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Interviews > Ric Pellizzeri

Riccardo Pellizzeri is a relative newcomer to Neighbours, having taken over the role of executive producer, following the resignation of Stanley Walsh in November 2002. Ric's name will be familiar to long-term fans of the show, however, as he directed a number of episodes in the 1980s. Here, he talks exclusively about his new position in charge of the Neighbours phenomenon...

Can you tell us a little about how you started in the industry? Was it always your intention to work in television production and direction?
I initially wanted to be a theatre director. I started directing in university theatre and then directed both as an amateur and professional in Sydney before going overseas. I was 28 years old and had just returned from the UK. I had been living in England and had worked at the Bristol Old Vic, the London Old Vic and in the West End as a stage manager. After returning to Sydney I ended up working as a staging assistant at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I just happened to be, as the cliché states "in the right place at the right time'. So in just two years I became a television drama director and since then have directed over 100 hours and produced over 300 hours of drama.

How does the role of an executive producer differ from that of producer?
The producer is the individual who has the responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the production. They work exclusively on the one show. The executive producer has a far broader responsibility.
In my case I am responsible for Neighbours as well as other drama projects. Also the executive producer is more hands-off. This should allow you to have a broader overview of what is happening in the production. Sometimes when you are immersed in a production it is difficult to think more expansively because you are focused on just getting finished the things that need to be done. A good EP should be able to look at a production more expansively and rather than worry about the daily routine of the show ask questions that no one else has the time or energy to ask. Questions such as: Are we making the 'right' show? Are we telling the best stories? Is this the best way to do things or are there other ways and should we try them? Is this the right person for the job? Is there something we are missing? Are we spending our money on the right things?

Having worked on other Australian dramas, also successful in the UK, how does Neighbours compare? Is there a standard to maintain - perhaps even to beat - when comparing it with other similar shows? What is its mission statement and place in the television market?
Every drama has its own fingerprint. You try to explore and exploit a show's originality and distinctiveness. I don't see it as a comparative exercise. There are many things that Neighbours does in its own individual way. The characters it deals with, the focus of its drama and humour, the suburban world in which the stories are told. After 17 years there is a very well defined Neighbours world, you have many years of precedent to draw on and you have to take note of the past to create the future.
I am lucky to have a group of people working on Neighbours that between them know the history of the show intimately. As all the Neighbours fans would know, it is a very complex world connecting hundreds of characters. I rely on and trust the story team's knowledge because they are also fans and want to protect the show as much as anyone else. I have discovered that the enthusiasm and dedication of the Neighbours writing team and writers would be the envy of many other shows. You try to make the best show you can. I had an acting teacher once who used to say that you can score a symphony with three notes - they just better be three bloody good notes! To continue the music metaphor, we might not have the resources of a symphony orchestra, but we try to play the best notes possible. Like all drama our philosophy is very simple. Robert McKee puts it very succinctly - 'Good stories well told'.

Neighbours has been a very successful show and has generated a family of soaps all around the world. FremantleMedia makes serial drama in Germany, Italy, the UK, Poland, Hungary, Romania and so on and they all owe their genesis to Neighbours and other Grundy productions such as Prisoner and Sons and Daughters. In television history it is an important production because the success it had in Australia paved the way for all these other European dramas. My 'mission statement' for Neighbours was circulated to the story team and the writers at the beginning of this year - 2003. It looked at the Neighbours philosophy - for want of a better term: family, intergenerational conflict, relationships, level of truth, ethics and morality, aspirational qualities, personal and public issues, humour, culture and language. We also did an analysis of story structure and all our characters. This is the blueprint of the show, a little like the schematic plans of a car and its engine - the engineers and the designers need to have one, but all the public needs to see is a beautiful vehicle that does everything it promises. So what we want to continue to create is a good show that gives pleasure, satisfaction and touches our audience.

MDA is another accomplished drama attached to your name. How difficult was the transition from that to Neighbours? Is it feasible we may see some of the more dramatic elements of MDA being implemented in Neighbours? The exit of Dee Bliss has been reported as being the most dramatic yet. Was this a deliberate "moving up a gear"?
MDA was and is a very different show. One of its central tenets is ambivalence. It is a very issue driven show that was created exclusively for an adult audience. Neighbours is a very different drama. In Australia it has a G rating and that very much shapes the story content. Using the musical analogy, it plays different notes; it doesn't mean that those notes are any less valid or important. It is the same with television programs. They are all different and appeal to different people. I have deliberately tried to up the stakes on Neighbours and you will be seeing the results of this during the winter of 2003. This was done for a variety of reasons that are too long-winded to go into and we have to keep some secrets. You need to up the ante every now and then and see how it works and a number of opportunities with cast changes presented themselves to be able to do this. The story team have enthusiastically embraced this and they are creating some wonderful material. Dee's exit gave us an opportunity that comes along in particularly rare circumstances, so we took advantage of it. It is very moving television and the work done by particular members of the cast is extraordinary.

