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Interviews > 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 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.

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.

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?

Can 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!

Do you have any scenes or moments you wrote that you were particularly pleased with?
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 information...

Anyway, 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.

What have been your favourite characters, both past and present to write for, and why?
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.

I 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.

Is 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!

You 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?".

You 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!

The 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.

Out 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.

What 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.

What 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