When Stefan Dennis received an early morning call that Jason Herbison, executive producer of Neighbours, wanted to pop in for a coffee, he was still in bed.
It had been some 5 months since filming stopped on the long-running 10 series and 64, was happily enjoying semi-retirement.
“I thought it was a bit odd at the time,” Dennis recalls.
“He said, ‘I’ve got a present for you and I just never got around to giving it to you.’ He came around and he did have a picture of a nicely framed picture of myself and my wife, when she was on the show.
“But we were sort of chatting away and he said ‘Right. I better tell you, then. We’re back. But you’ve got to keep it absolute top secret. I’m telling you and Fletch (Alan Fletcher) and Jackie (Woodburne) and Ryan (Moloney). I’m visiting you all and telling you personally, because you’re the ‘big four’, so to speak.’
“My idea was I’d gone into semi-retirement”
The offer would completely upend his new lifestyle, which meant no more early starts and driving onto a studio lot that he had known for nearly 40 years.
“My idea was I’d gone into semi-retirement. I thought for the first few months, I’m going to fix the house and garden and do all the things that I’ve been wanting to get done for the last few years. I had a couple of gigs, a film and a musical, La Cage Aux Folles. I did a week’s rehearsal and then they knocked it on the head. It’s a long story,” he explains.
Dennis was given just 24 hours to mull the offer from Herbison, which was principally about being part of a cast announcement that the show would return in a deal between 10 and Amazon.
“People say, ‘You must have jumped at it straight away.’ But no, actually.”
He admits he did have to think it over. After all the show had staged a grand finale, lovingly received by fans.
“People say, ‘You must have jumped at it straight away.’ But no, actually. (Jason) was sensible. He said, ‘I’ll give you 24 hours to think about it’ because he was on a tight schedule. I think I took the whole 24 hours. When he first said it, ” I thought yes… but then I thought, do I really want to go back?’
“Nothing against the show at all. I would never say anything bad against the show, because I think it has a wonderful place in the world of media. But we all know we’re not doing Shakespeare. We’re not even doing anything like Shakespeare. It’s a genre of show that the world has an appetite for. I never watch soaps but that doesn’t mean they’re bad, I like watching movies with a beginning, middle and end.”
All four approached by Herbison agreed to return, along with many other returning cast and a few new faces as the show moves into a streaming era internationally, including in the US and Canada.
Dennis returns as Ramsay Street’s resident bad boy Paul Robinson, a shrewd businessman and Lassiter’s Hotel proprietor, known for his manipulative and arrogant business tactics as well as womanising (he’s had no less than 6 wives).
“The storylines for my first year back are just phenomenal.”
But Dennis says there were no concerns about whether storylines for his devious character had been exhausted.
“No. They’ve given me enough to work with over the last God knows how many years. … and my god they’ve ramped it up incredibly!” he insists.
“The storylines for my first year back are just phenomenal. I don’t know when they’re going to die down a bit!
“Honestly, the audience in the first episode are going to go (jaw on floor).
“But I am having fun. It’s really, really good. We’ll see how it goes. It may fail….” he suggests pragmatically.
If it succeeds in the leap to streaming (Prime Video has episodes a week after 10 in Australia, while FreeVee screens in all other markets except NZ), does he expect to stay with the show another 40 years?
“I doubt I’ll be on the planet in 40 years!” he laughs.
“I would give it probably at least four years”
“I don’t know how long I’m going to last this time around. I would give it probably at least four years because that takes me through to the end of my kids schooling and that makes a lot of sense. But as I say, it all hinges on the world stage and how Amazon treats it. They might go, ‘It’s not working in America we don’t want it. Or they might say ‘It’s doing okay in America and Canada, but it’s doing really well in Europe and UK so we’ll keep it.’
“But I’ve got to say I’m very, very pleased that what I kept harping on about before, just before they finished the show, which was: a soap has to make the transition to streaming soon. Otherwise, it would be the slow demise of soaps worldwide.”
Neighbours returns 4:30pm Monday September 18 (repeat 6:30pm 10 Peach / Prime Video September 25)