Can Melbourne lay claim to Neighbours as its very own soap? Alan 'Dr Karl' Fletcher and Ryan 'Toadfish' Maloney give Jenny Valentish their take
TV Show: Neighbours
Date: 1985 – now
So Alan, your character was introduced in 1994. When you auditioned for it were you anticipating that it would be a short-term role?
Alan: Yeah, very much. I had just done three years of work for Grundy television on another show and each year it was a fresh contract. So I was offered a one-year contract with Neighbours and I thought, oh this would be really cool to do a year on Neighbours. And then they extended it for another year and by then I got the vibe that it could go on for another three years or something like that. That seemed to be about the length of time people were on the show.
And that suited, did it?
Alan: Well I was very happy to stay. I loved doing it and everything but having a job for 17 years in one show is almost unheard of.
It's unheard of for any job these days.
Alan: Yeah, it is. I am almost, virtually, the oldest member of the cast now so I cop a fair bit of stick.
Grundy has a great tradition of soaps. Are you actually a soap watcher?
Alan: Yeah, off and on, but I actually grew up on soaps I used to watch back in the '70s on ABC.
Ryan: I wasn’t born then.
Alan: No, you weren’t born then, so this will mean nothing to you. There was this show called Certain Women that was basically a pretty sophisticated soap opera and Bellbird was one I used to watch religiously. It was a very old, country Aussie Soap. And so I used to watch those, and Sons and Daughters because a friend of mine created it, Devon Lee. So yeah, I always keep up with them.
Who is actually the longest running cast member now?
Alan: Well, I think that Jackie Woodburne (Susan Kennedy) is the longest serving female at 17 years. Tom Oliver (Lou Carpenter) is the longest-serving cast member existing. Ryan and I are both at 17 years.
Ryan: I've got age on my side so I am going to outlast them all.
Alan: I am here on the late run, don’t you worry.
Ryan: You are the next Anne Haddy.
When you fellas go overseas and meet people over there, what kind of perception do you think viewers have of Melbourne? Do they think it's like Erinsborough?
Alan: Yes, I think that is fair to say that overseas, for a lot of people, Neighbours represents Australian suburban life accurately. Which it does in certain suburbs.
Which suburbs do you think this could potentially be?
Ryan: Probably exactly where we are, actually. (Nunawading.)
Alan: The eastern suburbs or down the peninsula way. One thing that has always been said about Neighbours is that it is very Anglo-Celtic and there have been a lot of complaints about the show not properly representing all aspects of Australian society. The producers have been working really hard to increase the breadth of the cultural ethnicity of the casting. But it is fair to say though that there are pockets of Melbourne which are very Anglo-Celtic and whereas there are other pockets which have a much higher proportion of, let’s say, Asian residents or people of Asian heritage. A city can’t be or you don’t want to create a suburb based on, or that attempts to represent, every part of Melbourne. Otherwise, you know, you would have to have syringes on the street as well. And so I would think a lot of people who do watch it would think, “hey that’s what Australia is”. It is about barbeques and pools in the back yard and about the sun shining all the time and lots of space. Everyone has a big house. That’s the one thing people say.
Ryan: Probably up until five years ago Neighbours was meant to look like anywhere in Australia. They actively took Victorian number plates off and stuff, so it’s only a really recent thing that it has been Melbourne.
Alan: I remember I got a surprise when I saw a scene that was filmed in the city and you saw trams. It was the first time it was sort of said …
Ryan: This is either Melbourne or Adelaide.
Alan: For a long time, there is this slight thing that goes on in Australia, particularly in the past between Sydney and Melbourne, that view of Sydney people not watching the shows that have been filmed in Melbourne and vice versa. I think they probably attempted to make it look like Erinsborough could have been anywhere in Australia, like an entity unto itself, and now it has slowly crept in that it is married more to Melbourne or that it is a suburb in Melbourne.
Ryan: But quite often when Neighbours brings in the city, it is normally sort of “off to the big bad city, to run away to the big bad city” or you know “grave danger because they are in the city and they are out of Erinsborough”. Or, it is the place of big business…
Alan: Yeah. Toadie was working as a lawyer in the city and there were scenes of you on the freeway, in the car, stuck in traffic and that’s the sort of stuff.
Ryan: It is only a new thing that we are starting to show the city too.
Alan: This is a suburb where people routinely walk to places. Everything you need is around the corner, everything is nearby, it’s close. It is a very easy place to move around. It is kind of like the ideal suburb.
Would you want to live here?
Alan: Well, it wouldn’t be unpleasant. It has everything you would want. The most important thing is the community, the suburb if you like, the place Erinsborough is about the sense of community.
That would be off-putting to some.
Alan: Well, it would be for a lot of people. People live very differently. Lots of people ask whether I get along with my neighbours. We have Christmas drinks and the guy that lives next door to me is a doctor and I know him really well. We are always having a drink.
Ryan: A doctor who knows you very well too?
Alan: Well, he does, especially when he had to patch me up after I feel down the staircase one night. And I have a cardiologist on the other side. It’s perfect.
Ryan: At your age, yes.
Alan: It is a hallmark to that out this way, the street parties and things. It is part of the culture.
To what extent can you get in the ear of the scriptwriters?
Ryan: A little bit.
Alan: It does vary or has varied over the years, depending on what the protocols are. The scriptwriters are always incredibly busy so it’s not really a good vibe to just drop in and say, “Oh, can I take half an hour out of your time to chat about the script?” as they are just under constant pressure to create work. But there are formal ways that you can say, “I have a problem with this.” They do really encourage you to come up with ideas because they have so many characters that they have to write for, doing 240 episodes a year and they have to make it interesting for all these characters and if someone comes up with a bright spark idea, they will say thank you very much.
Ryan: I remember when I went in there one day with five script ideas for my character and every single one of them got used, but for every other character. I wasn’t very happy about that.
In Marieke Hardy's memoir she talks about her scriptwriting days for Neighbours, saying there was something of an us-versus-them vibe.
Ryan: Well, it is only new that we have the scriptwriters here with us. It has always been that they have been somewhere else and quite often hard to get hold of. It has been very segregated, whereas now there is a face to the name. So when you are calling someone a bastard, you have to call it to their face.
Alan: You could go down there and say it to their face. No, the relationship is good it’s just the mechanics of the show make it hard for everybody to communicate all the time so there can be a sense of a divide but really it doesn’t exist, just go down there and talk it through.
What would your dream plot-line be for your characters?
Ryan: That he becomes a pilot. That would be me and we would have to do lots of flying.
Alan: I would like to have a story where, well this is how I would like Dr Karl to leave the show, that he was actually never actually qualified as a physician and that he has been treating people for seventeen years and birthing babies and all that sort of stuff and he was never a doctor.
MAKE THE NEIGHBOURS PILGRIMAGE:
The real-life Ramsay Street is much smaller than it looks on screen (as is Stefan Dennis, fyi). Point your car at Pin Oak Court in Vermont South (be respectful – real folk live there), or take the official Neighbours tour. Expect to pay $50 for a guided jaunt in a van, or $68 to walk around the exterior sets at the Nanawading studios and meet an undivulged cast member, past or present.
The folk behind Neighbours Tour also arrange the Neighbours Trivia Night on Mondays at the Elephant and Wheelbarrow in St Kilda’s Fitzroy Street, where you’ll rub shoulders with cast members and catch Alan Fletcher playing with his band Waiting Room.