> Helen MacWhirter
The talented, good humoured and extremely witty Neighbours writer, Helen MacWhirter took some time out to talk to us from sunny Brisbane about the role she plays in the Neighbours saga...
Can you give us a run down of your career before Neighbours?
Sure. When I left school I actually kicked around the fashion industry for a bit but the novelty soon wore off, despite the fact I got to buy all my clothes at cost price, and I began to consider a career in the media. I'd always enjoyed writing and felt I may have some natural ability in that area so I wrote to all the Brisbane radio stations seeking a cadetship in Journalism. One of the station managers contacted me and said that there were no vacancies in the Newsroom, however would I be interested in a position as Junior Copywriter. Although I had no idea what a copywriter did, I promptly said yes and spent the next four or so years writing radio commercials, programme features, comedy segments and doing voice-overs. During this time I also moonlighted at one of the local television stations, writing three-minute "Who-dunnit-type" dramas for a children's television programme called Wombat. I guess that's where my interest in writing for television really began. I figured if I could write a three minute segment, I should be able to write a half-hour or hour long episode of something. Yes I know, ignorance is bliss and the naivety of youth and all that! The problem was I lived in Brisbane and the majority of Australian television production occurs in Sydney or Melbourne. I had no interstate contacts or any idea how to break into the industry and then as luck would have it I was offered a job with the Queensland Film and Television Office. The QFDO was a State Government initiative designed to encourage the development of film and television scripts with the aim that they be produced in Queensland so it was the perfect environment to learn more about the craft of script writing, make contacts and learn a little bit about how the industry works.
When did you first write for Neighbours? What are your memories of that initial script writing assignment?
I was having a massive clean out of my office a few weeks back and I came across some of my earlier episodes. I was stunned to see I'd actually written them on a typewriter. That must make me seem quite old, but seriously, I'm not - I just didn't have a home computer back then. But I do wish I'd had shares in the "Tippex" company! It was quite strange reading some of those earlier episodes. I'd quite forgotten many of the characters. It was around the time of the Alessi's, Paul and Melanie, Annalise Hartman, Dorothy and Phoebe, and of course Bouncer. Looking back I realise how lucky I was in that the Script Department took me on as an unproven writer with no track record to speak of. Over the years, I've been extremely fortunate to work with some wonderful, patient and very talented script editors who actually took the time to nurture my writing skills (and
still do). I can't begin to tell you how much I've learnt from them all. Even today, although I'm a little higher on the learning curve, I'm still
developing my skills as a writer. It's an ongoing process and one that I enjoy very much.
I think my initial memories were "Crikey, I hope I don't blow it". It's a thought that still runs through my mind with stunning regularity. I'm
serious - even today when I'm preparing to write a script I'm nearly always struck by the sudden fear of "Oh God - what if I can't think of anything to write!" It was while I was still working at the QFDO, that I contacted Barbara Angell who was the Senior Script Editor on Neighbours at the time. She invited me to make a submission - basically, they sent me the scene breakdowns for an entire episode and I was to pick ten consecutive scenes from that and write the script accordingly. From there I was offered a full script and they've been coming on a regular basis ever since. That was about eleven years ago and they still can't get rid of me. I continued with the QFDO for a few more months before quitting to concentrate full time on my writing career. It was quite bizarre because before I left I'd been seconded to the State Premier's Department as a Speechwriter. This meant that I was writing policy speeches and briefings, (even the odd Parliamentary obituary) putting words into the mouths of senior politicians during the day, then coming home and writing scenes between Harold and Madge at night. It felt quite surreal sometimes.
Had you watched Neighbours prior to working on it?
Yes! Absolutely. When I started contacting production companies, I deliberately chose only those whose programmes I watched. How could you write about characters you don't know about or care for or love or hate?
you take us through the process of writing an episode of Neighbours?
Are you assigned specific episodes to write?
The process, for me, is probably a bit different to that of
the other writers you've interviewed because unlike them,
I've never worked "in-house". I've always lived in Brisbane
and Neighbours is produced in Melbourne, a two-hour
plane journey away. In fact during the eleven odd years I've
been writing for the show I've never been on set, never met
any of the cast, and only visited the production office once.
I've met a few of the other writers, but that was usually
when we've been working on other shows. There are so many
people involved in the scripting process that sometimes I
feel like quite a fraud taking the ultimate writing credit.
The story ideas start with the Script Producers who guide
the storyliners who shape the ideas and format each episode.
