Shane Withington hopes teen won’t be the only gay in the Bay

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.

Life Supports Counselling: 1300 735 030
QLife: 1800 184 527
Lifeline: 13 11 14

12 Comments:

  1. H&A has not been great with same sex relationships but they’ve had a few more than you guys mentioned. Isla Fisher’s character Shannon was permanent for three years or so and left with her “special friend” Mandy in 1997, Kimberley Cooper as Gypsy was a regular for four years and I definitely remember she had a storyline where she had feelings for and kissed a girl in the early 2000’s, and Zoe the “Summer Bay Stalker” was seeking revenge for the death of a girl she fell in love with when working at the hospital and also dated a female detective to help her with the murders. But yeah, still not good, and most of these were off-screen, only mentioned or short – but still there!

  2. does anyone know who the 2009 storyline character was? i stopped watching about 2010 when i switched to the Project, but can’t remember the gay character.

  3. A second gay character after 30 years isn’t just overdue, it’s shameful negligence. Both Neighbours and Home & Away are currently falling over themselves so look as though they care about diversity by including gay storylines, but the truth is they’ve always been deeply conservative and pathetically timid – an interesting contrast to the UK soaps, both of which embraced regular gay characters decades ago (early 80s in the case of Eastenders). And to think Australia was actually fine with a gay character in Number 96 as far back as 1972.

    • To be fair, Neighbours has featured gay characters (male and female) for the best part of the past decade. Margot Robbie’s character had a fling with a girl back in 2009 (or it might have been 2010), Chris Pappas was a long term character who came out after quite a while (and had a boyfriend), Steph Scully is openly bisexual and for the past several years, Aaron Brennan has been openly gay (joined by David Tanaka late last year). Definitely not a “currently falling all over themselves” situation, unlike “Home and Away” (whose track record of featuring gay characters is abysmal).

  4. Great interview David. I’d like to think this storyline has made it easier for some teenagers to deal with one of the hardest things a person ever has to deal with in their lives. And hopefully some parents, siblings and friends also took something from it as well. Well done Home and Away.

  5. It is disappointing that the gay character new to home and away will only ever be here for a short period of time. Home and Away should have a gay character as regular on screen cast member for their usual 2 year or there abouts contract. It is ridiculous that they haven’t to date.

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