What do you make of the statement by former script producer, Barbara Angell, that "The weakness of Neighbours now lies in its failure to appeal to a wide enough audience. It aims too narrowly at the teeny bopper market. If it would widen its horizons, a much broader range of stories could once again be tackled"?
I don't disagree with Barbara Angell's observation. I did a little research into the history of the show and I am trying to reinforce certain elements that have possibly not been centre stage for a while. I think that inter-generational stories are a very important part of Neighbours storytelling. We have broadened the range of stories this year and with the introduction of new characters and a new family you will see the results of this towards the latter part of 2003 and the beginning of 2004.
I have made this statement before but it is worth repeating. I am trying to enrich what is there, not reinvent it or change it, but build on the very solid foundations the show has laid down over the years. Neighbours has had different foci over the years but the premise has remained the same - the lives and loves of a group of families living in a cul-de-sac in middle-class Australia. I believe that all aspects of the lives of these families need to be explored. The reach of the stories will be broader.

You joined Neighbours at a time of comparative great upheaval - with the departure of Maggie Millar (Rosie Hoyland) during one of your first few days on the show - as well as the recent shock departures of Mark Raffety (Darcy Tyler), Madeleine West (Dee Bliss) and Michelle Ang (Lori Lee). How difficult was it to cope with these changes so early on?
At any stage Neighbours has about 17 to 24 main cast members. You fall in love with certain characters and over the years build close friendships with them so it is sad when they move on. But change is inevitable and new characters move in to take the place of the ones that have gone. The exit of certain characters gives the story team the opportunity to create stories they previously couldn't deal with by bringing in new characters that can be the protagonists for these stories. Neighbours has always had this factor in its make-up. Characters have come and gone and will continue to do so for the unforeseeable future of the show.
I don't see it as something that creates instability. Like in real life, the changes should create interest and excitement and take you to places that are fresh and thrilling. It is an opportunity to explore new things and perhaps view the old from a new and different perspective.

Do you foresee an occasion where the character of Rosie Hoyland may return, bearing in mind the phenomenal response to her axing? How influential do you think fans are in swaying decision-making in a programme like Neighbours? The audience is always important and you have to listen to the fans. But the responsibility of making the program rests with us, it is our job and we live or die by the decisions we make. You keep all your options open, but at this stage Neighbours has been launched in a certain direction and we need to see how that goes before we make any other changes.

You were quoted as saying that one of the biggest elements of Neighbours you wanted to change was in terms of how developed and individual the characters were. Do you feel that strategy is easy enough to adopt with an already established cast? How do you go about making such changes to the characters?
We have done a thorough review of all the characters in the show and this has influenced the characters we are bringing in and developing. We looked for the 'gaps' and have created a number of characters to fill those gaps.
Characters on Neighbours tend to be quickly humanized and their major flaws become quickly rectified or minimized. We have gone back to the origin of some of our established characters and re-introduced and reinforced those early flaws. Human beings don't change that easily and neither should fictional characters. There is a danger that everyone is too 'faultless' so we are making sure that we can exploit the characters' flaws as well as their strengths. We needed to create antagonistic characters in a Neighbours context and we have done this with our new characters. They will create new and enduring conflicts and this is the very substance of drama. It will enhance our storytelling.

It has recently been announced that the character of Sky Bishop is returning to Ramsay Street after more than ten years off screen. Similarly, the Rebecchi family has also been back for guest appearances. What lies behind the decision to bring Neighbours' past back to the forefront? Can we expect more "returnees" sometime soon? What does Neighbours' past mean to you?
Sky has been introduced to bring more conflict into Harold's life. There are other elements we are introducing to turn Harold's life upside-down. Sky is a good example of the characters we are initiating to shake up some of the already established characters. The re-introduction of the Rebecchi family was appropriate to the storylines we were doing, so when we asked if they were interested in returning for a short stint, they luckily said yes. Like I said, you cannot ignore the past and the show has always tried to keep its links with that past. It isn't always possible to bring people back. Some of them move on.

Are there any major changes planned in terms of the show's character and nature? What would you most like to see happen to Neighbours during your time on the show?
Like they say in the classics "You'll just have to stay tuned." We are certainly enjoying what we are making at the moment, I can only hope and trust it will be the same for our audience.

Interview by Rhys. Added on 10th May 2003