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Interviews > Linda Stainton

Linda Stainton’s name will be familiar to many Neighbours viewers. She worked as one of four storyliners on the programme in the late 1990s, and is now one of a series of writers who regularly contribute scripts for the show. Linda kindly took some time out to share with us her memories of working ‘in-house’ at Grundy’s and how she goes about writing current episodes of Neighbours.

Can you tell us how about your early career and how you became involved in script writing?
Following a BA in Visual Arts and English, I started as an actor, training with the Sydney Corporeal Mime and then, from 1981 - 1982, at Penrith's Q Theatre - a unique, hands-on training course attached to the professional Q Theatre company. After completing my formal education, it wasn't long before I returned to my childhood habit of writing and performing plays with whatever friends I could rope in. In 1986 I became part of the ‘On Cue’ pub theatre in Windsor, NSW, a co-operative of fellow Q graduates that devised and performed pub theatre in repertory - until it folded after flooding for the second time in its three-year existence. Not content, nor terribly successful, with waiting for roles to turn up, I co-wrote, produced and performed a number of original cabarets, pub shows and community shows around Sydney, even venturing to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival with The Bottom Line in 1995. Some of these gigs were Theatre-in-Education shows, involving extensive tours around the back blocks of north-west NSW. Although my tax-returns showed the majority of my income as coming from acting, I guess writing and devising was always part and parcel of the whole shebang.

How did you become a writer and story team member on Neighbours?
It was Julie Mullins who suggested I send in a writing submission to Neighbours. Julie had gone through the Q Theatre Acting Course with me, and had by that time had finished her two-year stint as Julie Martin in the show. I at first dismissed the idea as being "not my kind of thing." But figuring that it paid better than the telephone sales day job I was currently languishing in, I gave it a go, writing submissions to both Neighbours and Home & Away. I found writing ‘kitchen sink drama’ was right up my ally. Home and Away gave me my first gig, and I wrote for them freelance for three years before becoming a script editor on Breakers.

In 1998, I was in Melbourne to accept an AWGIE (Australian Writers’ Guild Award) for Home & Away, which emboldened me enough to approach Judith Colquhoun, then the Script Executive, about writing for Neighbours. I felt at home as soon as I walked into the script department, and was sure I would be working there soon. Judith and the then script editor, Louise Le Nay, gave me an hour of their precious time and kindly promised to put me on the writers' waiting list, but some months after that a spot came up in the storyline team and I was offered that.

Can you recall any memorable moments from your time 'in house'?
I've never laughed so much as I did at those story meetings. At that time they were led by Ben Michael as Story Editor, and my story team-mates were the experienced ‘in-housers’ Piet Collins, John Davies and Noel Maloney. I was the new kid on the block and was horrified and delighted by the wicked things these boys put the poor Neighbours characters through - but strictly in the sanctuary of the story room! In fact, all the writing staff took the show very seriously - they wouldn't have held the job if they didn't - and by the end of the day, miraculously, the real stories were deftly plotted. The pressure of plotting five episodes a week, involving up to eighteen major characters, exceeds anything I'd come across. Perhaps writing five episodes of pure comedy would be harder? Laughter was a natural way to let off steam and maintain sanity.

One image I have is of Ben Michael riding his BMX bike round the cramped office. Ben's own enthusiasm for the extreme sport of BMX riding gave rise to Tad and Paul's craze, I am sure. Or was it the other way around? Occasionally another stir-crazy member of staff would pinch Ben's bike and do a few laps of the office, but they weren't always as nifty at manoeuvring the bike as Ben, to the annoyance of the staff trying who were genuinely trying to work.

At the time I was in-house, Friday arvo drinks at the office were a strict tradition, and one that I enthusiastically upheld. I do miss the contact with other writers as a freelancer now.

What did your role as storyliner entail?
Meetings, writing, meetings, writing, drinking... I mean more meetings.... Episodes are plotted about six months before they go to air in Australia - that's how long it takes for the writing, script editing, shooting and post-production process to be completed. So, for each week in the office, we'd plot a week's worth of episodes six months in advance.

This is how it worked when I was there in 1999, and I'm guessing it works pretty much the same now: Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were when the week's episodes were plotted. We'd start with three of the four storyliners plus the script editor in the story room and, if it hadn't already been done, begin by planning the week's action. Then we'd start plotting in detail, episode-by-episode, scene-by-scene. As the week went by, the storyliners would peel off one by one and begin typing the plotted episodes into Scene Breakdowns - a detailed summary, in prose, of what will happen in every scene. This is the document, once overseen and approved by the Script Executive, that the freelance writers have at their elbow when writing their scripts. By Thursday afternoon or Friday, providing the plotting had hit no major snags, the Story Editor would work with one or two of the storyliners in consultation with the script executive on planning, refining and interweaving the major plot strands for the next few weeks and devising and signposting the story points for the upcoming months.

