> Pete McTighe
Neighbours writer Pete McTighe has worked his way up to the rotating roles of Supervising Script Editor and Script Editor after several years with the show. Here he reveals that he's been watching for a lot longer, what he thought about Nicola's poisoned lasagne and hints at what's around the corner...
How did you first get into the television industry?
TV’s always been in my blood. I’m obsessed with it. Watch hours of it. I’m always looking for a new favourite program. Ever since I was a kid, all I’d wanted to do was make TV. Writing and acting was what I’d steeped myself in from quite a young age, so it was kind of inevitable that I’d end up making a career out of it.
I’d done quite a bit of acting on various things (strangely, Neighbours was about the only Melbourne based drama that I didn’t do a guest stint on!), but as far as writing goes, I’d always written and directed my own short films and eventually wrote a feature. I then studied film & TV at the Victorian College Of The Arts here in Melbourne, and soon after I wrote a pilot for a drama series. This pilot was then picked up by a production company and got some funding through one of the Australian Film Industry funding bodies. Through that pilot I started meeting people and here I am, three years later.
You've been working on Neighbours now since 2006. How did you first come to work on the series, and were you a fan of the show before joining?
I met the Supervising Script Editor for the show, who invited me onto Neighbours for a short storylining stint. And I’m still here. I worked hard and was lucky enough to progress through the department relatively quickly – which was great, as it gave me a handle on just about every job in the script department. It’s been an amazing few years – especially to have been here while the show went through a major transitional phase, and to be onboard in what I consider to be one of the golden eras of the show – I honestly reckon the stuff we’re producing now is the best we’ve ever done. Just you wait til July 20! (Australian TX)
As far as being a fan of the show, yes I was. I watched the very first season avidly which aired here on Channel 7, and was gutted when they axed it. Then it came back. Hooray! And it was even better! Hooray! I kept watching for years, probably until the mid nineties when my interests drifted elsewhere (EastEnders and Corrie usually!) but I’d always rekindle my Neighbours affair every few years. I started watching it properly again in about 2004 after a 2 year break.
What does your current role, of script editor, entail?
My role on the show rotates in six-week stints. I’m Supervising Script Editor for six weeks, then Script Editor for another six. The two jobs are slightly different.
As Script Editor, we receive five first draft scripts from writers. We then look at these scripts, and consider what changes need to be made. What’s not working from a story perspective? What gives us more dramatic tension or drive? Are the character voices ringing true? Are all the commercial breaks strong enough to bring viewers back? Are the cliffhangers dramatic? Is there story progression in every scene? ….The list goes on. So we take those first drafts away and we work on them to make each episode and then the entire block work as best they can. Because of the relentless deadlines of the show, we turn around these second drafts in-house, rather than give them back to the writer.
These second drafts are then submitted to the Supervising Script Editor, who performs a final polish on all the scripts to bring them up to standard. The SSE is also the direct contact for the Production team, who for whatever reason may need small or drastic script amendments on a day-to-day basis. If an actor is taken ill, scenes may have to be radically reworked to remove a key character or replace them with another. The SSE also has a good handle of the continuity over the six blocks, which helps head off most continuity problems before the material gets to studio.
2008 saw some big dramas in Ramsay Street, with the death of Chris Knight, the bushfire, Nicola's reign of terror and Bridget's teen pregnancy. Which were your highlights from last year, and which stories did you feel could have been done better?
The teen pregnancy was my highlight. From a personal point of view, I script edited the ‘reveal’ block, and reworked a lot of that material to get it to work as dramatically as possible. Those girls did an absolutely sterling job in those episodes, and they’ll always be among my favourites. I have to say I really enjoyed Imogen Bailey as Nicola. Once she settled into the role she really made it her own – and ate up those storylines with relish. The bushfire was extremely challenging from a production perspective, but I think the results were worth it. I also enjoyed introducing Donna Freedman. I was Story Editor when we plotted her entrance, and right from the get-go I really clicked with that character. She’s amazing to write for and Margot just delivers every time. As far as stories which could work better, we’re always slightly hampered by our timeslot in Australia – there’s a lot of restrictions placed on us. That’s why the Nicola poisoning story didn’t work as well as it could’ve (it was very different originally, but had to be watered down), but we live and learn.
Who are your favourite characters in the current cast line-up, and do you think that there are any ‘character types’ currently missing?
Ooohh that’s a tough question. I think we’ve done a great job in putting together a really solid set of characters, and they’re all working at the moment. We’ve been very careful to keep repopulating the street with families rather than individuals. One recurring problem we have is when individual characters enter who don’t have strong ties to a family already on the street. They’re effectively a story-island and are hard to plot for. This show has always been about family, and we’re really focussing back on that core ideal. I think we are missing a couple of key character types right now, but moves are afoot to plug the gaps.
2008 saw the word ‘HIV’ used on screen for the first time in over a decade – is it difficult to include contemporary issues in the show, when the timeslot has such strict guidelines?
It’s a NIGHTMARE. Hello, poisoned lasagne. But we soldier on. Actually, we have Controversy-Central coming up on air in 2009. It’s a huge story, and is likely to stir up quite a bit of debate.
Donna has proved to be a very popular character amongst the fans. Was her popularity the reason why her family were brought in, or was this always the intention? Were you happy with the way the Freedmans came to life on screen?
