But in his own words, Ian Smith concedes, “I’m not a soap person. I’m an episode / series person.”
Some of his favourite shows include Happy Valley, Downton Abbey and Broadchurch.
“I’m not a lover of American product, and I’m not saying there never has been (American shows I’ve liked).”
But tonight Smith returns to Neighbours, the show that has made him indelibly beloved by audiences as Harold Bishop.
He last appeared in the show, he thinks, around 3.5 years ago and his association with the long-running soap has lasted “25 or 26 years, something like that.”
“I was doing Prisoner and when we were just about to finish Reg Watson came up and said, ‘Would you care to play a friend to Madge for a while?’
“I said ‘How long?’ and he said ‘5 weeks’ so I said OK!
“Near the end of that 5 weeks I started to like the show.
“Reg said it was a show about a bunch of people living in a cul de sac, and I said ‘That’ll entertain me,’ being quite ironic. But I started to like it.
“One day in rehearsal I said something and the crew laughed, and I realised I could build on that. So I did, and Harold came about.”
“We tried to make the best damn soap that there is.”
Watson, a giant in the Australian soap landscape had previously created The Young Doctors, Glenview High, The Restless Years and Sons and Daughters.
“If you had been there listening to him talk about his dream, he made it so simple. If it hadn’t been simple I don’t think he would have touched it,” Smith recalls.
“The thing that you recognise immediately on the screen, or radio or film, is the right thing for the product. That’s what you’re trying to do: find things that people can relate to. And Reg did it brilliantly.
“I used to say to people, ‘You might call it soap with a little sneer at the side of your mouth,’ but we tried to make the best damn soap that there is.”
Harold Bishop has entered the pantheon of classic Australian soap characters, alongside Pat the Rat, Grace Sullivan, Lizzie Birsdworth, Julie Rafter. While it may be created by the show’s many writers, in soap it is the performer who is the one constant with their character.
“Harold is my phantom person that I was given the luxury of creating. How many actors get that luxury? He is everything I would like everyone to be and if everyone is like him the world wouldn’t be in the mess that it is,” Smith explains.
“If everyone was honest with each other, everyone allowed each other their religion –or lack of it- ….if everyone allowed each other to do what they wanted to do, as long as it was in the law of the land, gee it would be a lovely world.
“But it will never happen because humans always want to be on the top of the heap, or know the person at the top of the heap.”
Harold’s character is not based on any one individual, but is a hybrid of men that impressed a younger Smith.
“He was originally based on a couple of people I admired mostly, except when he becomes impossible. But when I worked as a youngster in Flinders Lane at a warehouse called Sargood & Gardiner, there was a dear man I worked for, awfully uptight, but he was such a Harold, I can’t tell you,” he says.
“We used to make such fun of him, but we shouldn’t have. He was a good person.
“The other person was my father and that’s the impossibly soft and forgiving Harold. That’s what my adopted father was like.
“He’s an interesting crowd of people, I suppose.”
“It would have been impossible to go back to the loving, understanding Harold.”
Yet across the many years of the FremantleMedia soap, Harold has even shown a darker side -on more than one occasion. But Smith recalls the shift with fondness.
“That was good. Nothing worse than playing the same character flat out for 21 years. That was the period after Madge’s death when he questioned his faith, and could see no goodness in anything. Or his beautiful Madge would never have been taken from him.
“It was a very difficult time because we had just been through a very elongated death. From the time she found out she had the cancer to the death…
“So it was a bit of relief for all us, including herself, when she died. Then it was a relief to go into something else (with his personality). It would have been impossible to go back to the loving, understanding Harold. I think a lot of people question their faith when they have just lost, unnecessarily, a very beautiful friend or relative.
“So we followed that reasonably truthfully, I think.”
Harold has also lost his memory, played the tuba, wore an afro, had schemes with Lou Carpenter, had a heart attack, become a “peeping tom”, had chemotherapy treatment, and even made an attempt on the life of Paul Robinson.
“That was after his family went up in an aeroplane and his family were wiped out. He blamed Paul for the bomb being on the plane. How you could do that when Paul was on the plane too, I don’t know. But there you go…” he chuckles.
Then there is Smith’s inherited fame, for better or worse. Sometimes the attention has been too much.
“I think I enjoyed (fame) very much for the first couple of years.,” he continues.
“I’ve done the same thing when I’ve been overseas and somebody that I’ve been watching on television for quite some time. I didn’t become intrusive because I had some understanding of what it was like.
“So I can understand the shock of seeing somebody.
“You can meet some of these top-liners, especially in England, and they guard their top of the heap so jealously and viciously. And there are others who are the real (thing) who have nothing to be frightened of, they’re just beautiful people.
“But I have dropped a few off my Favourites list because they’ve been a bit vicious.
“In the early days it really wasn’t nice because people used to push my wife aside to get to me. And I wouldn’t put up with it so we had some rather nasty incidents.
“‘But you’re on TV!’” he explains.
“’Alright so what? You don’t need to be rude to my wife.’”
Thankfully Smith seems much more at peace with attention, enjoying the occasional visit to Ramsay Street, in time for its 30th anniversary. And even the fans are more understanding.
“Usually the approach now is very nice, very soft. So I don’t mind that. I love anonymity. I’m a great window shopper and once upon a time I couldn’t do that. But now I can, so I love it.”
Neighbours airs 6:30pm weeknights on ELEVEN.