Home and Away
'Home and Away' went to air in 1988, but we shot the two hour pilot at the end of 1987, and for those lovers of trivia, guess who said the opening words? It was actually my husband, Bruce Venables (although he wasn't my husband then) and he was playing a cop who apprehends a runaway kid in a culvert on a rainy night. And what were those first words? 'Stop you little devil!' He catches the boy and then says, 'You've done it this time Frankie. What's your mum gonna say?'
Cut to runaway kid, now grown up and played by Alex Papps. Frank is the first child to have been fostered by Tom and Pippa, played by Roger Oakley and Vanessa Downing, who have moved out of the city to the halcyon coastal town of Summer Bay. Other kids swiftly follow, and there you have it, the birth of the hugely successful series called 'Home and Away'.
My character, Ailsa (trivia question - what was Ailsa's maiden name? Answer, Hogan) runs the corner shop and is being courted by one of the long time locals, Alf Stewart (Ray Meagher) who has a sister, Celia (Fiona Spence) who talks a lot. Ailsa has also caught the eye of the school's headmaster, Donald Fisher (Norman Coburn) who at one stage makes a very tasteful play for her. (Anyone remember that?) Ailsa befriends the local tearaway kid, Bobby (Nicole Dickson) who is soon gathered into the loving foster home of Tom and Pippa who have by now collected several other needy children in the form of Sally (Kate Ritchie) Carly (Sharon Hodgeson) Lynn (Helena Bozich) and Steven (Adam Willit)
From a writer's point of view, 'Home and Away' was a very simple, and very clever, concept. The situation of fostering stopped the show bogging down, there were new kids with new problems who came with new storylines which could be taken anywhere. The stalemate of a 'nuclear family' situation where relationships can become static was avoided from the outset. Hats off to the creators, Bevan Lee and Alan Bateman.
Ailsa's Secret Past
The writers handed me the first of many surprises very early on in the show. I'd been playing Ailsa as the nice, no-nonsense, strong woman the script purported her to be when six months down the track it was discovered by all (including me) that Ailsa had a secret past. It turned out she'd killed her father and had gone to jail for manslaughter. Apparently Dad was a drunk who'd been attacking Mum with a bottle so eighteen year old Ailsa had stabbed him to death. I might have played her differently if I'd known her history, but then perhaps not. Instant metamorphosis is a required talent for any soap actor. I was also surprised to later discover that Ailsa had a brother (Danny Roberts) who was a psycho and a sister (Paula Duncan) who had a daughter (Dannii Minogue).
It amused me several years into the show when the foster kids were throwing a surprise wedding anniversary for Tom and Pippa and, wanting to give it a sixties theme, came to Ailsa for advice. She recounted to them her fond memories of the sixties, of 'flower power' and 'make love, not war' and the Beatles' trip to Australia. 'Ah those were the days,' she said. I had to remind the writers that Ailsa's recall of those times would not have been pleasant - she was in prison when the Beatles came to Australia. The speech was handed over to someone else, I forget who.
Ailsa's Long-Lost Child
Ailsa, like many a good soapie trouper, proceeded to run the gamut of emotions and experience every possible hell on earth. She suffered post-natal depression and considered killing her baby, she discovered her now adult long-lost child who was the result of a rape whilst in prison, she was held hostage at gunpoint and knifepoint, bound, gagged, bashed, drowned and brought back to life. She was in a coma, had her life support disconnected, miraculously come back to life, subsequently sunk into madness and eventually recovered. Finally she died, but even that didn't stop her, she came back as a demented figment of her husband Alf's imagination.
Returning as a fantasy figure seen only by Alf was a bizarre storyline, but one Ray Meagher and I very much enjoyed, although the two of us occasionally had trouble keeping a straight face. The fact that most of our scenes were with Norman Coburn (Fisher) and Cornelia Frances (Morag) didn't help. The four of us are great mates, Norman is an inveterate giggler, and during rehearsal we quite often lost it. (Being the pro's we are of course we kept it together when the cameras were rolling.)
It's a tribute to Ray that we had so much fun taping these sequences because his work load was enormous. But then Ray and I always had a great time working together. When you play husband and wife for 13 years, a marriage of sorts really does evolve.
