In 1988, a new Australian soap opera premiered on Channel 7. Set in the fictional town of Summer Bay, Home and Away was a very different soap from its rival, Neighbours. It did not shy away from hard-hitting, sometimes controversial, storylines and it had a cast who were to prove unusually loyal to the soap. The audience loved it from the beginning, particularly in Australia.
The Fictional Summer Bay
Summer Bay is a beachside town just north of Sydney. Like many other Australian towns, the beach is the focal point of community life. It boasts a thriving surf life-saving club and an air-sea rescue unit, both of which are mobilised in the event of any of the semi-regular disasters! Local hangouts include The Diner and Noah's Bar, but Yabbie Creek seems to have the only local shopping centre, for the times when local teenagers get dared to steal from the shops in order to prove themselves. Yabbie Creek is a place to be avoided at all costs, according to many of the locals.
The Real Summer Bay
In real life, Summer Bay is in fact Palm Beach, an exclusive neighbourhood 45 minutes north of Sydney. The main filming location used in the programme is Palm Beach itself with its instantly recognisable path that has been the scene of many an argument over the years. The exterior of the surf club is close to the beach on the main path that leads through the nearby park, often used as a backdrop to blazing rows or assignations. In order to avoid the tourists, filming takes place at night or just after dawn. The nearby caravan park was burnt down in a bush fire in 2004 after many years of service as a central location for the show. Interior scenes are filmed at Channel 7's Epping Studios in Sydney.
As with many programmes, the prime mover for Home and Away was a financial one. Neighbours on Channel 10 had been a huge success since a relaunch in 1986. It originally belonged to Channel Seven but they had dropped it after 170 episodes due to poor viewing figures. Executives gave Alan Bateman, their head of drama, the task of finding a programme that might rival the, by now, Melbourne-based phenomenon. In late 1986, Bateman stopped in the small New South Wales town of Kangaroo Point and found that the residents were up in arms over a proposed care home. The idea appealed to him as a source of rich dramatic tension, and so the two-hour pilot episode, shown on 17 January, 1988 centred around the arrival of Tom and Pippa Fletcher with their family of foster children.
The Early Years
The clearest possible indication that this was not going to be a cosy Neighbours clone came in the first few months. Carly Morris, one of Tom and Pippa's charges, was raped while hitchhiking home after a trip to the city. She hid the rape at first, but after the truth came out the Summer Bay residents were shown to be divided as to whether or not Carly had contributed to the situation through reckless behaviour. The aftermath included Carly's descent into alcoholism and drug abuse, very brave territory for a prime-time soap. Later that year, Ailsa, Alf Stewart's wife was revealed to be a murderess who had killed her abusive first husband. The storylines were in many other cases standard soap fare, with births, marriages, deaths and long-lost family members turning up. However, the Carly Morris storyline pointed to the fact that if there were feathers to be ruffled, Home and Away would ruffle them.
In many ways, the scope of the first year was quite narrow as nearly all of the storylines featured the new arrivals and their difficulties in settling in to the town. Once the support of the network and the viewers seemed assured the plot strands became more varied and were allowed to develop over a number of months. An early storyline that had the viewers gripped, and the actors involved highly amused, was Bobby Simpson's search for her real parents in 1989. Having been implacable enemies since the first episode, Donald Fisher - the apparently humourless principal of Summer Bay High - and lively Bobby were revealed to be father and daughter! Despite the apparent implausibility of the revelation, the complications were dealt with convincingly and the eventual acceptance of both sides seemed quite reasonable under the circumstances. Bobby turned from tearaway teen to mostly responsible adult, before dying in a boating accident in 1993. She did, however, make a memorable reappearance as a disembodied head in a fridge! This unusual guest role was a result of Ailsa's breakdown. Bobby persuaded Ailsa to get help, presumably before other former cast members turned up in kitchen appliances. In fact, ghostly appearances and hallucinations have been commonplace in Summer Bay from the early shows to the present, usually to help people to move on physically or mentally.
In any long-running soap, the turnover of major characters is very high as the actors move on or fall out of favour with the audiences. However, a select few last for many years, earning themselves a special place in the history of the show. It is obviously a matter of personal opinion, as every character has their fans and detractors. That said, the following characters would appear on most lists of the most significant characters from the first two decades of Home and Away.
Alf Stewart (Ray Meagher)
Alf was already one of the mainstays of Summer Bay when the show started. One of the cliff formations had been named Stewart's Point in recognition of the continuing importance of the family in the town. His catchphrase is You flamin' mongrels!, usually shouted in the direction of teenagers. However, he has also shown great kindness and understanding when the situation has warranted it. In times of crisis the whole town looks to his lead and he rarely fails them.
