Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson.
His bad boy image spans 30 years on Australian Television, but Stefan Dennis has always been the opposite on stage.
On TV Stefan Dennis is known for his baddie role, as Neighbours‘ resident villain Paul Robinson.
Yet on stage, his roles have predominantly been the good guy, including as a pantomime hero in the UK.
“I was always Aladdin or Robin Hood but I always wanted to play one of the baddies.
“I did 4 or 5 in a row and said ‘That’s it.’ Nothing against them but I would see a genre of performers whose whole working year would be a summer season at British resorts, have a few months off and do panto. It would be their entire working life and I thought ‘I really don’t want to end up like that,'” he recalls.
“Danny la Rue who I did my second panto with, was a huge star but I always remember him saying he’d done 35 years of pantos. And he hadn’t finished!”
Neighbours stars in British pantomime is a long-standing tradition, although Dennis’ stage credits also include productions such as Blood Brothers and Whose Life is it Anyway? Yet the pantos share some common ground with the long-running TEN soap: they are broadly popular with audiences but often criticised for lesser cultural benefit.
“People used to have the same kind of attitude to this show, saying ‘It’s not real acting. One day you’ll get a real acting job, dear boy!’” he says.
“But now people realise Neighbours is an incredible training ground. Aside from the budgets and those restraints, a pretty good product is punched out. It’s now being recognised, not just in the UK but in Hollywood, by producers and directors that Neighbours and Home and Away are an incredible training ground for actors. So we’re sort of walking in the door with respect before we’ve even done the gig.”
Dennis returned to the ELEVEN soap in 2004, following 12 years overseas. He first played Paul Robinson in the show’s debut episode in 1985 and remains its sole original cast member. He remembers the late 80s and early 90s as “phenomenal” years with the fandom they accrued.
“A period of absolute mania. But because people aren’t seeing that now and the show has gone on for another 20 something years, me, Ian Smith and Anne Charleston are the only ones who remember it,” he says.
“So to try and tell the new cast or the audience that it used to be Beatlemania… we had to have crowd control everywhere we went.
“I remember one incident in Belfast –and it was just me- at a plaza where they took me in for an autograph-signing and greet. They thought a few hundred people would turn up. But 5000 people turned up and they kept coming! So I just stood behind the counter waving as they filed past. There was no time for autographs!
“They were talking about trying to land a helicopter on the roof because they couldn’t see how to get me out. I know it sounds stupid but it was bigger than Justin Bieber.
“In 1987 we did an appearance in Brisbane where they gave away a house in a competition to promote Neighbours and 50,000 people turned up. And if that had been in the UK it would have been ten times that.”
When the show premiered on Seven it was originally in a 7pm timeslot before it would be axed after 7 months, rescued by TEN and eventually settle into a 6:30pm timeslot.
“I can’t remember when it shifted to 6:30. It’s 5:30 in the UK and it still is. We shifted to 6:30 and it suddenly restricted us. The difference that Home and Away has to what we’ve got…. At one time we were trying to compete but thank god the producers woke up and realised that wasn’t a sensible thing to do,” he insists.
“They are two different shows because they are in two different timeslots. So one is allowed to and the other is not. They can show blood and guns but we’re not allowed to show any of that. But miraculously we’ve gotten away with it and produced stuff that’s been reasonably hard-hitting for a G rated timeslot.
“But in order to counter-act the fact that we can’t show all the hard hitting stuff we add more comedy and lightness. So you get this wonderful rollercoaster balance.
“So if you were trying to put your finger on any one ingredient, that would be it.”
Paul Robinson has proven to be an enduring soap character, at the centre of plots involving money laundering, a leg amputation, being held hostage, sent to prison, married five times, had countless affairs, and more.
“I think I can tick all of them now. I’ve attempted murder many times, but they can’t kill the character, so that’s good.
“With Paul the writers and producers manage to pull something different out of the hat every month. Sometimes I think ‘Oh yeah’ and sometimes it’s ‘Wow!’”
In the fickle world of soap characters, he has managed to avoid the ultimate fate: being written out entirely.
“Producers always say ‘We’ve taken the character as far as we can’ which always cracks me up,’ because those guys produce the character. It’s ongoing. It’s called life.
“So it’s the diplomatic way of saying ‘Bugger off.’”
He acknowledges too that the show has enabled him to meet and work with some of showbiz’s biggest names: Sting, Elton John, Danny La Rue, Cliff Richard, The Two Ronnies, and Royal Variety Performances.
Now as Neighbours produces 6 episodes a week, Dennis also reveals a little known secret: his workload has actually decreased.
“It’s harder for the production team than the actors, to be honest. Don’t tell the producers but I actually do less work now than what I did back then because it’s a much bigger cast. Originally it was 12 principal characters, now there’s about 30 something. So the workload is spread a lot more.
“But for the crew and administration it’s a lot more work for them.”
As Neighbours marks 30 years on Australian Television, it seem life is finally beginning to imitate art, and Dennis is beginning to see change where he least expects it: the British panto.
“Ironically because I play (Paul Robinson), people are now starting to cast me as the villain in the pantos,” he note.
“I would walk out on stage to booing and hissing and would wait for all of that to die down and when it did I just insulted the audience. They would go ballistic, it was great.”
Neighbours 6:30pm weeknight on ELEVEN
Neighbour 30: The Stars Reunite 7:30pm Monday TEN and ELEVEN