Friday marks 25 years for Jackie Woodburne & Alan Fletcher in Neighbours.
TV Tonight recently sat down with Australia’s longest-running drama couple and in the first of a two part story looks back on the early years.
The Kennedy clan, consisting of Dr. Karl Kennedy (Alan Fletcher), Susan (Jackie Woodburne), Malcolm (Benjamin McNair), Libby (Kym Valentine) and Billy (Jesse Spencer), arrived in the 10 soap in October 1994. Bill Searle was executive producer, Peter Dodds was series producer and Jan Russ was casting director.
Alan Fletcher had previously appeared in a guest role, which he was later asked to resume but declined due to theatre commitments.
“I was doing Shakespeare with the Melbourne Theatre Company,” he recalls.
“My goodness what a different life I might have had!
“I probably would have done a year and a bit and ‘headed off to the UK’ or something!
“7 years later along came Dr. Karl Kennedy and I couldn’t have been more excited.”
He also filmed his first scenes on location a week before his on-air family filmed their first studio scenes.
“I always boast that I’ve been on Neighbours longer than Jackie, by a week!
“Jesse Spencer and I bought 28 Ramsay Street on location, which was filmed a week before the family turned up. It was a thrilling day. My strongest memory is of us moving into the street with a removal truck. The kids were insulting each other as we carried everything in.”
“I remember it set the tone for the Kennedys,” says Jackie Woodburne. “We were moving stuff out of our very shabby station wagon, and as ‘Jerry Spicer’ (Jesse’s nickname) walked past me he was carrying a small table lamp. I ad-libbed to him, ‘You sure you can manage that luv?’
“I thought ‘Ah there (Susan) is!’”
“And I thought ‘Ah there (Susan) is!’”
Fletcher continues, “My character was very strict and Susan was the mother hen, looking after everybody. But the characters have evolved over the years and softened.”
Fletcher and Woodburne had both performed together briefly on Cop Shop -as brother and sister- prior to their Erinsborough days, but came from very different backgrounds.
“Dad never blinked. He supported me all the way.”
Fletcher’s first professional jobs were at Hole in the Wall theatre in Perth.
“My dad and my brothers were industrial chemists. I became an actor after getting good marks in all the sciences. Dad never blinked. He supported me all the way.”
Jackie Woodburne was born in Ireland, and still has the Irish lilt in her natural-speaking voice.
“We came to Australia when I was 3 and lived in various places. We moved to Frankston when I was about 7 or 8 and I stayed there until I left home.”
She trained at the National Theatre, where fellow cast member Janet Andrewartha (Lyn Scully) was also a student.
“Janet was a couple of years ahead of me. Even then, looking at her in shows I thought ‘Wow, she’s good!’ She always had it.”
Both still have fond memories of their Kennedy children.
“Jesse was an extraordinary boy, a classical violinist, a composer, and not a bad little singer,” says Fletcher.”He was one who could’ve come out of Neighbours and sung, but didn’t. There was no putting brakes on his career once he did Swimming Upstream. A gorgeous little movie which helped him in the UK.”
“We just hovered around them and caught them if they fell.”
“It was a great dynamic initially,” Woodburne agrees. “Jesse was a natural, quite studious and brave. Benji was completely inexperienced, but he felt comfortable in the family dynamic to try stuff. Kym had been doing it since she was a toddler. So the 3 of them together were a great little unit. As mum and dad we just hovered around them and caught them if they fell.
“It was very typical of Jan Russ. She found great people. Always did.”
“The show was shot in studio with 3 cameras, shot very quickly,” Fletcher remembers. “There was big ‘tennis court’ lighting. If you look at footage of the ‘90s compared to how it is now with HD, individually-lit shots, it’s remarkable. It has transformed itself into being on the same par as pretty much any drama on television.”
“The Kylie & Jason days were well and truly over.”
Both joined Neighbours not long before the show’s 10th anniversary. It may not have been the frenzied era of the series, but it was still wildly popular and required major publicity commitments.
“The Kylie & Jason days were well and truly over. But Natalie Imbruglia was in it. We did shopping centres for the first couple of years,” recalls Woodburne.
“I had no real sense of the UK fans until I went over in 1999 to do a panto. I was shocked. It was like being a film star!” says Fletcher.
“I’ve been going a lot and the passion for the programme amongst Brits, is incredibly strong. I think it’s 1.6m a day still over 2 screenings. It is consistently in the top 3 programmes on Channel 5 and not uncommon to be the most popular of the day.”
“The British fans are in a league of their own.”
“The British fans are in a league of their own. When they attach to you, they attach to you,” Woodburne agrees.
“Their knowledge of the show is phenomenal, the detail they retain.”
After their on-screen children departed (Kym Valentine would return as Libby several times) writers had to find new storylines for these empty-nesters. That came through work-based storylines, new teens, affairs and remarriage, to name but a few. Karl Kennedy had affairs with his receptionist, Sarah Beaumont (Nicola Charles), which drove ratings up, and Erinsborough flame Izzy Hoyland (Natalie Bassingthwaighte).
Jackie Woodburne insists Susan never strayed. A storyline with priest Tom Scully (Andrew Larkins) was after a split from Karl.
“I did remarry briefly with Alex Kinski (Andrew Clarke),” she adds.
That reminds Fletcher of one prominent storyline in which his character was caught between professional duties and emotional ties.
“I couldn’t tell my ex-wife that the guy she was going to marry was going to die.”
“Alex knew he was dying but he didn’t know the doctor he was seeing was Susan Kennedy’s ex-husband. I obviously had to maintain his confidentiality. They were getting married but I couldn’t tell my ex-wife that the guy she was going to marry was going to die.
“And in the wash-up I was asked to be a witness at the wedding. It was a very moving scene. I remember he died on the same day.
“When people talk about Neighbours they say ‘It’s a soap opera!’ like that means it is different from anything else. It’s absurd or over-inflated. But if you go through and write down the plot of almost any drama –Stranger Things or It– they are as absurd as anything else.”
But there are also challenges that come with a high-turnover drama and a large ensemble too. Schedules, illness, and changes to production all come with the territory. A soap actor has to be adaptable to change along with never seeing the finish line.
“You can imagine the attrition rate, particularly in winter. You get to work in the morning, you’ve learned your scenes, your day is mapped out and then someone says, ‘Forget it!’
“So you always have a slight sense that your life is not your own,” Fletcher admits.
“But it fades into insignificance when you look at all the good things the show brings.
“Working with Jacs is one of the great artistic pleasures of my life.”
“Working with Jacs is one of the great artistic pleasures of my life.”
Woodburne agrees that finding the joy is not hard.
“When we get a run of scenes in the Kennedy set and everybody is on it and the energy is up, they’re the best days ever. It’s like a dance. Everyone is in sync. It’s great fun.
“Those are the days when you drive home thinking, ‘This is why I’m still here after 25 years.’”
Tomorrow: Part Two: Favourite & least-favourite scenes; when they will decide to wrap.
Neighbours airs 6:30pm weekdays on 10 Peach.