Speaking of 'mates' I'm often asked who were my favourites on 'Home and Away'. This is an impossible question to answer of course. There has been such a wealth of delightful and talented young people who have worked on the show, many with whom I forged close bonds and whose careers I follow with avid interest, that I would feel unfair singling out just a few. It's safer sticking to 'we oldies' mentioned above, also including Fiona Spence (another giggler) who played Celia. There is, however, one young actor I feel safe in mentioning. She qualifies along with the oldies on the grounds of pure longevity. I speak of course of Kate Ritchie who has recently left ‘Home and Away’ after 20 years..
Kate is worthy of mention for far more than her longevity with the show. In my personal opinion (and I'm sure it's shared by many) Kate is, and always has been, the most talented and professional cast member of all, and that includes the eight year old she was when the show first started. Even at such a tender age, her natural instinctive talent was prodigious. I have also seen Kate as a very young teenager, ill to the point of exhaustion with the flu, soldier on regardless when many would call it quits. On top of all that she's a lovely young woman, unspoiled, intelligent and damn good fun. So there you go Kate, what a wrap!
The Test of Time
Discussion of any soap which has withstood the test of time (as 'Home and Away' certainly has) is incomplete without a delve into the storylines, because it's the storylines which keep the audiences watching. Clever storyliners are worth their weight in gold, and there have been many throughout the years of 'H and A'.
For starters, and on a serious note, I thought it was a real coup when the writers paired off the ditzy blonde bombshell, Marilyn, with the stuffy, aging headmaster Donald Fisher. They obviously recognised the extraordinary talents of Emily Symons (okay, I'm breaking the rule - Emily is another favourite of mine both on and off screen) and Norman Coburn. It was a bold move and in the hands of lesser actors might not have worked.
On a more frivolous note, I have a couple of personal favourites which were utterly outrageous, but certainly kept viewers glued to their screens. One involves me.
Bobby comes out of the Fridge
What about Bobby coming out of the fridge? It went like this:
Young Bobby, for whom Ailsa had strong maternal feelings, has been dead for quite some time. Now Ailsa is undergoing a nervous breakdown (for a strong, sane woman, Ailsa ended up having quite a few mental problems). She's staring at the refrigerator and suddenly the door starts to shimmer and the image of Bobby appears. Then Bobby steps out and conversation ensues.
Very la-la land
Very la-la land. It was beaut, however, to be working with Nicole Dickson again. (Yes, she's a gorgeous girl, and now a married woman with children).
My favourite of them all was a storyline with which I was not remotely connected. It was the shark-ate-Rory scenario.
A Great White shark comes to Summer Bay and devours a character called Rory. The hunt for the killer is on. Matt Stevenson walks into Ray Meagher's bait shop to buy a packet of prawns. Prawns? For a Great White shark??? (I think it was pointed out, either to the writers or to Matt's character, I can't remember which, that several gallons of pig's blood and a few sheep heads might be preferable bait, but nothing was done to correct this minor error.) The gallant boy paddles out into the depths of Pittwater on his surfboard with a fishing line to catch the beast, brave Tom in the form of Roger Oakley waiting on the beach and eventually hauling him into safety.
Shots of the hunt for the shark were interspersed with real footage shot by Ron and Valerie Taylor (their film of Great Whites was used in the Hollywood movie 'Jaws').
It must be pointed out that Pittwater at low tide is a vast expanse of mudflats. To wander out into it even at high tide you have to walk for a very long time before you're waist deep. The interspersed shots of a Great White charging up through fathoms of water was honestly hilarious.
A professional shark hunter was eventually called into Summer Bay and things were somehow resolved, although I don't think Rory's actual killer was ever captured.
That is, without doubt, my favourite storyline.
Summer Bay - Keeping Abreast of the Times
'Home and Away' has reinvented itself many times over the years. When Roger Oakley and Vanessa Downing opted to leave the series, Tom met a tragic death and Pippa, the matriarch of Summer Bay turned into Debra Lawrance. Pippa was soon partnered with a new love interest played by Dennis Coard who was to become Debra's real life husband.
Both have since left the show, and the face of Summer Bay has undergone many changes, its regular makeovers keeping it abreast with the changing times and garnering new fans from new generations.
Here’s to ‘Home and Away’. Long may the show provide entertainment to its loyal viewers, employment to its many actors and creators, and the perfect training ground to its many young performers starting out in the world of television drama..