Home and Away on location.

Amusement always ripples through an audience at awards nights when episode 5000 or 6000-and-something is mentioned. It seems unimaginable that this many episodes of a show could have been made. In the cutthroat world of prime time television shouldn’t resilience be celebrated? Yet two of Australia’s most resilient programs, Neighbours and Home and Away, are often regarded with jocular disrespect in industry and public circles for little reason other than that they are serials or, using the disparaging term, soaps.

Even former Home and Away cast member Melissa George – who has gone on establish a strong US TV career – created headlines in November after threatening to walk off an Australian breakfast show if the hosts mentioned her character Angel. The criticism seems particularly undeserved with Home and Away continuing to win plaudits for more than just its longevity: on production values relative to the shooting schedule, as an export (it is sold to 109 countries by Endemol) and in terms of popularity. It also still survives in a primetime spot on a main commercial channel, unlike Neighbours.

Home and Away has evolved over time and continues to stand up next to its contemporaries,” says Julie McGauran, Seven’s head of drama and executive producer of the in-house show. “Seven has a long history of producing drama in-house and Home and Away is one of them. “It’s about storytelling and finding the balance within the story. The production standards, staying visually contemporary and the music are a big part of the resilience and success. I defy anyone to look at Home and Away and not see the production values on screen.”

While emphasizing it’s a team effort, series producer Lucy Addario credits her predecessor, former Home and Away actor Cameron Welsh, with masterminding many improvements. During his tenure, which ended in late-2011, the sets were revamped and made four rather than three-walled, cameras were added, editing time increased and the habit of switching while in the studio was dumped.

“With all the US shows that are available and audiences now having access to more, and downloading, we had to make the show better.”

Cinematographers were also introduced and lighting and colour grading improved, to make Summer Bay’s best sunny days brilliant. The arrival of the cinematographers also gave the directors more time to focus on performance.

“I have never been connected to any show that has striven so hard to re-define itself, particularly over the last five years,” says Geoffrey Nottage, who has been directing Home and Away since 2004, give or take several breaks, and is one of seven directors on board in 2012. Directors get five weeks (including eight days of recording time) to create a block of five episodes, which a viewer would typically see over one week.

“Location visits and pre-production spread over one-and-a-half weeks, then it’s a three to four-day location shoot, a day’s rehearsal that usually lasts about six hours, studio recording from Monday to Friday the next week, followed by three days of editing and a producer’s viewing on a Friday. If in rotation I will begin the following Monday reading the next block, followed by a script meeting on Wednesday, and so it goes,” Nottage says.

He must get 15 to 17 minutes of screen time each studio day. There is nearly always pickups to be done on the 46 blocks made each year. Sometimes the process is held up because a director is unavailable.

Home and Away has continuously pushed the envelope on ideas usually associated with bigger shows with bigger budgets,” he says. “This has often been seen in stunt sequences, location outings such as the Flinders Ranges shoot, etc. Sometimes, the writer’s concept of a sequence, or sequences, goes past a point where their desire simply does not fit the demands of scheduling.

But it just becomes a matter of a discussion, and it gets fixed. That’s what happens on a show like this. It’s an amalgam of ideas and needs. The challenge is to make the ordinary or every-day scene work well. It’s the same challenge for the actors, too.”

Some might expect Nottage to say that directing Home and Away is pure drudgery given the cracking pace but he considers himself to be lucky to work on the show, he says, and continues to enjoy the experience.

“It’s like running a marathon. It’s about distance and stamina, and not a 100-metre dash. Sometimes the schedules for each scene seem like a mad rush, but it’s the overall energy and drive that’s important.”

For the record, Addario mentions that she wishes she could get scripts to the directors earlier. Speaking of the whole crew she says: “I honestly don’t
know how they do it week in and week out. Given the volume that we shoot and the pace, what they get in the can every day is incredible.”

Her own job doesn’t sound easy. While working simultaneously with five directors she also has to keep an eye on the colour grading, the music, the sound mix, tech checks and so on, making sure each episode comes in between 21.15 and 21.30 minutes. If it’s 21.32 (seriously), two seconds has to be cut.

“An episode is never sitting on a shelf somewhere. There is always something being done to it … It is a machine and if one part stops or an actor gets sick … .” She trails off as if she is much more comfortable talking about what should happen, not the horror of what shouldn’t but could. The gap between plotting an episode and it being seen by the fans is usually six months. Generally, cameras roll 18 weeks before the on-air date.

“I love [in-house] screenings when you see all the hard work come together,” says Addario. “And when the bosses say ‘Great work. Well done.’ They can never be 100 per cent [perfect], I am told, but that’s what I aim for.”

