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Interviews > Ben Michael

Ben Michael has worked on Neighbours in several capacities since the nineties, but currently shares the position of script producer with Luke Devenish. Here, he shares his thoughts on the past, present and future of the series...

Can you tell us a bit about your career prior to joining Neighbours?
I grew up on the Mornington Peninsular; booze and ACDC and footy and surf and parties on country properties and pinching your parents' cars and basically having a pretty wild and fun youth. A large part of this fun was with Martin McKenna...now a writer and script editor with the show. While I was undoubtedly a bogan of the highest order, I was eventually seduced by underground music and that became my big passion. Marty, my brother and myself would leave school on a Thursday and get the train to Melbourne (one and half hours away) then hang out in St.Kilda seeing bands... back then pubs didn't care how old you were as long as you bought drinks! Bonus! And then we'd catch the train back to school the next day! I was also nuts about films. Staying up late with my dad and watching things like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider had a huge impact on me. I left home at the end of high school and went to film school. Film school was great fun. You basically got to watch heaps of movies and make a few yourself. And you even got a B.A at the end of it. Rent was cheap and the good times rolled.

How did you come to work on Neighbours?
I graduated in the middle of a recession. No jobs, but got a gig as a runner on Neighbours. I thought I'd do it for a year tops and move on, but it got under my skin. Applied for a job as a storyliner, got it and slowly worked my way up.

How did the transition from scriptwriter to script producer come about?
Quite naturally. The show takes over your life and as you do each new job you learn more and more about the craft of story telling.

Are there any characters you’ve been personally responsible for bringing to our screens?
That's so hard to say. It really is a group effort. But... early on, The Kennedys were a big new family we introduced. Working out their characters was a blast. Little bits of detail, like Karl was named after Karl Marx because his dad was an old school communist... and in retaliation, Karl named his boys after liberal (conservative) politicians and Libby after the Queen! I was also very keen on the character of Sky. Her off beat view on the world and tatste in the less commercial things in life was something I could relate to. But it really is a case of sitting around and working out what the show needs and how the new characters will have a point of difference with the rest of the street. The Timminses have been great fun to invent.

Which characters from the last 20 years would you have in your ideal cast?
The Kennedys. Harold. Mrs Mangel. Joe Mangel. Annalise. Cody. Gaby. Paul Robinson. The Timminses. Toadie. Stonie. The Hoylands...oh what the hell I can't separate them... most of them have been great... and I don't like to dwell on the ones that didn't work out.

What are your favourite, and least favourite, plots from your time on the show?
My faves are the stories that get you in the gut and heart. The Kennedy's seperation. Izzy's lies. Karl and Sarah. Steph's cancer. Lyn and Valda. Bobby Hoyland. Least fave is hard... as on paper, at least, you thought every story looked pretty good. Sometimes you do make mistakes. No doubt about it. Sometimes it's the fault of the plotting and writing, sometimes it's other factors. The key is to learn from those mistakes.

How important is the comedy element of the show to you? How do you come up with the more light-hearted stories and is it difficult to balance them with the drama?
Very, very important. It's our point of difference with other soaps. It's also lots of fun to be silly. Karl stealing the gnomes, anyone??

How far in advance are stories plotted out? How difficult is it to rewrite when actors suddenly decide to leave or become unexpectedly ill?
We plot six months in advance. But the basic story arcs for our big stories are often loosely worked out long before. We knew that Paul would have an affair with Izzy, but fall in love with Lil from almost the moment we brought Paul back. We also knew a lot of the twists and turns in the Izzy and Karl story... we just picked the right (I hope) moments to play out all those twists. We usually know when an actor is leaving and thus have time to write them out. Disasters do happen. Like Delta and her health scare and that is a trying time.

What’s it been like working on the show this year, with all of the anniversary preparations and celebrations?
Hectic, but fun. We are all super proud of the fact we made it to twenty. And bringing back old faves has been a blast.

Can you reveal anything about attending the recent anniversary party?
Lets see. Drink... see people you haven't seen in ages... drink... catch up... be silly... oh, is it six am already. It was a fun night.

The recently-arrived Timmins family seem to be provoking extreme reactions from viewers. Are the fans’ views taken into account when creating plots and characters?
Yes and no. We all check out the websites, but they are only part of our viewers. When we do audience testing (paying compnay's to market reasearch the show), the loves and hates are often completely different to the websites. So, perhaps it'll seeem like the whole website is against a certain move or character but in the wider world they're all for it. So, we listen to everything, but at the end of the day you have to back your own story judgment.

How important are the past characters to the future of the series?
We know that people like to see old faves and will always have fun with them. But... new characters are also vital. The show must always be moving foward.

The evil activities of Paul Robinson have provided much of the drama for 2005 – how did you go about ensuring that the character could still be a realistic part of the community, even once his dirty deeds are revealed?
We have taken great pains to make Paul a part of the street. He's come back a different man than the one that left the show, but the old Paul will come to the surface as time goes on.

The news that Mark Little is returning to the cast has been extremely well-received by fans. What will the character of Joe bring to the show in 2005?
We've been watching him for a few months now... and he's a bloody genius. He brings so much energy and anarchic fun to the scenes he's in. We couldn't be happier with how it's turning out.

What do you think accounts for the massive success Neighbours has enjoyed over the last 20 years?
Good writing. No, seriously, I'm proud of the fact we've kept it going and interesting. A generally great cast. And I think it's the balance of moving stories, high stakes drama and suburban sillness that is its own special blend. Austrlaia is a suburban country, don't believe the travel brochures... most of us don't live on farms or outback (not that I don't love that side of my country) and most of us don't live in the city. We have a huge urban sprawl... as big as L.A in most capitals, but with way less population... most of us can relate to a house in the burbs. It's certainly where I grew up. And representing that with affection and fun is also part of the show's appeal.

Do you see the series lasting for another 20 years?
I bloody hope so!

Interview by Steve. Added on 18th June 2005