Ray Meagher has been a familiar figure to Australian soap viewers for many years. Aside from Home and Away, his most memorable role was as a sadistic prison governor in Prisoner Cell Block H, a show that also starred a number of other Home and Away regulars in major and minor roles. Along with Kate Ritchie he became the longest-serving actor in an Australian soap 17 years into the programme's run.
Sally Fletcher (Kate Ritchie)
When viewers first saw Sally in the pilot episode she was an eight-year-old-girl, the youngest of Tom and Pippa Fletcher's foster children. In the years that followed, she became central to the Summer Bay community despite everything that the scriptwriters could throw at her. As a young child she was simply given a few simple scenes that were largely peripheral to the story. However, as she grew in confidence and ability she was trusted with more central plot strands. As an accomplished adult actress her character has suffered from cancer, infertility, OCD and a brush with death after a stabbing. Her on-screen husband died from skin cancer leaving her with a young child to bring up. Sally has taken over Pippa's role as the foster mother to the troubled young people of Summer Bay.
Kate Ritchie has been a popular personality in Australia for many years, but her major role in the Summer Bay upheavals of 2006 saw her win the Silver Logie for Best Actress and the Gold Logie for Favourite Television Personality at the Australian 'Oscars' in 2007.
Donald Fisher (Norman Coburn)
Donald Fisher, known to students at Summer Bay High as Flathead, was the voice of conservatism in the bay for the first 15 years of the programme. Along with Alf, Don would bemoan the loss of respect in society and the lack of learning displayed by most people - usually while fishing. This made his marriage to the academically challenged and significantly younger Marilyn Chambers totally out of character. The marriage ended incredibly abruptly when their son, Byron, developed cancer. Marilyn left for the US to be with Byron for treatment, contacted Don to break the news of his death, then divorced him. Some closure was achieved on a trip that Don made to England in 2001, but it was a relief to all concerned when the relationship ended. After that ill-advised piece of storylining, Don became an eminence gris1 for Sally in particular as she had always seen past his grumpy exterior to the prerequisite heart of gold beneath. When he left, the farewell sequence in the school hall showed how deeply woven into Summer Bay society he had become. He reappeared on a couple of occasions when the reality of the script demanded it in the first two years after his departure.
Like Ray Meagher and Sally Fletcher, Norman Coburn had been an original cast member remarkable for his longevity. He had been in the show 15 years when he decided to leave. Apparently, the death of his dog which he had had since the start of filming in 1987 gave him the message that he had been there for too long!
Hayley Smith (Bec Cartwright, 1998 - 2005, and Ella Scott Lynch, 2005)
Hayley was probably the most popular of the teenage foster children that have arrived in the bay over the years. Blonde and stunningly pretty, the audience fell in love with the character from the start. She was a rebel at first, but like nearly every rebel, before and after, proved to have another side. Hayley was a talented artist who became a confidante of Don Fisher by drawing the pictures for his book A Letter to Byron, written as a tribute to his dead son. Her love life was typically complicated, but she ended up with Noah Lawson who became her husband for a short but happy few months prior to being shot by Sarah, the Summer Bay stalker. She then had a baby, also called Noah, finally leaving Summer Bay in 2005 with Scott who turned out to be the baby's father.
Bec Cartwright became the Australian media's golden girl during her seven years on Home and Away and helped to raise the profile of a show that had threatened to become stale as it entered its second decade. She dated Beau Brady who played Noah for four years, during which time they became Australia's golden couple. Nominated as best actress at the Logies four years in a row without winning, she finally got the Silver Logie for best actress in 2005. Since leaving the show she has married Lleyton Hewitt with whom she has had a daughter Mia. She is a familiar sight supporting Lleyton in all of his major tournaments.
Pippa Fletcher (Vanessa Downing,1988 - 90, and Debra Lawrence, 1990 onwards)
Pippa was the matriarch of Summer Bay for the first ten years of the programme. In the beginning, the dramatic conflict was provided by the reaction of the Summer Bay community to Pippa and her husband Tom's brood of foster children. As they became accepted, albeit unwillingly by some, Pippa herself became the conscience of the bay. After losing Tom to a heart attack, Pippa married Michael and subsequently lost him when he drowned in a flood. Eventually, at the beginning of 1998, Pippa left Summer Bay with her new love, Ian. The foster children were left in the care of Travis and Rebecca. That was not the end for Pippa though. She has returned to nearly all of the significant community events in Summer Bay, especially when Sally was involved. Sally named her daughter Pippa in recognition of the woman she had always seen as her mother.
Debra Lawrence is probably the best example of the loyalty of recurring characters that the producers seemed to foster from the earliest days of the programme. When an event like a wedding or funeral occurs, most soaps lose a large measure of realism by having to explain that the character's son or daughter had a business trip that made it impossible for him or her to attend. The producers wanted to avoid that and, whether it has been put in writing or is an expression of the affection former actors have for the soap, the people who should be at an event invariably are. Even Ken Smith, Hayley's father, who had died a couple of years previously, attended his daughter's wedding to escort her down the aisle!