I’m glad she’s popular, cos I love her to death. The key to her success I think was (apart from casting a brilliant actress) making her such a strong, clear character from the outset. She had a huge journey, from outsider-stalker to hub of the teen friendship group, and all the storyliners and writers managed to navigate that journey beautifully. Very soon after her introduction we decided to pitch her as a ‘Robinson’, to cement her to the street. She worked really well off Elle, and seemed a really good, if unusual, fit in that house. The story of Donna’s family isn’t over yet. Her Mum, Cass, makes a huge impact on her life and kick-starts a big story for Donna which will run through 2009.
Ian Smith recently made his final appearance as Harold Bishop. Was it difficult to lose such a long-standing actor and character from the series?
Absolutely. But at the end of the day, Ramsay Street is the heart of the show. The show can never revolve around just one character or family.
How did it feel to be responsible for the scripting of his final episode? Were you pleased with the way it turned out, and will we be seeing more of Harold's 'Ramsay Street - A History' book further down the line?
I was extremely proud of that script. And thrilled to be given the opportunity to make a bit of Neighbours history. Unfortunately, the actual filming of his goodbye scenes ended up being a little rushed for various reasons… but the nature of the show means you’ve got to keep moving. You will definitely be seeing that book again, it’s been featured quite a lot in the blocks we’ve been filming recently.
Lou is now the longest-running character in Neighbours' history. Do you feel that Harold’s departure has limited what can be done with Lou?
No, Lou Carpenter is a legend, and there’ll always be a place for him on the show.
Many fans have asked for a new, older female character in the regular cast, something not seen since the departure of Rosie Hoyland six years ago. Are there any plans to bring in some new, older characters to replicate the huge popularity of Harold, Madge, Helen and others?
Yes. I agree that older characters are important for the balance of the programme. Watch this space. You’ll see an old favourite return to the street in the second half of 2009. Who I’ve missed like mad!
Neighbours has been criticised in the press over the last 12 months for its lack of non-white characters. This is slowly being addressed with more extras and guest characters of different ethnic origins, and the arrival of Korean Sunny Lee as a regular character in April. Has it been difficult integrating non-white characters into a street full of white characters, in a show where most newcomers are related to an existing Ramsay Street resident? Will we be seeing more diversity as 2009 continues?
It’s been easy integrating Sunny into the show. She’s a character in her own right, and isn’t defined by her background. Exactly as it should be. And the diversity of the show is something we continue to work on.
The upcoming departure of the Parkers has been well-publicised. What was behind the decision to write out the entire family? Has it been difficult to lose Eloise Mignon, one half of arguably the most popular teen couple in many years, Didge and Dec?
I am sad that the Parkers are leaving, but refreshing the cast every few years is a staple part of the show. Actors decide they want to try something else, characters run out of steam, there’s all sorts of reasons why this happens, but it’s a regular occurrence. And it keeps the show fresh. When the Parkers drive off into the sunset it will be with the knowledge that they contributed a huge amount to the show over the past few years. And I for one will be sorry to see them go. But before they do exit, they get some great stories thrown at them. Bridget and Declan are a fantastic couple and having to split them up was never something we looked forward to. But we’re very happy with how the end of their story plays out, and we hope the fans will be too.
Longterm fans have been delighted with the news that the Ramsay name will be returning to the street in May. What was behind the decision to introduce the Ramsay siblings, and is it possible that some past Ramsay or Robinson characters will be following them to Erinsborough?
As I hinted at before, we’re really taking the show back to its roots and concentrating on families. The Ramsay name is synonymous with the show, and when we were discussing our new family, from very early on we decided to tie them to the street in a very practical way. We’ve seen 3 or 4 blocks with the Ramsays now, and they’re fantastic. And I’m not just saying that. As for more Ramsay/Robinsons… it’s too early to say. We need to give these characters time to settle in…
With the Parkers departing, the cast is going to be the smallest it's been in several years. Has it always been the plan to reduce the size of the cast over the past couple of years, or are there plans to introduce a new family, or other regular characters, later in 2009?
Servicing a large cast with decent stories is always difficult, so we are striving to keep the cast size lower than it has been. However, you will be meeting some more new characters at the end of 2009 and into 2010.
October will mark 15 years since the Kennedys moved into Ramsay Street. How important are Susan, Karl and Libby to the show in 2009? Will we be seeing any special events - and possibly the return of Billy and Mal, the remaining Kennedy kids - to mark the occasion?
They’re very important, obviously. We love that family. And they have a kick-arse story this year to prove it! But no, I don’t think you’ll be getting a family reunion while Billy is doing big things in America.
October will also see Steph celebrating ten years living on Ramsay Street, while a few months later, Toadie hits his 15th year. What can we expect for these two long-running characters in the coming months - is a reunion on the cards?
They’re both central characters, and both have their fair share of big story material in 2009. As for a reunion, in my heart of hearts I reckon in 20 years time, whether it’s on-screen or off-screen, they’ll end up together. But it’s a long and winding road to get there. Right now they’re best mates – and that’s a dynamic that’s working very well for them. Think Will and Grace. Except Toadie’s not gay.
Next year is the 25th anniversary. Have you started planning for the big event yet? Can we expect anything to rival 2005's 20th anniversary celebrations?
I can tell you one thing with certainty. There will be a big cake.
Apart from that, it’s too early to say. But an anniversary like that is hardly likely to slip by without notice! :)
Finally, what do you think accounts for the enduring success Neighbours has enjoyed over the past 24 years?
It’s an optimistic, warm and entertaining show with engaging characters and involving stories. What’s not to love?
One final word – for anyone who really LOVES Neighbours, I encourage you to try and remain spoiler-free for 2009. There are lots of big surprises in store, and they’ll be so much more rewarding if you don’t know they’re coming. Trust me. Stay strong.
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Interview by Steve. Added on 11th April 2009