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Newcastle Herald

Soap on the rope

Author: writes JOANNE McCARTHY
Date: 24/07/2004
Words: 1010
Source: NCH
          Publication: Newcastle Herald
Section: News
Page: 23
REALITY television is killing the soapie star, and the Hunter and Central Coast regions should be worried.

Pound for pound we've turned out more soapie actors than anywhere outside the Sydney metropolitan area.

The list includes Australian drama series greats such as Johnny Lockwood of Number 96 fame, Frank Wilson from Country Practice and Cop Shop, a brace of Neighbours stars, including Natalie Imbruglia, Craig McLachlan and Melissa Bell, Robin Cruze from Big Sky, Belinda Cotterill from Police Rescue, Michael Beckley and Amy Mitzy from Home and Away, plus Celia Ireland of All Saints.

And the stars and their agents can see the writing on the wall.

"There'll be no industry left if the reality craze goes on for too long," says Chris King, aka Dennis Jamison of The Young Doctors, who these days runs a child talent school for would-be TV stars.

His stable has included Natalie Imbruglia, who spent four years with King before her stint on Neighbours, which eventually led to singing, being an international beauty and floating into the arms of Silverchair leading man Daniel Johns.

"It's hard for people like me to talk about reality television and see someone getting $1 million for sitting in a house," says King.

"You look at the money they're spending on these shows and you think about what that could pay for in terms of drama and it's very, very hard to take.

"I'm sure glad I'm not starting out now."

King's former agent Martin Bedford, who launched the career of Oscar winner Russell Crowe, fired a broadside at reality television and said it left actors with "nowhere to go but overseas".

"The actors no longer have a guarantee they're going to work on a weekly or monthly basis. Some of our finest actors have not worked for two years on a major project."

Home and Away star Michael Beckley spent 20 years living on the "very, very basic wage of a theatre actor" before he struck pay dirt four years ago with a leading role on the popular soapie.

The hand-to-mouth existence of an Australian actor was just starting to wear very thin, he said.

"I went to my agent and said, 'I want to do some TV, I want some stability', and I basically fell into Home and Away, and I'm very glad I did."

Beckley doesn't mind calling a soap a soap "Well hello, that's what it is" and said productions were tightly controlled because of limited budgets.

"You do try to be a one-take wonder because we don't have a lot of resources.

"You've got to grab the stuff and make it work, but that's what being a professional is about.

"I think people would be surprised, but we don't have a lot of out-takes where people fall about laughing. I can think of only one time in four years when that's happened.

"The rest of the time if you make a mistake you say, 'Oops, sorry', and you do it again and get it right."

Beckley entered show business as a competitive younger brother to a bright and dramatic sister who attended the same Central Coast school.

"Everything Michelle did I wanted to do. So when she did musical productions at school I came along two years later and did them too.

"We're both show-offs. Simple as that. Except I make a living from it."

When he isn't running the Summer Bay caravan park and kiosk as Rhys Sutherland, he's been caught in a mudslide and a sinking boat. Rhys has been trapped in a mine and suffered every imaginable physical, emotional or moral drama a person could possibly suffer, and a lot more besides.

"It's a deadly little place, Summer Bay," he says.

"You've really got to watch your step. And, of course, no one does.

"We've often joked that you'd only survive living in Summer Bay for about three hours if it actually existed."

Beckley does not have a theory why so many Hunter and Central Coast people have lathered their way to fame via the soaps.

"Is it something in the air? I don't know, but there do seem to have been a few of us from that area."

But they remain a good training ground for young actors and he would be disturbed if opportunities like Home and Away were lost to young stars.

"It might seem like there are a lot of very young people on shows like ours, but there are actually many very experienced people involved in productions. I, for one, am not prepared to put up with precocious teenagers putting on diva behaviour."

Chris King is another who has wondered why the region between Sydney and the Upper Hunter has churned out more than its fair share of actors prepared to be killed, maimed, divorced, spurned, run over, shot at, married, made pregnant, harassed or vilified to keep Australian audiences happy.

"I haven't come up with an answer, but it's the reason why I set up my [talent] school here."

King spent eight years as the Young Doctors "naive idiot" Dennis Jamison between 1975 and 1983.

King said he worried about opportunities for talented young actors and for the future of today's young soap stars.

"It's always been the way that a lot of them don't kick on.

"They get to something like a soap, earn a lot of money, often blow it, but there's other things they can go on with after they've learnt from that first experience.

"But the amount of money that's pouring into reality television and out of Australian drama is very real and very worrying.

"John Singleton wants to have an Australian television network, and people like me are saying more power to him.

"I just don't understand why networks don't work hard at building more shows."

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