She’s been in Neighbours for so long now she’s progressed from young mum to grandmother. But Jackie Woodburne, who plays Susan Kennedy in the TEN soap, wouldn’t change it for a thing. Confessing to still having the same enthusiasm today as when she started, she told TV Tonight she still gets excited when a new block of scripts arrive in her pigeon hole.
“I’ve been here fourteen years just gone in August so a long, long time,” she said. “Some of the kids watching the show now, don’t know life before the Kennedy family.”
As is the nature of soap, the highs and lows of her character arc have seen many complex, often bizarre, plots, sandwiched in some meatier storylines.
“I’ve done everything,” she laughed. “The retrograde amnesia springs to mind. The affair with the priest. The various marriages to Dr. Karl. All the storylines related to the kids.
“My character’s a grandmother now. When I first started the show and met the actors who were playing my kids, I thought ‘they’re going to realise they’ve made a dreadful mistake. I’m far too young to be the mother of these children.’ Well no-one batted an eyelid, least of all the kids. So now fourteen years down the track I’m a nanna.”
For a show that thrives on its generational interaction, Susan Kennedy is now the eldest female character in Ramsay Street. It puts her in the same league as Helen Daniels (Anne Haddy), Madge Bishop (Anne Charleston) and more recently Valda Sheergold (Joan Sidney). With its habit for having younger characters seeking guidance in domestic, social and relationship issues, it almost leaves her without a sounding board.
“I think we’re missing that bracket of female character in the show,” admits Woodburne. “I think it would be lovely to have the next generation up from me. That older voice, not middle aged. And we had that certainly with Lou and Harold, and now that Ian Smith’s gone that’s a big gap. We still have the Lou character which is great but I think it would be terrific to have an older woman.
“But the Susan character has always had her mates. There was Lyn (Janet Andrewartha). But Susan goes more to her peers for fedback than any other characters. And now of course with Miranda (Nikki Coghill) and Rebecca (Jane Hall), the Witches of Eastwick… that’s what the crew call us anyway!”
And then there is her utterly convincing on-air chemistry with Alan Fletcher. Together they give the show both a rock and launching pad for dramatic storylines. Fans still nod to the triangle with Izzy (Natalie Bassingthwaighte) as one of the show’s pivotal storylines.
“We just got lucky there,” she said. “Alan and I knew each other before we began in Neighbours, so we were pretty comfortable with one another. We also both have a very similar way of working, in that we both do quite a lot of preparation. We’ve both got a lot of ideas about how we want a scene to go.
“99% of them are absolute rubbish but occasionally we’ll hit on something that’s right on the money. We’re both very thick skinned, we speak in shorthand now. And we do get to where we want to go pretty much at the same time.”
Woodburne says she loves to work, particularly with many of the show’s younger actors who she doesn’t mind assisting if they happen to be struggling.
In recent years the show has pooled some of its cast from a wide net, including reality television and modelling. There was even a stint on offer in a magazine ‘star search.’
“They all come with a different body of work behind them,” says Woodburne. “I’ve never had a problem with that because realistically that’s the nature of the show. So someone will come from an Australian Idol or a Big Brother or whatever and they bring with them an audience and a group of people who want to watch them on Neighbours. That’s their currency, that’s what they come with and that’s terrific.
“When they’re here a lot of them will be really interested in learning how to become an actor. They really want to take this opportunity and go forward and have a career as an actor. A lot of them don’t. They just want to have this experience and go on and do music or something else, and that’s terrific.”
For Woodburne, whose feint Irish lilt is still a giveaway of her heritage, the summer break is a chance to relax from the show’s unforgiving pace. There’s no chance she’ll be treading the boards in a UK panto anytime soon, though she does admit her two seasons were fun, if bloody hard work.
“I’ve done two and I must say for me where I am at the moment I would prefer to have 4 weeks off at Christmas and catch my breath. You get off the plane and you go straight into rehearsals, you do two shows a day until you get on the plane. It’s absolutely relentless and it’s cold and wet.
“The first one I did was in Worthing in the South. I was the Wicked Queen in Snow White. And then I did one in Stafford, in the Midlands, and I was the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. They were tremendous fun and I made a couple of friends from then and we’re still good friends today. It’s great to work in another country no matter what you’re doing and have that experience so I’m very pleased that I did it but I’m not in a great hurry to do it again.
“I’m just getting old and tired,” she laughs. “I want the holiday!”
Neighbours finale airs 6:30pm Friday on TEN.