Shorty so bad that it was actually good

Shortland Street
Shortland Street

There is nothing like an anniversary to make one feel old.

As 750,000 Kiwis tuned in to the Shortland Street 20th anniversary special last Monday, my mind flashed back 20 years to the day I was in a studio in Brown's Bay on Auckland's North Shore.

There the first episode of New Zealand's iconic soap opera was broadcast to the cast and crew.

I had just been hired as one of the soap's six storyliners. The job involved sitting around a table, known as the "table of pain", for 40 hours a week and coming up with stories for the soap.

During that first episode even the cast and crew howled with laughter when Nurse Carrie uttered the famous "You're not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata," line. We knew it was one of those lines that was so bad it would become famous. I learned later that the original line was "You're not in Central America now" but a script editor decided that "Guatemala" had a better ring to it.

Today, Shortland Street is massively popular, especially with the younger teen demographic, but it hasn't always been the case. When the show first started, no one liked it. Game show Sale of the Century over on TV One trounced it in the ratings. Medical experts, ambulance drivers and television critics roundly condemned this "medical clinic from hell". A theatre director friend of mine threw pillows at the television at every dreadful line.

My wife got so sick of the negative reaction that Shortland Street received that if people asked her what her husband did for a living, she would simply say "Dave works in Auckland in advertising".

There were even rumours in those first few months that the show might be canned.

The word "placenta", used during a hospital childbirth scene, was edited from the first episode by a worried network as it was deemed too explicit.

We were allowed to have gay characters but they had to be minor, older and predatory. If a character smoked dope they had to get caught and punished for it. Australian executives worried that the Maori and Pacific characters would not take off - they ended up among the most popular. Another overseas executive worried that if Kirsty was raped by the evil Darryl Nielsen it might "sully" her character. By the end of that first year, to everyone's surprise, Shortland Street steadily rose in the ratings. Some people even openly admitted liking the show. And my wife could finally tell people what I did for a job.

As the show gradually became an institution we had "Kia ora Shortland Street," gay kisses, Asian characters, suicides, and a long list of other New Zealand television firsts. But it was when I went to Fiji, where the show is massively popular, that I really understood its impact. An Australian businessman explained how 11-year-old Fijian-Indian girls, some of whom lived in dirt-floor shacks and already had their marriages arranged - watched in jaw-dropping amazement at Kiwi teenagers not much older than them drinking, flatting together, driving expensive cars, having tumultuous gay and straight affairs, and dealing with STDs.

Shortland Street was intended as a training ground. From the cast of the early days, actors Temuera Morrison, Martin Csokas and Martin Henderson would go on to international careers. Robyn Malcolm's struggling mum - Nurse Ellen Crozier - was a very different creation to Cheryl West but it paved the way. Two of my storylining colleagues would later create Outrageous Fortune.

As for me, I felt there was more to life than a morning spent wondering how Kirsty could accidentally destroy Gina's wedding dress, and decided one year was enough. But I remain grateful for the experience.

Last Monday, I had better things to do than watch the special. While I was washing my hair, a helicopter apparently crashed and original cast member Chris Warner was framed for murder. Not to worry: if Dr Warner gets sentenced to life imprisonment, he'll be out just in time to star in the 40th anniversary episode.

Happy Birthday Shorty.

The Dominion Post