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Susan Bower (Executive Producer, 'Neighbours')

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Susan Bower (Executive Producer, 'Neighbours')
As Neighbours begins planning to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Digital Spy caught up with the show's executive producer Susan Bower as part of our 2009 Producer Season. Here, Susan talks about the controversy surrounding Bridget's pregnancy, the Parkers' impending exit, the show's 25th anniversary and which character she thinks should have been killed off.

Were you surprised by the reaction of some conservative groups over Bridget's pregnancy? She's not the first teenager to fall pregnant.
"I think there are always going to be members of the community who don't like some of the stories that involve young people and sexual activity. I agree to some extent that there would be controversy because we are unable in our timeslot to be very specific about in this day and age that they should've been better prepared. We're restricted by our timeslot."

Does that frustrate you at all?
"Enormously. But sometimes it also makes you more clever."

In the past Neighbours has been criticised by some for its lack of cultural diversity, but the series has made some great advances on this issue over recent months. Do you feel this is still an issue?
"I do still think it's an issue and we are continuing to work through that. However, I would like to say that having been interviewed about this and also my own point of view I have taken particular notice of advertisements like for some car insurance and a bank advertisement - there was not one character or background character in any of those ads that was not white, blonde or Caucasian. So I feel a bit angry that Neighbours is singled out."

Home and Away has never been singled out on this issue. Why do you think Neighbours has?
"I think people have to make a story and criticise. However, I take their point. What's interesting is that some market research I read before I started on the show - there was about four lots done over four years - and one of them was some of the audience did not want cultural diversity because that's where they live. That's what they do. A lot about serial drama is aspirational - this is perfect, this is Disneyland and there's a lot of that, and finding a balance is something I struggle with every day."

And you're never going to please everyone.
"No, and to be honest sometimes it's great to be talked about. I'd prefer it for the right reasons, but if it's for controversy then so be it."

Last year Michala Banas briefly took over the role of Libby while Kym Valentine was off ill. Were you pleased with the results of the recast?
"Yes I was. One can never replace Kym Valentine - she's an icon. It was a very dicey thing to do, one that I lost several nights' sleep over, but Kym was not well. And on the other side of that we were falling further and further behind with the show. I thought Michala did a terrific job."

Would you consider having Michala back and having some fun with the "two Libbys"?
"Yes absolutely. No problem at all. A good actress is a good actress."

Over the years there have been some great matriarchs in Ramsay Street. Are there any plans to bring back or introduce an older female character into the series?
"Yes. It's being done as we speak."

Last year the series featured some strong storylines, namely Susan's multiple sclerosis and Sam's bipolar. Are there any plans to tackle other social issues this year?
"Yes. I think that whilst drama must never be issue based, I think things that are in our community need to be spoken about. Like breaking a leg, having a mental illness or teenage pregnancy, all of those things happen every day."

Were you sad to see such an icon as Harold leave the series?
"Yes, of course. My only reaction is yes. To be honest I just wish that with the amount of discussion that happened, and I have to say that it is ultimately my decision, I think we should've killed the character off."

How would you have killed him off?
"I think through the cancer storyline. But I'm delighted that he is alive and well and enjoying himself and the fact that we've got a lovely photograph of him in the store and we named the store after Harold, at least means that his spirit will always live on."

Would you ever consider bringing him back?
"You never say never. I just think that if you do it too many times, though, the audience just gets p*ssed off."

Is Lou lost without Harold or will he come into his own?
"With the plans that we have, Lou will not be lost. However, the actor Tom [Oliver] is on a similar deal to what Ian [Smith] was on where he spends a fair amount of time away from the show and then he comes back. He's not full time. That's his choice and those sorts of decisions are made because you don't want to lose the character or that type of character. Tom Oliver and Lou are as much an icon as Harold in a way."

Next year sees Neighbours turn the big 2-5. Have you already started planning for it yet?
"Yes! It's very exciting!"

Can we expect to see anyone coming back like they did for the 20th anniversary?
"We're discussing that. I have difficulty with that as a personal taste. Decisions have not been made. I don't like stunts. I like people to come to the show because it's fantastic. But there are other ways of bringing people back and we are planning some fantastic things that we hope will satisfy the audience. With the nostalgia of 25 years I would also like the same amount of air time spent on 'this is where we were' and 'this is where we're going', because after all, it is the future of the show that is important. It's lovely to celebrate it and pay homage to what's gone on before and that's always a part of birthday celebrations, but it's as much looking into the future."

Do you hope the network builds it up as much as they did for the relaunch?
"I think they will. We're a little bit gun shy after the re-launch because it may be over-promised. There was an over promise there. I work very well with the network and very closely with the network, and they're very supportive and we talk about these things constantly."

Are there any plans to explore Donna’s bisexuality?
"No. As I said just recently to a newspaper, because there was an episode where Donna and Sunny kissed but that was completely taken out of context when it was more about the kiss and whether they were two girls or not, Neighbours has done stories about lesbians or about girls, not boys, being sexually confused or not realising that they have homosexual leanings. If we're going to do it, we'll be out and proud. I don't want to scurry it in or cover it or pretend. We're getting an enormous amount of leverage with Donna being the person she is and there's just so much storyline with her and romance with Ringo that I'm not saying it's out of the question, but it's not in any planning stages now."

What can we expect to see when Lyn returns? Is Paul firmly in her sights?
"Oh I can't give too much away. It's just too delicious!"

Is it a long stay or just a visit?
"She's in for quite a bit and I also have to juggle a budget. You see, it's all about budgets more than everything else with everything that happens behind the screen. But she's a fantastic character."

Are there any former residents you’d like to see back in Ramsay Street?
"Off the top of my head no and I'll tell you why, because I think the cast that we have at the moment are quite amazing and they are relishing the storylines and the way that we're telling stories now. There's such a great and proud and positive feeling in the green room these days. So nothing at the moment is needed."

It seems every few months there are rumours that Dee is returning from the dead. Do you ever think viewers will ever find out what happened to her or is she lost at sea forever?
"I think she's just lost at sea forever."

And Liljana and Serena?
"I think so."

Would you consider bringing them back like when Harold returned?
"I never say never. If it can be done with truth. I thought the way Harold came back was wonderful. I thought that was incredibly clever and unless you do something like that then don't do it. Otherwise you're treating your audience with contempt."

What can you tell us about the Parkers' exit?
"It's a fortnight of Neighbours that is not to be missed from beginning to end. Whilst births, deaths and marriages have always been done on serial drama, I believe that this is not just about people leaving and being sad or happy, but it's about a story. It's the way the story is told, the dramatic and emotional tension, that is really quite outstanding and it goes on so that it's not over. It's the story that keeps on giving for another three or four weeks. It's very well storylined, beautifully acted and shot. It's a tremendous amount of work for which we're all very proud.

And what about the new Ramsay family moving into Ramsay Street?
"It's terribly exciting! What this is based on is the very successful series Party of Five. We have three orphans, basically. That, as you can imagine, has a tremendous amount of story material with it and they're fabulous! Wait until you see this cast. They just clicked. We've had criticism because we haven't got what's called a 'nuclear family' or a 'normal family'. Well in the suburbs and certainly where I live and how I live, there's not a lot of your mum, dad and two kids."

Will this reignite the old Ramsay/Robinson feud?
"In a different way."

Have we really seen the last of evil Paul?
"No, never! Rebecca and his love for Rebecca, whether it leads to the aisle or whatever, the character must evolve. What I like about Paul now is he's well rounded. He's not just evil and he's not soapie good, he's got a bit of everything but never will he not do evil. Stefan Dennis would never forgive me!"

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