She sounds hugely enthusiastic about Home and Away and only when pressed will she say what she doesn’t like about the gig: “Sometimes I wish I could stop for a minute and get everything done because you can never get on top of everything. It all happens so fast … there’s no time to breathe … and you’re also trying to think what’s next for the show and to work with the script producer planning big events up ahead.”

One such big event, a kidnapping involving the very popular River Boys – who are as much beefcake as Braxton brothers – was recently filmed in South Australia’s Flinders Rangers, and delivered a very different look to the usual Palm Beach location in Sydney’s north. Addario lets slip that some of her friends tuned in because of her incessant talking about her trip to the outback – and gave it the thumbs up.

Clearly she was chuffed. Last year also saw cast and crew head to Melbourne and the previous year to Hawaii. (Questions were asked about episode budgets and earnings from sales and advertising but none were answered).

But the physical process doesn’t explain the show’s longevity. Seven Network sister company Pacific Magazines has just published a consumer magazine celebrating 25 years of Home and Away and various reasons were given by Seven executives within the pages.

“Any drama works if people can identify with the characters and what they’re going through,” said one. “Keeping it contemporary and relatable” said another. “Weaving social issues into the drama and basing it in truth,” said a third.

Now in her 30s, Addario remembers watching the first episode. She believes the strength of the story and the storytelling has kept it on screen: “Every scene has to drive the story and not leave us treading water.”

Coming up with stories involves two days of plotting by supervising script producer Louise Bowes, and usually also an associate producer and one or two storyliners. Most episodes contain three storylines. Once briefed, a writer provides a scene breakdown the following week.

Four weeks after receiving feedback, they deliver the first draft, including dialogue. Then the script editors get two weeks to work their magic. Addario makes much of achieving tonal balance: romance, drama, comedy, tears. “Love, relationships, family and community spirit: those themes have not changed but we have moved with the times,” she says.

There’s also the need to satisfy all age groups. Because there was only one school-age child in 2011, a process of re-population started this year and will continue in 2013. Expect storylines about bullying and social media, more focus on the school as an arena for action in addition to the surf club and the diner, and the arrival of foster kids, which were prevalent when the show premiered in January 1988.

Alan Bateman, then head of drama at Seven, thought of the scenario behind Home and Away. He was struck by the potential for small screen conflict as a result of hearing some locals in the small community of Kangaroo Valley, south of Sydney, voice their concerns over the upcoming arrival of a foster home for city kids. (That said, it is John Holmes and Bevan Lee, both still at Seven, who drove the show’s hands-on creation.)

Drama needs conflict and public complaints flare sometimes because of the issues tackled or violence shown. “First and foremost we are here to make entertainment,” says McGauran when asked for a network comment on how risk of offence is balanced against boldness of storyline, and whether viewers really can identify with people smuggling, stabbings and shootings.

“The drama is heightened but the underlying truth of a situation might not be. The balance is front of mind but the show is not afraid of pushing a boundary or starting a dialogue. We do go out trying to tell stories that are topical. If you pick up any Australian or international newspaper, on any given day, half of those stories you would never believe to be true.”

Addario says having children of her own has made her more conscious of issues around classification and the importance of always showing consequence.

“People watch the show to see themselves but they also want escape,” Addario says. “We do push the boundaries but no-one wants to upset the viewers or make them feel uncomfortable.”

Engaging with Nottage on the topic of drama versus melodrama again winds back to the quality of the writing, but also to the important work of the actors: “The actors have a really strong radar system when it comes to melodrama. Their talents are pretty formidable, and their concern for their characters is as good as any show I’ve ever worked on.”

The cast also has an invaluable role driving the social media and online interest via live chats and the filming of behind-the-scenes content. Recently thousands of fans responded to an invitation to make actor Steve Peacocke (Darryl Braxton) birthday cards.

Some have suggested that Home and Away has taken over from Neighbours, now on digital channel Eleven, as a launching pad for actors (think Heath Ledger, Naomi Watts, Julian McMahon, Simon Baker, and, more recently, Chris Hemsworth and Ryan Kwanten). According to Addario, Holmes recently heard that actors with Home and Away experience automatically got auditions in LA.

Even Melissa George, after a few days thought and a public backlash, retreated from her criticism, noting that she was always happy for people to refer to her early work on Home and Away. It’s likely she won’t be the last Australian actor whose international career begins on the much-loved soap. 

This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #150 (December 2012 – January 2013). Home and Away returns to Seven on January 21.

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