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The Sydney Morning Herald


Date: 04/01/1988
Words: 1195
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: The Guide
Page: 1
DOWN by the banks of the Parramatta River at Rydalmere a group of five writers has turned its back on what is a rather restful view, tucked into fish and chips from its favourite shop in Victoria Road, and begun contemplating episode 68 of the television serial, Home and Away.

It's a serious business, and means developing a mind's-eye view of the coastal resort of Summer Bay and a caravan park that could be almost anywhere in four States, but, in reality, is often situated at Bilgola or Palm Beach -depending on the light. Both are handy locations for film crews to reach from the Channel 7 studios at Epping.

There's a tricky moment ahead - a minor cliff-hanger involving young love and the attempted seduction of Alex Papps - who plays the good-looking young hero, Frank - by another character who keeps pleading her virginity, but who we already know is pregnant.

It's the sort of stuff which produces garish headlines in TV Week. After popular appearances in The Factory and The Henderson Kids, Papps's fan mail has followed him to Channel 7, even though his fans have no idea of the strength or nature of his role.

The writing team is taking the seduction scene seriously. It's to be written by the series' script editor, Bevan Lee, who is working from a broad storyline.

Lee works his way rapidly through the 19 scenes comprising episode 68. When he's finished, he will have written 20 minutes of dialogue. Then Greg Millen and Christine McCour will take over the detailed writing of other episodes, in what will be Week 13 for Home and Away. It will coincide with the period around Anzac Day - an occasion that will be written into the story.

Millen and McCour are working with assistant Anthony Ellis. Lee has so far recruited 20 writers for Home and Away, rotating them on the basis of two weeks on and one week off to avoid the treadmill effect, which he believes quickly leads to staleness.

Every now and then the five take a breather by conjuring up vulgar variations on the seduction scene - suggestions which would be quite unsuitable for "six o'clock parlance" - the carefully-modified language required by an early evening audience divided between teenagers and the over-40s.

When it appears on our screens in two weeks' time (a two-hour pilot on Sunday, January 17, with 30-minute episodes starting the next evening,Home and Away is certain to become one of the most important programs of 1988 - running in the 6pm time-slot on Channel 7 and leading into a half-hour news at 6.30pm

This was the schedule envisaged by Seven when it ordered Neighbours from the Grundy Organisation. But the decision to go with a one-hour news ended those plans. The Seven version of Neighbours was forced forward to 5.30pm - a time-slot in which it could never succeed.

It took a change in network ownership before Seven finally abandoned the concept of one-hour news. For two years it took a battering in the ratings between 6 and 7pm, and is now gambling that young audiences will enjoy the choice of drama at 6pm, and still watch the news at 6.30pm.

That gamble has been carefully researched. If it fails, a lot of Seven's hopes for 1988 will die with it.

The idea for Home and Away came from Alan Bateman, an ex-ABC man who is now head of drama for the Seven Network. He's already chalked up a major success with Rafferty's Rules - a program that spent a long time in gestation before he was willing to put it to air.

Bateman has been working for three years on Home and Away, developing the basic story of the Fletchers - Tom and Pippa. Because they are unable to have children of their own, they become foster parents to a bunch of kids from troubled backgrounds. When Tom is made redundant in his well-paid job, the family is thrown into turmoil. After overcoming some initial misgivings, they decide to move from the city to Summer Bay, where Tom and Pippa buy a run-down caravan park.

It represents a breakthrough in Australian television serials because the highly diverse aspects of the basic plot (among them the fact that some of the children still have parents, and these make appearances from time to time)make it possible to sustain a strong, fast-moving and realistic dramatic format.

Bateman moved with what can only be described as sure-footed caution. After developing his basic story he used sophisticated audience research - even though he had only the broadest of stories, no film in the can, no cast and only still-pictures, projected as slides, of some of the possible locations.

A randomly-selected audience in the Fairfax Auditorium at the Herald building in Jones Street gave his slide show the thumbs up. When that happened, he knew he was on target with the age groups Seven had to attract.

Other audiences have since returned to the Fairfax building, and the results have been impressive. The enthusiastic response to the pilot episode suggested that if the program was run at 6.30pm the majority of viewers would regularly prefer it to Willesee - one of the strongest-rating shows on television.

At 6pm the situation was slightly different. While Seven could expect solid support for Home and Away, it would be unlikely to win against the Channel 9 news - although it might go close. But the most important factor was the strong response from younger members of the audience.

So Seven will go slightly against the market indicators by opting for the 6pm time-slot - but then, it could hardly afford to continue with a low-rating news show at that time. It will also mean a choice for viewers at 6pm -another important factor.

The show's birth was a troubled one. Its first writer was thanked and paid-off in full when the script outlines she had commissioned did not work out. Bateman then moved slowly to build a friendly team.

When he delivered the pilot episode of Home and Away to his new network bosses late in October, the response was immediate. He was told the same day to go full-steam ahead.

"That decision was remarkable for its speed and the expenditure involved,"he says.

But if Christopher Skase and his executives moved swiftly, so too does Home and Away. According to Bateman:"I may be accused of wasting time, but in the opening episode we meet the Fletchers and the children and go through Tom's sacking and the difficult move to the caravan park at Summer Bay - all before the second commercial break. I think that demonstrates a reasonable sense of pace.

"And these characters - I think the viewers are going to love them."

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