“It’s a miracle it gets to air”: Behind the scenes of Neighbours

“It’s a miracle it gets to air”: Behind the scenes of Neighbours

EXCLUSIVE: In August TV Tonight went behind the scenes for a day embedded within Neighbours production team to learn how key departments kept the show humming as its third chapter begins on air.

At 8am on Wednesday morning at Neighbours‘ Forest Hills studios, around 16 people gather in what was once the Channel 10 board room.

They comprise key department heads of the Neighbours production team who are about to go over Block 1713 with Series Producer Andrew Thompson and Director Guy Strachan. I’m lucky enough to be a fly on the wall for a day to see how the team pull the moving parts together, ahead of the show’s heralded return to screen.

Although I am sworn to secrecy on storylines, these episodes won’t screen until at least February.

Around 150 people work on the show produced under two units, Studio and Location, both working simultaneously on and off site. Directors work on a block of 5 episodes across 5 weeks (2 weeks pre / 2 weeks shoot / 1 week post-production). Around 60% of scenes are studio and 40% location (this includes Lassiters complex which is at the rear of studios).

In the 90 minute production meeting Thompson’s team go over each scene to address everything from special props, to camera equipment, crew times, shots, shooting duration and minute details.

The meeting is occasionally interjected by the quacking of wood ducks, who have wandered from the Lassiters pond to peck at the windows. Maybe they have script demands?

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For one scene Guy Strachan is worried about letting new cast member Trevor the Dog anywhere near a backyard pool. This pooch loves the water. In another scene on Pin Oak Court (Ramsay Street) he assures the team that cameras won’t be looking back towards Weeden Drive, so equipment trucks can safely park on the street itself.

There’s some discussion around whether Susan (Jackie Woodburne) can be shot looking from within a house directly onto the street, and whether this has been staged before. “Not in my time,” someone suggests, until another explains how it can be replicated with a window frame. I’ll come to learn that a lot of making scripted television is really about problem-solving.

“These scenes are of a sensitive nature”

Another scene requires some PG-friendly graffiti while other scenes in the schedule come with ‘Content warnings’ so that cast and crew are forewarned of what’s required.

“It’s material of a sensitive nature that some people might be triggered by,” Thompson explains. “If an episode is about death, or suicide, it appears in the script: ‘These scenes are of a sensitive nature,’ just to pre-warn our people that they’re not going to read it and then be triggered. It’s something relatively new that we’ve implemented this season.”

There’s some debate around the length of time allocated to shooting of scenes, given 12 scenes will need to be shot on location in just 10 hours. Serial drama moves fast, even with a team as experienced as this.

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In the revived Neighbours around half the crew have returned while the rest comprise new staff.

“A lot of crew moved on. We wanted everyone to be excited about coming on this new journey. We wanted a mix of old and new, so the new people could take ownership of the product that we’re making as well,” says Thompson.

“But we wanted to try new things. We don’t want to have to fall into how the show’s been made for 37 or 38 years. We want to be open to new (ideas), as with technology we have to move with the times.

“For the first time ever, we have gender parity in our directors”

“One thing that I am really proud of is, for the first time ever, we have gender parity in our directors. You’ll see a lot of young, new emerging directors, as well as our wonderful ones who have been with the show for many years.”

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Andrew Thompson

If Neighbours is famous for its generational experience shared between Ramsay Street residents, it is also reflected in the show’s crew including VicScreen attachments.

“This year we’ll have five Director’s attachments, three Writing attachments and three below-the-line positions as well,” says Thompson.

“Our elders are teaching the new generation”

“The show’s cross-generational in its storytelling and I feel like we’ve got that in our leaders as well. Our elders are teaching the new generation. One of my greatest joys is that Neighbours is a training institution.”

Crew wasn’t all that was lost after the show wrapped in mid 2022, with Executive Producer Jason Herbison’s next two miniseries Riptide and Heat, utilising sets.

“In the early stages of pre-production we went through our set storage to establish what still existed because a lot of sets, set pieces and furniture had been reused or repurposed,” he recalls.

“Some sets had to be rebuilt. A lot of the flats were still here, but they had been painted or had wallpaper on them from the other shows that came through. So there was a bit of, I guess, damage control on what needed to be fixed.

“The other shows were aesthetically very different to Neighbours, so we did have to repaint them. But we’ve already announced that we’ve got a new family so that allowed for a set to change.”

Eagle-eyed fans may notice a “fourth wall” added to some interior sets that will allow for more realistic depictions.

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Shane Isheev

Script Producer Shane Isheev has been with Neighbours for 9 years, with a brief stint at Hollyoaks following the show’s 2022 conclusion. But he was lured back by the prospect of new story possibilities thanks to a 2 year time leap devised by Jason Herbison and Story Producer Sarah Mayberry.

His team includes Script Co-ordinators, Script Editors and Scriptwriters (most of whom work from home), bolstered by regular forward-planning meetings with Herbison, Mayberry & Thompson to map out 3-6 month arcs. Already plotting story for mid-2024, at any given time he can be across up to 60 scripts in various stages.

“It is a massive jigsaw puzzle. I don’t do Sudoku or anything like that, because I get my fix here!” he insists. “But basically, it is plotting within very restrictive parameters, in order to make sure the show can get filmed, scheduled, delivered on time and budget too.

