job.

During your time on the show, many long standing characters departed the series within a short space of time, such as Jim Robinson, Paul Robinson, Madge Bishop and Todd Landers, and newer characters were introduced to fill the large gaps they left behind. How did their departures affect the series?
Thereís always a slight sense of unease when a popular and long-standing character leaves a show, but most of the time thereís no need to worry. More often than not, departures open the gate for fresh and interesting new characters and stories and I think our audience are always very welcoming to new characters. A show couldnít survive as long as Neighbours has with the same cast; fresh blood is necessary to keep the ideas coming and the show interesting. Even though the characterís you mentioned all left within a short space of time, thereís always new people with new backgrounds to fill the void.

How did the decision come about to bring the Martin family into the show?
As far as the Martin family are concerned, I really canít remember exactly why we introduced them. However, Iím pretty certain it was because they had a link with the street Ė through the Robinson family Ė and we have always tried to keep family connections with the street alive. Even though the audience may not know these people, they know their blood-line and thereís a certain comfort and familiarity in that.

Do you have any scenes or moments you wrote that you were particularly pleased with?
This is really testing my memory Ö. My favourite single episode of all time would have to be the fancy dress party, where all of the street had to come as one of the neighbours Ė the episode ended with Jim and Dorothy waking up together and both being uncertain of what went on. I loved bringing Melanie and Joe together Ė finally! Even though this strand has been criticized, I really enjoyed plotting the Todd/Phoebe love story, her pregnancy and Toddís ultimate death.

Did you ever have a hand in creating any Neighbours characters?
Heaps. Too many to mention. Iíve spent many years working on the show, and Iíve done many a character breakdown. Some of these characters include the Willis family, Beth, Todd, Dorothy, Phoebe, the twins Ö thereís so many other characters I can see in my head but I just canít remember their names Ė isnít that awful!

Who have been your favourite characters to write for, both past and present?
Iíve always loved the more eccentric and lively characters. I loved writing for Dorothy and Mrs Mangel because they were allowed to be catty and just a bit evil. The Willis family were an absolute favourite of mine as they all worked so well together. For the most part, however, I enjoy writing kids. No matter how old I get, I never lose that teenage mentality. I love the current cast too. I think Lyn Scully is an absolute gem, as is Izzy, Susan, Karl, Harold the Bishops, and of course the Hoyland family work a treat. Iíd hate to lose anyone weíve got now Ė as an ensemble, they work seamlessly.

Were there ever any storylines planned that never went ahead?
Every day we have to throw out stories for a variety of reasons Ė usually because theyíre not quite right for the show Ė and sometimes it hurts. The most famous story-that-never-was that I was around for happened back in the late eighties. The show was really slipping in the ratings and a very high up person at the time decided to boost the ratings by revisiting a time when the ratings were huge. Weíd bring back Scott Robinson Ė Jason Donovanís character. He would arrive back in the show with his face (and body, I think) fully bandaged and, as he lay in his hospital bed, weíd show flashbacks of the whole Scott/Charlene strand. This was supposed to bring the audience back in droves. However, as the bandages would be removed to reveal not Jason Donovan but another actor playing the part, the powers that be finally decided that perhaps the audience would feel cheated. Therefore the move may very well have been counterproductive. I canít tell you how relieved I was that this story didnít go through.

What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the Neighbours format?
The showís main strength now is the same as itís always been Ė itís got a lot of heart. No matter whatís going on, the underlying message and tone is that people are basically good and thatís a very infectious message to be sending out to an audience. Who doesnít want that validated? The show, overall, has a feel good quality and thatís why I enjoy writing for it. I hate the dark stuff.
I believe the weakness is all to do with the time factor. We have to churn out five episode a week and itís sometimes difficult to get the very best out of the show with so little time to tweak and rehearse. However, in saying that, I am often gob-smacked that the makers of this show come up with the quality that they do. I think all critics of soaps should really stop and think just how much these people are achieving in an impossible period of time. The performances from the actors are sometimes truly outstanding, particularly when you consider the short rehearsal time and the cracking pace they have to work at.

How did your recent return to the Neighbours story team after a lengthy absence come about? How much, if at all, had things changed?
Iíve always been part of the Neighbours family Ė even when I wasnít on the story team, I was an occasional writer, and Iíve always been very fond of Ben Michael who is now the Script Producer. When Delta Goodrem (Nina) had to suddenly leave the show due to illness, the team found themselves in a bit of a storylining crisis. They had to re-plot all the stories Delta was involved in, while at the same time keep the current episodes coming. Ben rang and asked if I was available for a couple of months to help out and I was. That two month gig extended to about six Ė they canít get rid of me Ė and Iím even coming back this year for a few guest appearances.

What had you done in the intervening years?
I moved back to Melbourne when I left Grundyís and Iíve basically continued my career as a freelance writer ever since. Iíve been lucky enough to rarely be without work, but there were some pretty scary times when I couldnít find work or the quality of my work slipped. I wrote more sketch comedy, and joined the Blue Heelers writing team. I did some Bananas in Pyjamas Ö. Stingers Ö All Saints. Iíve worked in-house quite a bit and Iíve developed a lot of shows that have never seen the light of day. Iím currently working on my first book and one day I might get around to writing my movie. And now here I am, back with Neighbours doing the job I started out doing and loving it.

The return of old characters such as David Bishop and Sky Mangel have coincided with your return to the Grundy offices. What do you think of bringing back past characters? Should Neighbours use its rich history more? Are there any characters from the past that you would particularly like to see return?
Iíve always been an advocate of digging into the past and bringing back old characters, and I think this is part of the showís ongoing success. Weíre able to combine the old with the new Ė we can keep the sense of tradition and comfort by returning old characters, but we also keep the show moving forward with new characters. Not that Iíd necessarily agree with bringing back a past character unless they still had a remaining link with the show. David Bishop and his familyís return was a perfect way to freshen up Haroldís life and to give him new story material. And if Susan and Karl ever get boring Ė not that thatís likely for a while, stay tuned! - we can always bring back their children to complicate their lives.

What do you think accounts for the huge success Neighbours has continued to enjoy over the years?
Iíve pretty much answered this early on. I do think itís all to do with the way the show validates humanity. That good is stronger than evil and that we can rely on each other. Itís a feel-good, life affirming show that tackles real life issues with honesty and optimism. The audience subconsciously dearly wants to believe in these values so they tune in to get a reinforcing fix. As time moves on, the world gets a little scarier, so it has become even more important for our viewers to hang onto their positivity. This is why shows like Neighbours succeed when their darker counterparts have fallen. We can all see the dark side of life by reading the papers so why would we choose to watch a drama that confirms our very worst fears? Neighbours has been very lucky in its life to continue to hire people who have gorgeous, warm hearts because this is what goes into every word and every theme.

Interview by Moe. Added on 21st February 2004