As Digital Spy's Producer Season 2011 continues, we recently chatted to Neighbours' executive producer Susan Bower to hear what the future holds for Australia's longest-running drama.
Neighbours has now been airing on Eleven for over six months. How do you think the show has coped with the channel change?
"We have had excellent results and we're absolutely thrilled. We see that we have loyal fans and that the digital channels have been embraced by viewers in this country. Not only are they loyal fans but they seem to be watching more of the show more often, which is what our market research is telling us."
Neighbours fans sometimes complain that the soap has to pussyfoot around certain issues due to its G rating. As the show could feasibly air as PG on its new channel, there's been some surprise among viewers that this hasn't happened - what are your thoughts?
"We remain G, however on Channel 11 and with a sensitive censor we have been able to push the boundaries. But we don't want to go outside G because we have an audience which range from quite young, so we need to stay G. And we are proud to be a programme that the entire family can sit down and enjoy, so we are definitely G."
Among the hardcore Neighbours fans, the 2011 season seems to be getting the best feedback that we've seen for the show in recent years. Do you think there's been conscious changes in the show's approach which have led to this?
"I believe this has a lot to do with the move to Eleven. I've read a lot of criticism over the last year or so which was disappointing, but the show remains constant. We've been pushing the boundaries for a very long time - Bridget's death, Steph sleeping with her best friend's husband, and Susan's surrogacy were all very big stories, and many more.
"The only thing I feel we've changed is we have put a bit more music into the episodes so there is a more contemporary feel, and a couple of characters have been more well-defined and have a real point-of-difference. I would have thought we would have more criticism as characters leave, but that hasn't been the case. And I believe viewers' likes and dislikes go in cycles - they can be in love with some characters but then their attention will be diverted to another character. "
"Again, we're in storyline cycles. I think we are pretty consistent, using all our characters and that there is a generational balance. The teens have had a lot of focus, however at the same time, as you point out, we have put a lot of emphasis on Sonya and Toadie. Coming up shortly on-air in the UK is a fantastic story with the teens about cyber-bullying and at the same time we have the beginning of the Kennedys' issues with a character called Jim Dolan which will tear them apart, so again, we try to balance the focus of our characters."
The cast seems really small at the moment, so are there any plans to remedy this in the coming months? Could a new family join the show?
"Yes, a new family will join the show but not for a while, again because of the story cycles. We need to let our stories be told in a natural way. It has been shown in the past if a moving van pulls up in Ramsay Street and a new family comes in, it is a trigger for the audience not to like them so we are introducing a family in very small doses. We will meet one, then another so the characters are accepted."
There have been quite a few new castings announced recently, but the vast majority of those have been guest roles. Are you testing the waters with some of the guests with a view to them becoming regulars, or are they all in the show for specific storylines before leaving?
"Yes and no. When we know definitely that we need a new core character - and that has to do with the demographic breakdown of our characters, how many we have in each demographic and if the balance is right - we will bring them in straight away. And there are others that we do test the waters, not only for how they work on the show but do the viewers notice them, are they good for publicity, can the character be developed further, and of course budget is a consideration."
We've recently heard that you've cast Bob Morley as Aidan, a new love interest for Chris, and this news seems to have gone down really well among the fans. However, the viewers are curious to know whether Chris and Aidan's relationship will be treated like any other when it comes to physical contact and affection, or will there will be restrictions with how much you can show?
"We will treat any romance homosexual or heterosexual in a sensitive G-rated way. It is obvious that at 6.30pm a gay romance is a sensitive issue and for some reason on television it is alright for girls to kiss and experiment with their sexuality but it's not alright for boys. That is something we are aware of, as annoying or disappointing as it is. We will treat the romance within the character. Chris is a naturally shy person - he is not a person who either flaunts his sexuality or his heart. So it will be done according to that character. And it may not be a full-on relationship. The character that Bob is playing is older and further down the track with his relationship testing, so it will be a relationship story rather than a gay male romance."
When Home and Away screened a lesbian relationship between Charlie and Joey a couple of years ago, there was a surprising amount of debate and criticism from conservative and family groups. Have you prepared yourselves for that kind of response and will Neighbours stand its ground if there's a similar reaction?
"We are batting down the hatches because already we have seen in the media letters from viewers and even non-viewers who are less than thrilled. It was incredible that one of the letters said that Bob's character was a nurse and how cliché was that, however it is counterbalanced that the Chris character is a mechanic so some of them are knee-jerk. We're not going to please everyone, that is impossible."
"Both. With Steph gone, it did leave us light on stories, and also Janet originally joined this time around for three months and ended up staying for two years, so she was keen to return to the theatre and other projects."
The Robinsons are an iconic family but we currently only have two left - Paul and Andrew. Would you ever consider bringing back characters like Lucy or Rosemary again, or perhaps a long-lost relative?!
"We regularly have Rosemary on the show and she is very happy to return to do very small appearances. A long-lost relative is always on the cards. It's not for a want of trying. A lot of past characters don't want to come back, they have moved onto other projects, left the industry and many live overseas and it's just not practical to bring them back."
Are any future returns on the cards after Harold's stint and the news of Malcolm's comeback?
"We will always try to get Harold back and we have Mal, but he doesn't stay in the show. As I said previously, if it is relevant to the story, we will always try to bring people back and of course, it also depends if the actors want to return. What we will continue to do is refresh our characters and while some fans may not like this, particularly in England, this is something we have to do because the days when actors stayed in roles forever, in any show, are over. Actors want to pursue opportunities overseas, there are more opportunities now than there were 10, 15 or 20 years ago. And we never stop people furthering their careers, however we know which ones the fans love and we try to keep them as long as we can."
> For chat about Jade, Kyle, Tash, Susan, Karl and more, read the second part of our interview with Susan in Soap Scoop.