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Interviews > Dave Worthington

In 1992, a host of new names joined the Neighbours production team, and one of those names was veteran writer Dave Worthington. Having previously scripted for the series in the 1980s, Dave returned to Ramsay Street as co-producer and oversaw a period on the show which saw various changes to format, style and content. He spoke to us about his Neighbours experience and explained the reasons for the changes he made...

Can you give us a background on your career before Neighbours?
I started writing for theatre restaurant in Brisbane in the mid 70s, then moved to Melbourne in 1979 to work on Prisoner - Cell Block H. Four years later, I went to Sydney to work in drama development for a couple of years, then went freelance. It was then that I started writing for Neighbours.

Your first involvement with Neighbours was as a scriptwriter in the 1980s at the height of the show's success. What are your memories of that time?
In those days, the Neighbours script department was in Grundy's Sydney office, while the show was of course made in Melbourne. This was unusual, but had come about because prior to selling Neighbours, Grundy's had had a show based in Sydney which had been axed (I think it was the cop show called Waterloo Station). They had a script team with nothing to do, so they moved them on to working on Neighbours. As a freelancer, you were pretty well detached from the show, and my vague memories were simply of going into the office and collecting the storylines, then delivering my script a week or so later. My only contacts were the script editors - at that time Rick Maier and Ysabelle Dean.

You became more centrally involved with the series in 1992 when you became the co-producer - how did that job come about?
I'd been employed by Grundy's then Head of Drama Ian Bradley to work in drama development, when a bit of a crisis occurred. Ratings had been slipping and the Network executives were panicking and demanding changes be made! It was a fairly routine occurrence - still is! So I was brought in to effect a few changes - and probably didn't make any friends along the way, but that's show biz!

What did your job entail?
Basically, I oversaw the running of the script department and had overall responsibility for the scripts. However, although I was involved in the general story planning for the week, and had to make some general changes to story direction and "feel", I wasn't involved in the detailed plotting of episodes and didn't interfere too much with the scripting process. I was based in Sydney and the delightful Margaret Slarke was the hands-on producer who handled the day-to-day running of the show in Melbourne. Although I had co-producer credit, she remained at the helm.

Were there any areas you wanted to change about the show when you joined?
Any serial - especially one being made at five episodes per week for a number of years - inevitably goes through less-than-fresh periods, and the people involved in creating it need a break to rejuvenate the brain cells. My first recommendation was to change the script department, as they had all been on the show for a number of years and needed time out. Luckily at the time, Grundy's was expanding world-wide, and a lot of opportunities were opening up overseas, so we were able to relocate people. As we were changing most of the script department anyway, it seemed to make sense to get Melbourne writers and relocate the whole department closer to production. At the time, we were getting an enormous amount of script amendments to process each week, and I figured a closer liaison between the script department and production would be beneficial. In one of the interviews I read on your site, someone mentioned a "dark period" of storylines, which is probably the one I was responsible for! It was generally felt at the time that the serial had got so sugary sweet, that it had lost its "reality", so we deliberately beefed up the storylines a bit; turned things on their heads; shook things up to get people talking about the show and hopefully watching again. I should point out that it was in Australia that the ratings were slipping - I don't think the popularity was too adversely affected in UK at the time, (but maybe it was after some of the stronger storylines went through ...! It was a slow process: towards the end of my run on the show we had lifted the ratings a couple of points, but not enough for the Network. And the irony was, by now, the Network head of drama had changed and the edict was that they wanted Neighbours to go back to the way it was! This was good for Grundy's, as they were getting complaints from the BBC that the storylines were far too bleak, so everything had to settle down again. By that stage the script department was firmly established in Melbourne, and I'd gone back to Drama Development.

What characters did you most enjoy creating storylines for, and why?

One of the first stories I suggested was for Doug and Pam Willis - Doug's "Fatal Attraction" affair with Jill Weir. This was an example of what I mean by turning things on their head. Doug and Pam were Ramsay Street's stable, reliable, old married couple and most of their stories revolved around them being the foils for the teenagers; Brad and Beth and Gaby. There was a lot of opposition to this story at the time, with most of the old guard claiming the characters "wouldn't do this ..." My point was and still is, that in real life people will do anything with the correct motivation, and I think we told the story well enough that the audience understood and empathised with both Pam and Doug - even if they didn't approve. We ended up with them in a stronger position as characters, because the flaw in their marital utopia made them more real.