“Australia is very unique in the way we contract our cast”

“Unlike other soap markets, Australia is very unique in the way we contract our cast. Hollyoaks in the UK is a completely different system to what we have here. New Zealand has a completely different system with Shortland Street.

“Our cast is contracted to X amount of episodes per block. Regardless of what stories are in train, we need to use them X amount of times, per week. So that’s the first jigsaw puzzle. The second one is looking at what locations and sets you can use for a particular block of episodes.”

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10 and Amazon are both consulted on story ideas ahead of scriptwriting and editing, but Isheev and his team have to be nimble and flexible, including for completed scripts which require last minute adjustments.

“If an actor is unwell all of a sudden, or we have to pivot with a story, or a network request -there are various things that come into play that the editors have to handle and smooth through the process for us,” he smiles.

“It’s almost like working on shifting sands because your plans are constantly going out the window, and having to pivot and rethink. It’s just unrelenting. We’ve had many people come through the Script Department who come from other shows that aren’t serial and they’ve just had their mind blown. They just couldn’t keep up with the pace and said, ‘This is not for me,’ and that’s okay. It’s not for everyone. You really have to have a love and passion for serial drama to sustain it.

“It’s a miracle it gets to air”

“I often say any soap, it’s a miracle it gets to air, because of the speed you have to work. There’s not one story I can honestly say from the conception has been exactly the same as what’s ended up on screen. Because it is such a collaboration.”

Isheev is also excited for the new chapter and the story possibilities his team have been able to explore thanks to the time leap.

“The creative freedom we have in this era is really fun. We have done stuff that we weren’t able to do in the previous incarnation, because we had this reset which has really rejuvenated the stories that we can tell. I think it’s well publicised that there’s this big twist in episode one,” he explains.

“It really sets the tone of what you can expect from this era of Neighbours”

“It really sets the tone of what you can expect from this era of Neighbours. There’s just constant surprises. I like to call it ‘fun soap’. It’s just playing with the audience’s expectations. It’s still Neighbours heartland, warm and entertaining, everything you know and love about the show but we’re just able to have that little bit more fun with it. ”

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Art Director Ash Cottrell was, as it happens, once in a minor acting role as Alicia Berry, kissing Andrew Robinson (Jordan Patrick Smith). But her screen time is behind her. These days she oversees Art Dept Co-ordinators, Set Dresser, Props, Staging, Construction, Vehicles and Graphics.

Attention to detail is crucial. Every book or magazine that is used on set has been cleared for use. Everything from living room portraits, credit cards, medication and brand labels have to be designedand realised, and in a fictional suburb like Erinsborough, every character has their own individual phone supplied by smart phone companies such as Apple and Samsung.

Cottrell is another of the show’s problem-solvers, but insists on finding creative solutions.

“The Art Department is the best merging of creativity and pragmatism in one, because we can’t do one without the other.”

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Costume designer Nick Wakerley readies around 100 different costume items for a 5 episode block which, in a sunny ‘burb like Erinsborough leans towards colourful summery outfits. There’s also Toadie’s (Ryan Moloney) bowling shirts, Paul Robinson’s (Stefan Dennis) suits, plus any uniforms / hospital / school / prison attire. The staff of 9 must constantly clean and repair costumes, dry-cleaning is done off site and extras generally wear their own casuals: please no white or blacks.

Neighbours is one of the few (if not the only) production spaces in Australia where almost everything takes place under one roof. Post-Production Producer Carol Johnston guides me around a rabbit warren of windowless suites where editing, sound mixing, sound fx, colour grading, ingesting and mastering take place. In addition to episode assembly, recaps and teasers are cut here and Director Scott Major can be found looking over his most recent block.

Ensuring the assembly line keeps moving are the Scheduling team of Brett Davis, Andy Pante & Flora Woods. Their tool of trade is Movie Magic software which distills the shooting schedule into one definitive document -a godsend whenever scenes have to move. Between them they have over 1000 episodes of television under their belts. But their natural foe is weather, which threatens to upset precision plans. While the Lassiters complex in now covered, Ramsay Street itself is the most exposed to the elements.

“We just keep shooting, rain, hail or shine”

“We often revisit scenes and think, ‘Can it be under umbrellas?” observes Davis.

“You’ve just got to keep moving. It’s an absolute machine,” adds Johnston.

Occasionally unwelcome rain may actually add to the drama, depending on the tone of the scene.

“We just keep shooting, rain, hail or shine,” says Davis.

It’s clear that without these three the entire machine that is Neighbours production would break down in all kinds of unwelcome ways.

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Now as their work rolls out on screen in their 38th year, all that work melts into the background. It’s important the audience connects with the Erinsborough universe and the daily toils of its residents.

“We are currently shooting our 9000th episode”

If the new deal with Amazon works, Australia’s longest running drama could be headed for its 40th anniversary.

Meanwhile there are still milestones being celebrated.

“As we go to air we are currently shooting our 9000th episode,” Andrew Thompson tells me this week.

“With that said I think it would be remiss of me not to mention all of the creatives who have come before us as we reach that milestone. Also in the very same block we are also shooting the 100th episode of the current season.

“Two major milestones in the same week.”

Neighbours airs 4:30pm Monday – Thursday on 10 (rpt 6:30pm 10 Peach / Sept 25 on Prime Video).