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The Sydney Morning Herald


Date: 24/02/1992
Words: 1608
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: The Guide
Page: 1
DINNER time has had to change. So has bath time. Sale has to be taped -and so does the news. Channel Seven's popular children's melodrama Home and Away, now grabbing almost half the viewers under 17, has changed timeslots from 6.30 pm to 7 pm.

Chris O'Mara, program director at Seven, is not a bit sorry for the disruption. His view is that Ten's Neighbours, the main soap competition at this time, is sick.

"Neighbours is on the way south and it will eventually disappear."

The ratings make his comments more than just another programmer skiting about his product. Viewers are moving to Summer Bay - and when the end of daylight saving this weekend brings 78,000 extra children in from playing beach volleyball, O'Mara expects they will move in, too.

Summer Bay isn't, of course, like any home town we have ever lived in - too many runaways, hardly any old people, teenagers with an endless supply of money spent at the local caff, kids who never interrupt (and are rarely seen). And, astonishingly, parents who rarely nag about homework, sport or the way their children look.

But Andrew Howie, 41, the producer of Home and Away since the end of 1988, describes his program as "heightened reality".

He says that almost no-one involved with the program's production has children - but that it is probably a good thing.

"Not having children enables you to hold on to your childhood," he says. "There is nothing to cloud your experience."

Howie prides himself on the kind of empathetic characters he and his team have created in Home and Away. He recalls recently telling his brother, father of three, that he had completely forgotten what it was like to be a child.

"I don't have to adopt any role as an authority figure," he says.

But at least one teenage viewer, Tamsin Fraser Crooks, 14, of Epping, says she would like to tell Howie a thing or two about kids: "It tackles some good issues, but it can be a bit overdramatic and overdone."

She thinks only an adult could possibly have created Sophie. "I hate Sophie... she is too perfect. Even when she's out living on the streets, she still looks perfect." It is the character of Finlay, who regularly looked sleepy and grubby when she was a runaway, who strikes a chord with Tamsin. "I really admire her determination," she says.

Soap viewing is accepted in Tamsin's family and she, and her brother, Eammon, 6, watch Home and Away every night.

It's the kind of set-up that John Docker, author and cultural critic, approves of wholeheartedly.

He says that parents who try to dominate their children's television viewing set up an unwinnable battle of wills and culture.

He says that parents set these rules because their generation feels that television isn't proper culture: "It's an unnecessary generational conflict. A lot of Australian drama for children turns out to be extremely boring and moralistic."

Docker applauds the practice of parents watching soaps with their children. It enables them to become familiar with the story lines and to explain the moral, social and psychological issues which almost any soap deals with on a daily basis.

Anyway, he says, children now control the television in a way they didn't before: "You tend to watch what they want to watch."

It's a situation parents can exploit: "It's extremely companionable - you cuddle up on the couch and you get all cosy and warm.

"You get all this interaction with your child because you can discuss all the dilemmas," Docker says.

It is certain now that in its new timeslot, Home and Away is rating its board shorts off. And that's partly because families are watching it together

It's beating long-running and edgeless Neighbours. It isn't expected to beat Sale of the Century, but then those viewers are not the Home and Away target audience.

Who owns those zillions of eyes trained on Seven at seven? Howie says it's mostly young people, with a separate substantial proportion in their 50s and 60s.

On the night of February 4, Home and Away baggsed almost half of all viewers under 17. The others were watching, in order, Neighbours, Test cricket, the ABC news and the Lenny Henry Show.

In the week that ended on February 4, 16.2 per cent of children between 5 and 12 watched Home and Away every single night.

They most probably watched it with their mums because 42.4 per cent of women over 18 also came to Summer Bay every evening.

This was a week when Meg (who has leukaemia and is new to the program) and Blake began their relationship; when it appeared that Alf was being unfaithful to Ailsa; when it seemed that Greg and Bobby's relationship would flounder; when Lucinda tried to broach the topic of sexism with Alf. Sex, death, illness, infidelity, lying, betrayal and gender politics. Not a bad range of topics for teens, but what about the vast number of under-12s watching the show each night?

"We try to be careful in terms of the writing ... we are very aware of the responsibility to our young audience," says Judith John-Story, one of four directors currently working on H & A. As a result, the writing staff is huge -there are two story editors, John Hugginson and Greg Stevens, who write for the show as well as 13 other writers. Every Monday morning they meet, confer, argue, rewrite and deliver. Their aim is to deal with issues as well as an annual calendar of events which help realise Home and Away: Christmas holidays, Red Nose Day, Easter eggs, HSC results.

There are so many thorough checks, Stevens says, that concepts inappropriate to teenagers would never get through, although he can't exactly specify what might qualify as inappropriate. But he does acknowledge that teenagers who drink would get the thumbs down (or be punished), and motherhood gets the big tick. Not all his young viewers agree with his outmoded image of motherhood.

Said one 17-year-old: "Real mums don't spend all their time in the kitchen and the laundry any more."

And they like the kids to have a bit of backbone: "We try to get the kids to be independent," says Stevens.

It's a characteristic particularly noted by their young viewers.

Robbie Austen, 11, of Glebe, envies the characters their independence. "They get more freedom; they are allowed to go out any time they want. If I did that, I'd get abducted or gang bashed."

Robbie is very admiring of the character of Blake, who he says is a good combination of the tough and emotional sides of being a boy: "He's kind of a cross."

Stevens says Home and Away is a morality play: "Good will always triumph over evil."

John Hugginson, with a family of his own, takes a more particular line. He, like Greg, has a small child with whom he does not live, Joshua, 6, whose behaviour often pops up in the character of Sam, Bobby's foster child (as well as Greg's son). Joshua, says his dad, often recognises glimpses from his own life recreated on the screen.

And Joshua's response to H & A gives Hugginson a standard against which to measure the program: "The kids do lock into the characters."

O'Mara, Seven's program director, says every effort is made to locate children's tastes and fashion. These characters are no dags. What your kids wear on the beach are what the Homers wear too. The style is one to which Australian children relate.

It is a facet of Home and Away that's appreciated by its audience. Pippa Williams, 10, of Forest Lodge, says: "I like it because it's Australian and not American."

But her mother, Rosemary, says her daughter's passion for the program has disrupted family viewing patterns: "We are missing out on current affairs ... and at dinner time they eat a mouthful and go back to Home and Away."

Part of Home and Away's allure is the extent to which it relies on young people as its actors - aside from Alf, Ailsa, Pippa, Michael and Fisher, the cast is almost entirely under 30.

Because of their age, the actors are still learning. They have that kind of pleasant awkwardness with which children identify - and they aren't stars.

Richard Norton, 21, who plays the chivalrous Simon, did a year in Ramsay Street before moving up the coast, but worked in department stores before that.

Les Hill, who recently had a nude cameo in the feature film Flirting, plays Blake whose poster has obliterated the memory of Craig McLachlan in many bedrooms across Australia. He came from Prairiewood High - his mother is a clerk and his father is a truck driver.

Tina Thomsen, 16 last November, who plays runaway turned conch Finlay, came from almost nowhere to play at Summer Bay. Tina, who shares the characteristic of great determination with her character, relocated her family from Brisbane to Sydney when she was cast in the role of Finlay.

She says her mother, a home-maker, and father, a boilermaker, are not pushy. "It's me who did the pushing ... my parents just supported me."

Home and Away screens on Seven, weekdays at 7 pm.

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