Do you have any favourite storylines from your time with the show?
One which springs to mind concerned Phoebe's boyfriend Stephen Gottlieb, played by Lochie Daddo. Again, it was a case of making a super-nice character a little more real by giving him some flaw; in this case a head injury which caused a radical change in his personality. I was mortified when I bumped into Lochie at the studio one day and he told me that the storyline closely paralleled a situation in his own family. I had no idea we had created a story so close to his real life situation, and apologised profusely for the mistake, but Lochie was marvellous about it, claiming he'd drawn on his own experiences to play the part. A basic premise of method acting! I think Lochie did a terrific job - his performance and his character became far more believable after that.

During your time on the show, a number of long standing characters departed, including Jim, Todd, Madge and Dorothy. How did you cope with these prolific departures, and do you think their exits effected the show?
When I first started in television, Carol Burns (who played Frankie Doyle) was about to leave Prisoner, and everyone was convinced the show's popularity would wane, but production went on for another eight years or so, and it's unbelievably still popular today! On any long-running show, there's always apprehension when major characters leave. Are the ratings going to drop? Is this person the one reason people tune in to watch every night? The answer is invariably No. It wasn't my decision to write out any of the characters you mention; Todd's death in fact had already been shot before I joined the show - (and what an incredibly powerful scene it was, too! But some characters needed to be culled because there were two many "unattached" characters in the show - they didn't have any direct relationships and the family situations they were in were tenuous and contrived at least. We needed to introduce a new nuclear family to the Street and unfortunately the cast budget didn't stretch. I don't think their exits affected the show at all - people kept watching to see who their replacements would be, and what their stories were.

Do you recall anything about the Lim family, who were introduced during your time on the show in an attempt to tackle the issue of racism in Erinsborough?
I remember we brought the Asian family in mainly because it was something that hadn't been done before. There's a lot of covert racism in Australian suburbia, and it seemed a valid story to do.

What did you most enjoy about working on Neighbours?
The people. The crew I came into contact with were a wonderful bunch of people, and in an industry as insecure as this, it's good to see them regularly employed for so long. I get very annoyed when I hear criticism of soap opera. The rigours of producing five half-hours a week - particularly in Melbourne's inclement climate -takes its toll, but every week, those guys churn out the equivalent of one and a half movies. The wonder is that it gets made at all.

What have you worked on since leaving Neighbours?
After Neighbours, I stayed on at Grundy's in drama development for a couple of years until they were bought out by Pearsons. Drama development was moved off-shore and as I didn't particularly want to leave Australia to work overseas, I decided to go freelance again. I've worked as scriptwriter and editor on Home and Away and Blue Heelers and done development work on children 's animation projects.

Do you ever watch the show now? If so, what do you think of it?
No, I don't watch now. I prefer gritty police dramas these days! But it's refreshing to read Ric Pellizzeri's thoughts on the show. I've known Ric for years - from working on A Country Practice and Blue Heelers - and clearly he has a vision for the show which will rejuvenate it for the next eighteen years!

What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of the Neighbours format?
The strength of any show is its characters, and it's to the credit of the actors involved that they can bring the characters to life so well that following their day-to-day lives becomes addictive to audiences. Obviously the stories (read scripts) play a large part, but in the sausage-machine of production, it's impossible to churn out award-winning drama five nights a week for forty-something weeks a year. Inevitably there will be a proportion of stories that are not as riveting as others, and the serial relies on the familiarity of the characters to hold the audience.

What do you think has made Neighbours so successful?
The fans. Particularly in England. It always amazes - and gratifies - me that people in the UK give such continuing support to TV shows and their stars. Here in Australia there is great hysteria from fans while stars are on air, but once they leave the show - or the show is dropped - then it seems they're quickly forgotten. Keep it up you Pommie guys!!

Interview by Moe. Added on 13th August 2003