When Ian Smith’s final appearance as Harold Bishop airs tomorrow on Neighbours it brings to a close over 20 years’ association with the show.
Ironically it airs 30 years to the day that Prisoner first screened on Australian television. Smith had been acting on the other Grundy production prior to assuming the role of the now-legendary Bishop.
Both shows were created by writer Reg Watson.
“The day that we made the last episode (of Prisoner) Reg Watson came to me and asked me if I’d be interested in a stint in this new show called Neighbours.”
Smith had been an Associate Producer on Prisoner in its later years, as well as a scriptwriter. He went on to become a writer for Neighbours too, but it was his performance as Harold that will be long-remembered in the glory years of the show. He even exited the show in 1991 when “I was given the old heave-ho” only to be miraculously revived in 1996, complete with amnesia.
Pressed to the reasons why Harold has become so beloved, Smith points to the show’s affection for multi-generations.
“I did go for breaking down the generation gap, which wasn’t exactly what Harold was at the start,” he said. “In the beginning he was a bit of a monster as far as youngies were concerned. But the Jason, Kylie characters sort of civilised him on that. And I started to realise the strength of the older generation and younger generations appreciating each other. I started to work on it as far back as that.”
He also drew upon making the most of his physical attributes.
“Playing against the character was always good for Harold. I’ve always said use what you’ve got. If you’ve got a face that wobbles around a bit, use it get a laugh. People are always trying to be what they’re not, but if I’m fat and a bit funny to look at when I do things like that, ok let’s get a laugh, let’s make it work.”
While Harold is remembered for his comic nuances he was also a tuba-playing conservative, avoiding alcohol and supporting his beloved Salvation Army. Smith says there are only a few similarities between himself and the role.
“I agree totally with his moral outlook on life. But I could never live with Harold, he’d drive me nuts! I’d have to kill him!”
Smith’s performance, together with the rise and fall of his soapie storylines, has made Harold Bishop a household name in the UK. He is readily recognised by fans in Britain, though he points to some distinctions.
“In London if you’re in the street, everyone’s too busy to look at anyone else. If I go into a store that’s different. I have to say in London they’re a little bit more polite than here.”
Some Australian fans, he says, are quick to mock.
“Especially young males. They should be put on an island or put down,” he said.
While Smith acknowledges soap isn’t his preferred viewing choice he does enjoy British miniseries and Packed to the Rafters. Earlier stories that he doesn’t watch Neighbours were a little misleading, given the cast watch episodes at the studio. But since finishing final episodes last year, even he finds himself tuning in more.
“That’s changed recently, isn’t that strange? Now that I’m leaving the show I’m watching it a lot.”
Looking back on Smith’s CV he has appeared on Blue Heelers, Homicide, Division 4, Matlock Police, Bluey and a long-running role on the ABC’s Bellbird.
“Back in the days of Bellbird it was a great school for young actors. It was a school for experienced stage actors as well. These days if a kid looks ok they get the job. We find out if they can act later. Learning how to teach the kids is very important.”
As to tipping a ‘Neighbours legacy’, Smith is defiantly proud.
“It should get a medal for reflecting the times,” he said. “I think it will teach all shows from now on, that a soap like that is as important as your daily newspaper. People ask me ‘has the show changed over the years?’ It’s changed as much as your newspaper I think.
“Once upon a time there were words that you wouldn’t be allowed to put in a newspaper that you now see. There are things that you wouldn’t be allowed to say. I know for a fact there were things you were not allowed to say in soap. But you just say them casually now.”
In the lead up to the Logie Awards a groundswell of support is looking to get him a nomination just as John Wood and Kate Ritchie were acknowledged in their final seasons on Blue Heelers and Home & Away.
An “I Heart Harold” campaign website and Facebook group have even emerged.
“I got through 50 years of acting and never got one. If I’d known this was going to happen I’d have retired earlier!” he laughs.
“People say ‘do you want the Logie?’ but it’s prize enough for me that people are doing it. That’s nice enough for me.”
To his fans, Smith simply says, “I’m glad that my work pleased you enough to do this. It’s great.”
Ian Smith appears on 9AM with David and Kim on Friday February 27 while ‘Harold’s final episode’ on Neighbours airs at 6:30pm Friday.