Soaps are providing a bit of escapism during coronavirus lockdown.
Sky News speaks to Neighbours executive producer Jason Herbison and star Alan Fletcher, better known as Dr Karl Kennedy, about how they’re keeping filming going.
With UK soaps spreading episodes out while filming is halted during COVID-19 lockdown, who knows when the stars of Corrie will be returning to the cobbles, or EastEnders favourites enjoying a pint (or having a fight) at the Queen Vic?
Filming on Australia’s most famous fictional cul-de-sac, however, is resuming, albeit with strict social distancing conditions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Neighbours stars are back in Ramsay Street, with business almost as usual thanks to a huge production facility in Nunawading, in Melbourne, Victoria, that allows cast plenty of room to stick to the two-metre rule.
The soap seems to be leading the way, with various productions from around the world getting in touch for details on how it is operating, executive producer Jason Herbison told Sky News.
“I hope we’ve been able to provide some proactive advice,” he said.
“Our production facility is one of the largest in the world and that puts us in a very fortunate position. We have three large interior studios and two smaller ones as well as a gigantic backlot, where we have created the world of Erinsborough.
“We are taking advantage of every inch of the site and spreading everyone out, creating separate areas which limit the movements of each individual.”
Erinsborough’s social distancing and safety measures include temperature checks, new hygiene protocols and special officers running the sets to make sure rules are adhered to.
Cast and crew are being divided into different groups with limited crossover, said Herbison, and in some cases actors will be scheduled separately but edited together “to give the illusion of larger groups”.
Plus, it’s essential cast and crew only – so no visitors allowed for their famous Neighbours tours.
“We’re guided by our local government in terms of how long we keep these measures in place,” said Herbison.
“Different areas have been impacted. Our writing department have had to do a massive amount of work so our stories can be shot so they’re complying with social distancing but without looking different.
“That’s testament to our exceptionally talented team of producers, directors, camera operators to ensure we’re able to frame our scenes so there’s minimum impact on screen and of course our cast, to work with the new material – we’re all passionate and so invested in Neighbours, nothing will stop us!”
One rule of social distancing filming is “no scenes that require intimacy or physical contact” – which you’d think might present a problem for a soap, for which the (usually messy) love-lives of all the characters are one of the biggest draws.
“That’s the magic of post-production and also how we frame our scenes when they are shot,” said Herbison. “For the moment there will be a lot of long, loving looks.”
Neighbours filming usually continues through “rain, hail and snow”, he said.
Ramsay Street veteran Alan Fletcher, better known as Dr Karl Kennedy, told Sky News he could only remember halting on one occasion during his 26 years playing the much-loved character.
“I cannot recall ever stopping filming for anything other than Anne Haddy’s (who played Helen Daniels) memorial.
“She was the undisputed Queen of Neighbours and every member of cast, crew and production stopped to honour her.”
With coronavirus impacting the whole world like nothing else for decades, will the pandemic be written into storylines? Perhaps with Dr Kennedy treating some patients?
Both Herbison and Fletcher say this is a difficult thing to decide, as episodes can be screened up to 20 weeks after filming.
Plus, there’s the question of whether viewers will want to relive it on screen.
“[It’s] very difficult to write coronavirus stories for Neighbours that could be way out of date when screened,” said Fletcher. “Wiser heads than mine will decide on this.
“We’ve debated about whether to incorporate the coronavirus into the narrative,” said Herbison. “However, we are currently plotting episodes that won’t air until much later in the year, so anything we write now might feel very outdated.
“Further to this, there’s a creative question: will our viewers want to switch on Neighbours and relive it again? Or is our job to provide escapism?
“I tend to feel it’s the latter, however you might see some lingering hints of it on screen; as if the virus might have somehow passed by our fictional world and our characters have adopted some of the habits and precautions, such as around hygiene.”
Dr Kennedy will “definitely not” be treating patients, said Herbison, but it’s “certainly something we would acknowledge in dialogue”.
The residents of Ramsay Street would pull through a pandemic “as they have with other disasters”, he says. “Tornadoes, fires, bomb explosions – they’ve come through them all.”
Both said they were pleased to be helping provide a bit of escapism for fans during difficult times.
“Audiences all around the world and especially in the UK love soaps and rely on them for their wind down at the end of a stressful day,” said Fletcher. “I am so pleased that we are continuing to supply drama for our loyal fans all around the world.
“There is so much coverage around the virus, I think audiences are craving for escapism and this has certainly been reflected in [an] increase in viewing figures,” said Herbison.
Fletcher said he has been bingeing in lockdown, watching all five series of Peaky Blinders, season three of Ozark and “great Aussie shows like Stateless and Mystery Road… and Tiger King (of course).
“And I am watching tons of YouTube clips on making music and photography.”
As a Liverpool FC fan, the actor was due to be in the UK for the club’s match against Crystal Palace on 21 March, which had to be called off as lockdown here began.
He said 2020 has been equally “the most exciting and deflating year in LFC history that I can remember”.
“I was slated to be at Anfield to see LFC v Crystal Palace. This was very likely to be the game that sealed the league, could have been one of the biggest memories of my life. Sadly not to be.
“Hopefully the season will be completed in late June and LFC will receive their thoroughly deserved crown.”
:: Listen to the Backstage podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Spreaker
Keeping himself busy, Fletcher has been recording videos for fans in return for donations to raise money to support artists during the pandemic.
Messages can be anything from Happy Birthday to a pep talk.
“I have been connecting with fans for the last six years, sending free videos for birthdays and weddings,” he says. “In that time, I have sent over 7,000 videos.
“When coronavirus hit I saw the entertainment industry take an incredible hit. Every theatre show and every TV and film production, every music gig, had to stop with almost no government support for artists.
“So I have added in these Cameo video shout-outs for fans to raise money to support artists in the time of COVID-19.
“So far we have together raised $4,000 (£2,098) in three weeks. And, judging by the feedback, people are loving my messages of hope in these difficult times.”
It’s time to pitch our charity song idea: the Neighbours cast, get Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan back, record a cover of Especially For You. Surely that would raise a fair amount of cash.
What does Fletcher think?
“Awesome idea! C’mon Jason and Kylie – get around it!”
Kylie, Jason – if you’re reading this, get in touch.
Watch Neighbours on Channel 5 on weekdays in the UK