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