> Shane Porteous
Award-winning scriptwriter Shane Porteous has been part of the Neighbours writing team (under the name John Hanlon) since 1995, penning some of the series' best-loved episodes, and also appeared in the series as Patrick Kratz in 1995. Here, he chats to us about his long involvement with Neighbours...
How did you first come to work on Neighbours as a writer?
My good mate Bill Searle (now sadly no longer with us) was script producer on A Country Practice when I wrote my first television script. After ACP finished Bill moved to Neighbours as script producer and invited me to submit a script for it - and I haven't stopped since.
Were you a fan of the series before joining the crew?
To be honest, the working hours on ACP were so long and I lived so far from the studio (100 kilometres) that I hardly saw any television that was shown before about 8 o'clock at night. However I knew and had worked with some of the actors on Neighbours and admired their work. These days I rarely miss an episode to air.
As well as writing scripts, you also appeared in Neighbours as Patrick Kratz in 1995. How did you land that role? What was the show like to work on at that time?
Again, through my good friend Bill. It was only six weeks but I had a great time, working again with former colleagues like Alan Fletcher, Jackie Woodburne, Tom Oliver, Terry Donovan. I also got to know at first hand the main sets and locations such as Ramsay Street, plus actors, directors, crew and writing team. This helped enormously in writing for the show.
You’ve appeared in dozens of Australian dramas over the years, including Homicide, Number 96 and A Country Practice – how did acting on Neighbours compare?
Very similar in many ways. On ACP we produced 2 hours of television a week, Neighbours makes 2 and a half hours, so it was even more rushed. One hour per week shows such as Homicide and Blue Heelers are a luxury by comparison.
Would you have liked to write for Patrick too? What would have been your dream storyline for him?
Oddly enough, I don't like writing for characters I've played or am playing at the time. An actor's approach is very subjective, personal, getting 'into the moment'; a writer's role is to be more objective and take a longer view of the character's arc. And somehow the words you've written some three months ago feel a bit stale when you have to relive them. Ideal role for Patrick? Well, he was supposed to be a bit of a womaniser so I guess more of that, being surrounded by lots of beautiful women. Well, we all have our fantasies...
Who have been your favourite Neighbours characters to write for over the years?
Where do I start? All the Kennedys (including the Kinski kids and Grandpa Tom), Harold, Toadie, wicked Paul, the Timminses, Lyn Scully - where do I stop?!
You’ve been responsible for numerous popular episodes – including the AWGIE-winning episode in which Madge Bishop died - do you have any scenes or moments you wrote that you were particularly pleased with?
Madge's deathbed scene I found very challenging - and fulfilling. My other AWGIE award winning ep was the aftermath of the disappearance/death of Dee as she and Toadie drove away following their wedding. Esp. the scene where Toadie reads the note Dee had left for him, expressing how much she loved him. All sounds a bit maudlin, doesn't it? There've also been lots of funny scenes involving Toadie and the House of Trouser escapades that I've really enjoyed. I also quite like writing sporting scenes - footy, cricket etc.
How does a typical writing assignment on Neighbours work for you?
I write an episode every four weeks on average, sometimes less, sometimes more. Every week, whether I'm writing or not, I read the released storylines to keep abreast of the plot. The storylines for the five episodes of a particular week (or 'block') are usually released on Thursday by email and the completed episode must be delivered at 10 AM on the Thursday a fortnight later.
I spend the first day reading all five episodes closely. Then I print out my episode and read it more critically, making notes, queries, suggestions, changes, alternative ideas etc. I also look back at specific scenes in past blocks to remind myself exactly how the characters in my ep have been interacting recently. If there are points I need to clarify, I ring the office and talk to the script editor for my block and/or other members of the story team. I usually start writing on the Monday or Tuesday or sometimes (e.g. if I'm going to be pressed for time with other commitments) on the weekend. The first six or eight scenes take the longest (up to the first commercial break). I'm trying to establish the plot and characters clearly and constantly refer to past episodes to make sure continuity and emotional tone are right and follow on naturally from the previous episode.
My working day starts about 9.30 and finishes about 5.30. Occasionally I'll put in an hour or so after dinner at night if I feel I'm falling behind. I don't set particular goals in the early stages. I usually read over the work of the previous day or days and correct any glaringly bad pieces of writing before I start on any new scenes. I constantly redraft as I go. I like to finish my first draft early on the second Monday. I do a second complete redraft, then time the script with a stop-watch in hand, speaking all the lines and correcting as I go. My early drafts invariably end up too long and then I have the tough job of paring it down to the correct length to deliver to the poor script editor. Once that's done I have to do the housekeeping: type up the 'cover' pages, i.e. the character list recording which scenes every character appears in; the scenes list showing the time of day (e.g. AFTERNOON 2, NIGHT 2, MORNING 3 etc.), how long each scene runs, and where the three commercial breaks fall; the synopsis that gives a brief description of the episode's story; and notes on any characters who appear for the first time in my ep. Early on the second Thursday morning I again re-read the script, making little tweaks and polishes - and email the lot off to the office in Melbourne.
Wow. Too much information?
What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the Neighbours format?
Obviously a show which has lasted over 20 years must have many strengths going for it. The sense of family and community is vitally important. More than ever in this scary world we like to feel we're not alone and that our family, friends and neighbours will be there for us in a crisis. Authenticity, stories that are not too hysterical or far-fetched. The comedy - not necessarily fall-about-wetting-ourselves farce, though we've had our share of those too, but the light, amusing, self-deprecating thread that is always there even in the darkest stories. Gentle moments, seeing issues from different perspectives. And most stories have a happy ending - except strangely enough the AWGIE-winning ones! They nearly always involve a death! The daily serial format is also a strong factor, I believe. It gives a feeling of on-going security, especially for younger viewers.
Drawbacks? The speed we have to make the show! It would be nice for all of us to have more time to plot, and write, and rehearse, and record. But hey, if we had that luxury we wouldn't have a daily serial. And sometimes it would be great to go into serious issues in more depth than our time-slot allows us to do. We have to constantly censor ourselves and euphemise because we know we can't upset our young viewers.
What do you most enjoy about your involvement with Neighbours?
The openness and feedback from the office - it all contributes to a sense of ownership of the show which freelance writers don't always get on other shows.
You’ve been a Neighbours writer since 1995 – how do you believe the show has (or hasn’t) changed during that time?
Technically and visually it is constantly improving, especially with digital technology. There have been periods when the producers have called for different approaches, e.g, more comedy, less comedy, harder edge, softer touch etc. which have kept the show alive and dynamic. And the community spirit of the residents of Ramsay Street lives on regardless.
With Neighbours now in its 24th year, do you have any thoughts on why the show has lasted so long?
I wish I knew so I could reproduce it and become immensely wealthy. But see any of the above opinions...
What's next for Shane Porteous?
More of the same - hopefully.
by Steve. Added on 8th November 2008