Other Cast Members
One of the main secrets of the show's success is the blend of teenage actors with well-known character actors who have already appeared in other long-running series. The teenagers look good and learn their profession by watching and talking to the more experienced cast members. When they first arrive on set, they are given minor storylines through which they build confidence. Once the producers feel that they can handle the central storyline over a few weeks they are put in a situation where their character has to develop quickly and significantly.
Many of these actors have gone on to great success. Two Oscar-nominated actors who first came to public attention on Home and Away were Naomi Watts and Heath Ledger. Julian McMahon of Nip/Tuck fame and Melissa George of Alias left Australia and, after a lot of false starts, made a success of acting in the notoriously tough American entertainment industry. Isla Blair, who played Shannon, has attracted much attention for her good looks and marriage to Sacha Baron Cohen.
Despite the restricted pool of talent in the Australian acting profession, there have been surprisingly few examples of regular actors appearing in both Home and Away and Neighbours. During the first season, Terence Donovan, father of Jason, appeared as Bobby Simpson's father. Later he would play Doug Willis for nearly ten years in Neighbours. Two younger actors in the show's early years, Guy Pearce and Craig McLachlan, had already appeared in high profile parts in Neighbours. The former has become a Hollywood actor, while the latter had a high profile but short-lived pop career. Other would-be pop stars from the programme have included Dannii Minogue, Rebecca Cartwright and Tammin Sursok, but they have all fallen victim to the curse that has affected everyone apart from Dannii's sister Kylie. Finally, at the end of 2006, Ben Geurens - who played Toby Mangel as a child actor in Neighbours - briefly joined the cast as two-timing policeman Ash Nader.
Cameron Welsh (who played Mitch) and Sam Atwell (who played Kane) took more of an interest in work behind the camera and have each ended up directing their former colleagues.
The older actors give the series its dramatic base by providing characters with a back-story and a wealth of life experience. In many cases, they are already familiar faces to the viewers from their previous roles. Although there is always conflict between the generations, the message of the show is that the community functions best when they work together. This seems to be true behind the scenes as well with older actors often mentoring the younger ones as they take their first steps in the acting profession.
As well as Ray Meagher, a number of the more experienced actors had appeared in Prisoner: Cell Block H. Fiona Spence - who played Celia Stewart - was famous for her portrayal of Vera Bennett known to one and all as 'Vinegar Tits'! Debra Lawrence also spent a little time behind bars in the early days of the series. In the most obvious nod to the connection between the shows, Maggie Kirkpatrick who played Joan Ferguson - known as 'The Freak' - appeared in Home and Away as The Guvnor. Joan Ferguson was put behind bars at the end of Prisoner, and The Guvnor is the most powerful inmate with an unexplained hold over the prison that Dani Sutherland finds herself in!
Judy Nunn, who played Ailsa, used to spend her time between takes writing. She is now one of the most successful writers in Australia. Lyn Collingwood, the town busybody Colleen Smart, directs plays when the character is off-screen visiting her son. Cornelia Frances, the unforgiving Morag Bellingham, appeared in over 700 episodes of Sons and Daughters as Barbara Hamilton and was the obvious choice for presenter of the Australian version of The Weakest Link. Ray Meagher and the ever popular Lynne McGranger, the no-nonsense Irene Roberts, are both regular visitors to the UK for the pantomime season.
Finally, a brief mention of the celebrity cameos that have occurred in Home and Away over the years. Three high profile sportsmen have appeared in the show: Kostya Tszyu the boxer, Ian Thorpe the world-famous swimmer and finally, Lleyton Hewitt, who ordered a drink at the diner in one of the most wooden displays of acting seen on any programme! John Farnham, the singer behind the worldwide smash 'The Voice' appeared in 1993 and pop group Atomic Kitten had a cameo on the programme's visit to London in 2001. Finally, Monty Python member Michael Palin turned up as a surfer in one of the more unusual pieces of celebrity casting! As with Neighbours, celebrity casting tends to be quite light-hearted and it comes about usually through the prompting of the celebrity themselves.
When a programme turns out 46 weeks of television a year there are bound to be low points, but when it does so for two decades or more it is clear that they have been greatly outweighed by the high points. The Australian fanbase has been loyal and, unusually, has grown over the years as it has totally eclipsed Neighbours in its native country. The actors almost unfailingly answer requests for signed photos and often take the time to put personal messages or letters in with them. For any long running show this is important as it gives the fans the assurance that they are not being taken for granted. However long it continues, this is one programme that will be welcomed in many homes both home and away!