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The Age

Where soap springs eternal

Date: 28/02/2003
Words: 411
          Publication: The Age
Section: The Culture
Page: 8
Television preview: Home And Away

When Alf ``Flamin' Heck" Stewart leaves Home And Away, I do hope they offer him a better send-off than they're giving droopy-eyed school principal Donald Fisher tonight. After such lengthy service to the cliffhangers of soap opera, a character deserves at least the dignity of a spectacular exit.

For Alf it might be as the mad poisoner of Summer Bay, or as a hero trying to fend off a spectacular al-Qaeda attack on the diner, or simply getting shot by a jealous surprise lover.

Don certainly merited more than this teary-eyed, Goodbye-Mr-Chips dismissal. Old ``Flathead", never happy at the cheeriest of times, has reason to look sad and sorry in his farewell episode of Home And Away (7pm, Seven). It is sloppy, sentimental, touching . . . showing almost unspeakable verisimilitude to real life. There is a last dollop of poetry for his final class of kids, an endless minor-key tinkling of the piano as Fisher's groper-wide mouth gulps at the thought of leaving his beloved waters, and then, with students, staff and locals, the big, emotional, surprise farewell party before he tootles off to Queensland, Valhalla of all Australian soapie greats.

The only one missing from the celebrations is the show's latest villain, blonde, good-looking and treacherous teacher Angie, responsible for accusations of assault against school pupil Nick. Poor old Nick is on the run.

I suppose there is a last, lachrymatory lesson in all this. An opportunity perhaps for tissues commercials? And actor Norman Coburn, wrapping up 15 years with sorry dignity instead of the opportunity to wield a machinegun or drive a semitrailer through the school hall, does cope with it rather well.

As well as a speedy flicker of flashback shots showing the growing of wisdom in the schoolmaster, there are guest appearances from June Reynolds (Rowena Wallace), Sophie Simpson (Rebekah Elmaloglou) and other Summer Bay veterans. Even a scary shot of new principal Sally Fletcher (Kate Ritchie) when she first arrived as a pupil at the school.

There are tributes from grandson Seb and other kids, a from-the-heart speech by Alf, and then the camera slips gently across tomorrow's Logie wannabes to the door.

But it is a curiously quiet departure. Interesting that in Britain last week, the producers of supersoap Coronation Street were celebrating a 19.4 million audience for another big exit, the showdown of Gail and serial-killer husband Richard Hillman. Two million more viewers tuned in. Now that's a send-off.

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