Most regular writers are on a three or four week rotation
and are assigned a script accordingly. I get the weekly Scene
Breakdowns in the post and write the episodes based on the
information provided. Then, after I've had my little mini-breakdown
and broken out into a cold sweat for fear of being unable
to think of anything vaguely entertaining to write, I do manage
to complete the script over a four or five day period (and
countless cups of tea and coffee, multiple packets of Tim
Tams and various trips to drop the kids off and pick them
up from school, take them to football practice, swimming lessons,
etc. etc.). I then e-mail my first draft back to the Story
Department where one of the immensely talented script-editors
is given the task of turning my nonsense into a superbly well-written
script. They may edit it for time, or make changes for continuity
purposes, keeping in mind I'm not aware of exactly what's
been written in the script preceding or following mine, or
add a few other touches here and there. Then, I believe it
goes through another editing process during the production
meeting where the producer or director or even the actors
themselves have in-put. Then they send me the cheque!
you have any scenes or moments you wrote that you were particularly
I wrote the entire episode with my legs crossed, heart beating
wildly, pulse racing erratically, feeling every twitch and contraction
along the way. I was exhausted by the time I delivered the finished
script. It's probably one of the most dramatic and certainly
emotionally draining ones I've ever written. Another that springs
to mind, although don't ask me why, is when Julie Martin took
a dive off that water tower. I think that's the only episode
I've written where someone died. I've also had a few 'cringe'
moments. Two that spring to mind - the first was an episode
where Hannah Martin, convinced that her home was haunted, engaged
the services of two "high-tech" exorcists - I think their names
were Duck and Puck or something weird like that - and anyway,
they turned up and made a big show of banishing the spirits
with something that looked like a vacuum cleaner. I honestly
wasn't sure if I was to take it seriously or not. The other
was a scene with Phil Martin. For some reason he was in the
dog house with Julie and had gone outside to the backyard to
contemplate his current status. The scene breakdown called for
Phil to vent his spleen, but as he was the only person in the
scene, the only thing he could talk to were the earthworms in
his beloved compost bin. I wrote the scene as required and was
so glad to see later on that they'd cut it. I hate scenes with
people talking to themselves.
For some reason the scenes/dialogue/episodes I admire the
most are the ones written by other writers. I'm such a poor
judge of my own work. I'll write something I think is so knee-slappin'
funny, only to realise I'm the only one laughing, or I'll
write something that I've really laboured over, that I'm not
entirely happy with and someone will say, "No, that was great!".
But not a week goes by without me watching a scene or an episode
or a particular line of dialogue where I think "Darn, I wish
I'd written that." I'm in awe of some of the writing talent
on Neighbours. Although having said that there was
one particular episode that I wrote recently that I was dead
chuffed about. I'd been reading the weekly scene breakdowns,
grizzling to myself about the fact that I didn't get to write
Dee and Toadie's wedding (although when I got to the end of
the episode I was quite glad I hadn't!), and a few days later
[Script Producer] Luke Devenish rang to ask me if I'd like
to write the Scully baby birth episode. Needless to say I
was thrilled and considered it quite an honour. It was also
possibly long overdue payback for the dedication and loyalty
I'd displayed a few years earlier by actually giving birth
to my own first child during an episode of Neighbours!
The freaky part was my obstetrician was this huge Neighbours
fan and in between all the pushing and panting I had to answer
all these questions like "Do Lou and Cheryl ever get together?
Does Cheryl wear a wig? etc. etc. Okay, I know - too much
have been your favourite characters, both past and present
to write for, and why?
also enjoyed Rick Alessi, the Martins and have fond memories
of Doug and Pam Willis. Brett Stark was a favourite to write
for, he had a wonderful deadpan kind of comedic talent. Of the
current cast members, there wouldn't be a writer working on
the show who doesn't just love Karl and Susan to bits. That
playful chemistry they have between them, they're just a joy
to watch. You always know that whatever you write for them,
they'll take it that one step further and make it better. Lyn
and Joe also provide some fantastic moments. Valda's an absolute
scene stealer, I hope she comes back. I also love writing for
Toadie. It's been great watching him develop as an actor over
the years. Not only is he a gifted comedian, but some of his
dramatic work lately has been truly outstanding. At the moment
I'm really enjoying writing for the new character, Sky. I have
a lot of fun with Connor too.
Gosh, there's been so many. Where to start! Obviously Anne
Haddy was an enormous favourite. I remember being quite distraught
over her death - both on screen and off screen - especially
as I knew how sick she'd been. She was such a great actress.
It was a joy to write her scenes. She'd always add something
special. She had such wonderful charisma. I wrote her a letter
when she left, telling her how much I'd miss her. Believe
it or not, it's the only time I've ever had contact with a
regular cast member. I was quite surprised when she wrote
back. It was so sad, she basically acknowledged that it was
the show that was keeping her alive and of course she passed
on not long after that. I remember getting a note from the
Script Department at the time asking us to keep her dialogue
to a minimum. They basically had to shoot her scenes line
for line and she was unable to move around the set - but you'd
never have known. She was such a professional.
there a particular era of the series you enjoyed most?
Hmmmm. This one? Particularly the last six months. There's
been so much happening. The storylines have been quite multi-layered.
New characters are coming on board and some of the established
characters are being given storylines that have taken them
places they've never been, putting them in situations and
environments totally out of the norm for them. It's very exciting
for all involved. I'm sure the actors are loving it. I've
actually found myself stalking the post man waiting for my
weekly scene breakdowns to arrive - I'm like you. I can't
wait to see what's happening next!
have written various dramatic episodes, such as the stakeout
on Ramsay Street, which ultimately led to Cody's death and
the 1997 season premiere in which Karl saved Mal's life after
the accident at the pub. Are the dramatic episodes harder
or easier than the everyday instalments and why?
