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That was the Away it was

Date: 17/07/2005
Words: 727
Source: SHD
          Publication: Sun Herald
Section: Television
Page: 3
THINK about some of the key characters in the history of Australian soaps: Lorraine Bayley as Grace Sullivan, Colette Mann's prisoner Doreen, Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue as Neighbours' Scott and Charlene and, of course, there's Brian Henderson.

And just in case you're wondering how a respected newsreader winds up on that list, the answer is simple.

Henderson, the man to whom we turned for news for more than four decades, is one of the main reasons Home And Away, which celebrated its 4000th episode last week, came to life.

In 1987, Channel Nine's news with Hendo was unstoppable in the ratings. As a lead-in to the night's viewing, it was providing Nine with an audience executives at the rival Seven network were eager to steal.

And while Hendo was all-powerful on the news front, the reasoning went, maybe he could be tackled by a drama.

Neighbours, a Seven creation which had already wormed its way into the national psyche, had disappeared to the Ten network, and Alf, an American program starring a puppet, didn't work, but what about a program which showed Aussies at that most Aussie of places, the beach?

The next year Home And Away was launched and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

"It's true, the show was designed to go against Brian Henderson's news in Sydney at six o'clock," said series executive producer and now Seven's head of drama John Holmes.

"At the time Nine news was getting huge ratings and whatever Seven put on was failing. When Home And Away went to air it had a pretty diabolical start and was nearly axed, but by the end of the first year we had actually closed the gap and we were away."

A strange start indeed for what has become, with Neighbours, one of the great success stories in Australian television drama.

Both series are celebrating anniversaries at the moment:- Neighbours had its 20th anniversary earlier this year and Home And Away's aforementioned 4000 episodes just passed.

But while the behind-the-scenes story was odd, the on-screen action isn't and this has helped them endure, Holmes said. "At the start we had a director who had come from Neighbours and we decided we were going to go for strong performances, tell the story as well as we could and make it as real a world as possible instead of that 'chocolate box' world that some shows up to then had gone for.

"Instead of blonde kids all looking fabulous we thought let's go for something more realistic, and I think that's what engaged the viewers."

The idea of a foster family as the core came from something the series creator Alan Bateman saw at Kangaroo Valley, just south of Sydney.

The "sleepy town" of Summer Bay was always intended to be somewhere such as Brooklyn on the Hawkesbury River, also just outside Sydney.

"It was going to be a fictional town but with a real truth to it," Holmes said. "And we wanted to make it a show where the people who would come into your home every night would become your friends and you'd really want to like and know them.

"And despite this being an industry where those best intentions can go horribly wrong, in this case it actually worked. We managed to create a world that people believed."

And through sheer longevity it has become a world that viewers and characters grew up with and in. Kate Ritchie, for example, started out on the series playing an eight-year-old foster child. She's still with Home And Away, now playing a foster mum.

The current crop of Summer Bay stars (Jason Smith, Indiana Evans, Isabel Lucas and Mark Furze), were in preschool, or not yet born, when the series began.

"A lot of kids who watched the show are now sitting there with their own kids watching the show," Holmes said.

"These dramas are what they are; we're not making Shakespeare - these are bite-sized pieces of family entertainment you can watch every night and enjoy.

"But to have lasted this long from such a start, we must be doing something right."

If only there was a new character joining the Bay sometime soon - maybe a retired newsreader who sets up a beach house next to to Alf's store. Somehow it would all make perfect sense.

Home And Away, Channel Seven, weeknights, 7pm.

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