When Home & Away‘s Shane Withington prepared for a storyline as the foster dad of a teenager coming out he rang a gay & lesbian counselling service for advice.
“I wanted to hear the 3 most important points the gay & lesbian hotline would say to a child who was thinking of coming out,” he tells TV Tonight.
“They were fantastic telling me what to say and what we shouldn’t do.”
In scenes that have aired this week John Palmer’s (Withington) foster son Ty (Darius Williams) planted a kiss on his friend Ryder (Lukas Radovich), but in the tradition of soap angst it led to Ty running away prompting concern from his Summer Bay family & friends.
After no gay characters in the Seven soap since management disastrously handled a 2009 storyline, it marks an overdue and progressive step. This week there were none of the headlines and outrage that a kiss notoriously attracted back then.
“Isn’t it comforting that society has moved on so strongly”
“Isn’t it comforting that society has moved on so strongly that it goes by with not even a murmur! I think that’s fantastic for inclusion and acceptance,” says Withington.
“I hesitate to use the word ‘passe’, but it’s less controversial. We had to bear in mind that there are kids out there all over Australia and the world who might be thinking about coming out. So it was incumbent on us to make sure we didn’t scare them, or have any major bullying. We are as loyal to our audience as our audience is to us.
“So we were careful to do it in a way where someone who is thinking of coming out would still be encouraged to do so.”
Withington’s character and his on-screen wife Marilyn (Emily Symons) were careful to support the teen after locating him as missing and gently opening up on deeper teen issues.
“My character, John, beats himself up because he thought he should have developed a relationship with this boy -who I see as my son- where he was open enough to come out and be honest with me.
“It’s a really well written scene between John, Marilyn and Ty where we say ‘Is there anything you need to tell us?’”
“We’re a rainbow nation, we should be a rainbow soap opera.”
Yet while Ty is a guest character, it begs the question: when will Home & Away have a resident gay character? It’s a concept that Withington supports.
“I wonder why there isn’t a resident gay character, but I’m too meagre on the food chain to be in control of that. I really don’t know. I would say it will only be a matter of time before we have someone who is not the only gay in the Bay. Conservative old TV!” he quips.
“I think the way it has been received is very promising, so I applaud them. We’re a rainbow nation, we should be a rainbow soap opera.”
Withington, who has been on Home & Away since 2009, is a staunch believer in the power of broadcast and how social issues can be addressed to a broad audience.
“I always say when you consider television’s awesome power to educate it’s amazing it hasn’t been used as an agent of change more often. I really like the way Home & Away deals with social issues that kids need to deal with. It’s a fantastic parenting tool.
“And it’s great on caravan explosions!” he jokes.
“When I first arrived I didn’t have high expectations of the scripts or the production standards, because I didn’t watch the show. But when I arrived I was amazed at just how much hard work went into the writing of the show and how much care was taken with the message that Home & Away gives to Australia. It really is ‘our story.’
“When you look back over 30 years it’s brought us a lot of great talent and stories about Australians doing things Australians do.
“You could walk into café like the Diner and you meet those characters”
“You could walk into café like the Diner and you meet those characters: cranky old blokes, senior surf lifesavers, kids, surfers, gangs.”
He remains in touch with all the young actors his character has fostered, freely admitting to instilling a professional etiquette in them on set. The Seven-produced series is in its 30th year, with notable graduates who have gone onto international success.
“I like the term Broadcast, I love the term ‘Going to air’”
Withington, who has been with the series for around a third of its existence, notes his career may be running concurrently with that of broadcast television.
“When they eventually throw me on the showbiz scrapheap broadcast television may well be done. But I love broadcast. I like the term ‘Broadcast,’ I love the term ‘Going to air’ and ‘Rolling.’ But all those things will be gone to digital and narrowcast, sadly.”
He also remains proud of the A Country Practice scene in which his on-screen wife Molly (played by actual wife Anne Tenney) succumbed to cancer, in arguably Australian TV’s most famous death scene.
“Every day people stop me, and every time I do an interview they play the Brendan / Molly death scene, which is still the highest rating moment in Australian history to this day,” he observes.
“But if I’d known then people would still be watching that scene I would have put a bit more effort into it, I think!”
Home & Away airs 7pm Monday – Thursday on Seven.