I must say, this question had me racing over to my filing
cabinet to search through old scripts.. Your research is very
impressive. And my memory's really bad. I have to confess
I couldn't immediately recall either of those Episodes. But
in answer to the question, in a way the dramatic episodes
are harder to write because you get so absorbed in the story
as you're writing, that you're living the moment along with
the rest of the characters. When I'm writing, I'm not really
sitting at my desk in the suburbs of Brisbane, I'm right there
in Ramsay Street along with the rest of the characters. When
someone dies I have a good blubber and go through the grieving
process, and when someone's getting married I start reading
bridal magazines. You tend to ride the rollercoaster with
them and in that sense it can be a bit emotionally draining
at times. But the storyliners have the wonderful knack of
being able to balance out the heavy drama with the more lighter
moments so it's not always100 percent full on. If I had to
state a preference I'd have to say I probably enjoy writing
the light comedy scenes more. They're more fun, but then again,
the dramatic scenes really give you something to sink your
teeth into - oh heck, I don't know! I guess I'm just happy
to write any episode of Neighbours, so long as it doesn't
have any cricket scenes in it. Strange as it may seem, I know
nothing about cricket and if I get any of those scenes where
they're all out in the cul-de-sac with a bat and a ball I
have to go and start asking everyone stupid questions like
"What's a duck?", and "Is it LBD or LBW?".
wrote the 1996 episode where Clive James appeared in a cameo
role as a postman. Did you know he would be appearing at the
time of writing the script, or was it a last minute adjustment?
Ha! Now that one I do remember. I think it must have always
been planned that Clive James would appear in the episode
because when I got my scene breakdown it said CLIVE JAMES
(ACTUAL). I had no idea before I got the notes that he was
going to be in it and I still have no idea why he actually
was - maybe Rolf Harris wasn't available - but I remember
being pretty chuffed at the time because, let's face it, Clive's
such a spunk. From what I can recall though, I think I wrote
a lot more for his character than what eventually appeared
on the screen, so I'd say some of Clive's best work may have
ended up on the cutting room floor. He didn't do too badly
- although I don't think he'll be hearing the words "And the
Oscar goes to..." any time in the near future. Go Clive!
arrival of Ric Pellizzeri as executive producer at the end
of last year heralded some big changes to the series which
have been largely welcomed by fans. What do you think the
future holds for Neighbours under him?
If the past six months are anything to go by the future holds
very big things. 2004's shaping up to be an amazing year for
Neighbours as far as where the stories and characters
are going. Shortly after being appointed Ric sent all the
writers a Mission Statement outlining how he saw the show
and where he wanted to take it. After reading it I felt very
inspired and excited. His passion and enthusiasm for the show
is infectious and we're already seeing the results. Fresh
new characters, compelling stories with multi-dimensional
themes but by the same token it will still retain the same
elements that make it so unique and well-loved. I feel very
proud and fortunate knowing that I'm part of the team.
of the current set of storylines and characters (for example,
the downfall of Darcy, Toadie and Dee, Lyn and Valda, Jack
and Nina), is there anything you've been particularly enjoying?
The Lyn/Valda storyline has been so powerful with both actresses
giving really moving performances. It's given both the writers
and the performers the chance to strip away a few layers and
get to the core of their characters and really see them in
a way we're not entirely used to. Joan Sydney is such an accomplished
actress it was a waste just having her there for the comedy.
Mind you when she's funny, she's hilarious, I love writing
those typical Valda lines. When Toadie and Dee first got together
I really wasn't buying it, because as Toadie himself has said,
she's this great looking chick and he's just - Toadie. But
the more I saw them on screen together, the more I realised
how wonderfully they play off each other. Their scenes were
always filled with lots of energy and spontaneity. I also
enjoyed writing the Connor/Michelle story- again, they were
great together. Karl and Joe's cooking classes are a scream,
and right now there's some very interesting things happening
in the Hoyland family -my lips are zipped. I can't wait to
see how they pan out.
other projects have you been involved in besides Neighbours?
Apart from Neighbours I seem to have developed a bit of a
niche for myself in Children's Television Drama having written
for internationally acclaimed series such as Ocean Girl,
Thunderstone, Horace and Tina, Cybergirl,
a new series by the same producers called Wicked Science,
a three-d animation series for pre-schoolers called The
Shapies and a couple of others which shall remain nameless.
do you attribute the huge success Neighbours has enjoyed
over the last 18 years to?
I'm not really sure. A unique cast, sympathetic characters
we can relate to and care about, a combination of good solid
storylines, the right balance of drama and gentle humour.
One of the things I personally like about the show is it's
not afraid to be Australian. We get to showcase all that's
good about our culture, the wonderful informality of it all,
the language, the attitudes. Without sounding like a rampant
flag waver, Australians like to think of ourselves as a friendly,
sports loving, fun loving, compassionate, educated, sensitive,
humorous, caring, slightly irreverent bunch of people, and
that's what we see when we watch Neighbours. We see
ourselves. I think the loyalty of its fans also has a lot
to do with why it's still on air. So thanks, for all your
dedication and support. It's a fantastic website. You should
be very proud.
Interview by Moe. Added on 13th September 2003