Meanwhile each week, in rotation, one of the storyliners was kept free to generate major story-lines. It was that person's job to devise story arcs, large and small, for the main characters and pitch them to the Script Executive, who would decide whether any given idea was worth developing or not. Not as easy a job as it sounds - on average, I'd say one in nine stories I pitched ever saw the light of day. And as you can imagine, the longer the show goes, the harder it becomes to come up with stories that haven't already been done! Big story events, like weddings or deaths or major impacting arcs are usually the decision of the producer.

Are there any developments you oversaw, or were involved in, that you are especially proud or fond of?
I was quite proud of the story about Toadie's English girlfriend, whose name now escapes me - I will have to check your website - who was secretly using Toadie to get Australian residency so she could be close to the real love of her life. The story basically followed the arc I'd written except that somehow in development, her character became much more arch and neurotic than I'd intended. I actually had sympathy for her character, driven as she was by an obsessive but doomed love-affair, rather than by a malignant desire to hurt Toadie. But guest characters, of necessity, do often end up functioning primarily as foils to our heroes.

What has been your favourite episode and/or storyline to write for?
I'm a real girl in this respect. Stories to do with love, romance, break-ups are what I get most involved in, and these are too numerous, of course, to name! I also get quite fired up by stories that touch on bigger issues - and there are many of these, disguised, in Neighbours - such as Darcy's attempt to sell the surgery to a big medical conglomerate. Darcy was generally fun to write for, I suppose because his foibles made for good stories, and because, despite his pronounced bad points, he is driven by a need to love and be loved.

I like writing for Max Hoyland and his kids because their situation is very real, and the actors carry it off beautifully. There is a big catharsis coming up for Susan and Karl; that too, has been a good one to get one's teeth into.....

Can you talk us through a typical commission to write a script for Neighbours. How does one go about producing a finished script?
These days it's done by email, so, if you have a portable computer, theoretically you can write and send them from anywhere in the world! Writers are commissioned script by script, which keeps us on our toes - there are no long-term contracts. Because of the high volume of episodes, they are written in rotation, so that I will write a Monday's episode for example, while another writer writes that Tuesday's, another Wednesday's and so on. Each writer has about twelve days from receiving a detailed scene break-down, plotted by the storyline team, to the deadline. I've known some freak writers to be able to write one or even two serial scripts in a week but, to maintain quality, the usual rotation for writers on Neighbours is one script every three to six weeks. I don't know how many writers there are on the Neighbours writing list, but I figure it must be around twenty - but don't quote me on that!

To keep up with continuity, it's necessary for each writer to read the scene breakdowns or synopses for every episode between his or her own scripts. These are sent out on a weekly basis.

What elements of writing an episode prove hardest? How does one go about ensuring the text on paper will translate well on screen?
I personally find the first scene the hardest to crack for some reason. After that, things start to flow. My writing is both helped and hindered by my own acting experience. It helps me understand the strengths and weaknesses of individual actors on the show, and generally of what's ‘sayable’ and ‘doable’, what's dramatic and what's not. There’s still no guarantee of writing perfect dialogue, but it helps! On the other hand, coming from a theatre background, I often have to pare back, or resist the urge to over-write and over-explain. While British TV's great strength is that it stems directly from a rich theatre tradition, the writers understand that the mediums are different, and have adapted accordingly - that's what the challenge is for me.

The hardest thing to write is exposition. I admire the actor Alan Fletcher, who plays Dr. Karl Kennedy, for his amazing ability to deliver medical diagnoses in a natural, unforced, even caring way. It makes your job easier when you know experienced actors like he, and many others, in the show can convincingly deliver whatever you throw at them.

Making the teenagers sound real is also a challenge. In real life the average Aussie male teenager tends to be pretty monosyllabic when talking to adults. It's tempting, for authenticity, to use the latest teen slang when they're talking among themselves - but you know it will be passé after even six months. That's where writers like John Davies shine, in my view.

Apart from writing for Neighbours, what else are involved in?
Following my stint as a storyliner with Neighbours I moved to Penrith, NSW, where I had trained at the Q Theatre, and in 2000 helped to establish The Acting Factory Inc: an association for actors and other interested people whose main objective is to produce high quality, affordable theatre, locally and where-ever! Since its foundation I've been the secretary as well as being involved in the shows. Check out the website if you wish - better still, a plug would be most appreciated!

What's next for Linda Stainton?
Gulp!!! Next year The Acting Factory plans, among other things, to perform Shakepeare by the River - the Nepean, that is - which we hope will become an annual event in Penrith.

I'm also writing a short film for the Penrith Valley Economic Development Corporation. Or I would be, if I wasn't happily procrastinating by doing this interview!

And lots more Neighbours scripts, I hope!

Is that it, then?

Right. Back to the script.

Maybe I should have another browse at this Neighbours website first......

Interview by Rhys. Added on 1st November 2003