Shorty road to success

Original producer Caterina De Nave, now an executive producer at SBS in Australia.
Original producer Caterina De Nave, now an executive producer at SBS in Australia.

"Just what the doctor ordered", "Fine pedigree behind new medical soap", and "Quick pace sets new soap apart" were some of the headlines when Shortland Street debuted on our screens almost two decades ago.

But just days after the launch on May 25, 1992, the scalpels were out, as critics dissected every flaw in this ground-breaking, homegrown show.

"Shortland Street dead end", "Soap gets the thumbs down!", "Soap goes down the plug hole" sniggered media, writing off the TVNZ project before it was out of nappies.

Laurence Wilson, who is now a director on <i>Eastenders</i> in the UK.
Laurence Wilson, who is now a director on <i>Eastenders</i> in the UK.

The production team weathered the storm, and on Tuesday, 4491 episodes later, the soap will celebrate its 18th birthday and emergence into adulthood – boasting enviable viewing figures, a clutch of awards and an alumni that reads like a who's who of the New Zealand television and film industry.

While it's widely known that actors such as Martin Henderson, Temuera Morrison and Anna Hutchison cut their teeth on Shortland Street, less has been made of the fact it has proved a major launch pad for many of the people working behind the scenes.

Producer Caterina De Nave, who was responsible for getting the soap up and running, reveals that from the outset it was the ultimate training ground for the crew as well as the actors.

It nurtured the talents of the likes of Whale Rider writer and director Niki Caro, Outrageous Fortune creator Rachel Lang, Eastenders' director Laurence Wilson, Coronation Street script editor Nick Malmholt, and Simon Bennett, who is now head of drama at South Pacific Pictures (SPP).

"It's extraordinary, there's nowhere else you can learn skill more quickly," says De Nave. "You can't faff about, some days you might be shooting 30 minutes of television.

"You've got so many people who went on to be highly respected in the industry, and Shortland Street is where they all started – the list is endless."

Shortland Street was the brainchild of TVNZ programmer Bettina Hollings, who, in October 1991, won New Zealand on Air backing to make the country's first five-nights-a-week serial.

Production company SPP were commissioned to make 230 episodes with a budget of $10 million. Considering the magnitude of what they were taking on, De Nave got the project going remarkably quickly.

"It was six months from sitting around a table to going on air – which is remarkable – only in New Zealand," says De Nave on the phone from Sydney, where she is now executive producer of drama and comedy at broadcaster SBS.

"It is enormously fast. You have to design and build sets, you're budgeting it, you're casting it, you're writing scripts, you're crewing it. Two weeks before we went on to shoot, Clayton Ercolano – who later designed Outrageous Fortune – saved our bacon. He just worked every day designing sets for two weeks – he didn't go to bed in that time."

While determined to hit the ground running, from the get-go Shortland Street has been, in the words of Laurence Wilson, "almost as much a training school as it is a production".

Wilson was one of 14 wannabe directors who were invited on a 1992 course to learn how to make the show.

"We basically did evening classes, three hours a night for two weeks," he explains. "We were taken through the basics, given talks by the writers and knew that at the end of the course a couple of us may be invited to be trainee directors."

Until that point, Wilson had worked only on the production – rather than directing – side of television, and not only did the experience score him his first job as a director, he was so successful he went on to direct soaps across Europe.

Three years ago he returned to New Zealand to run his own course for newbies eyeing the coveted Shortland Street directing gig.

"In my first year of directing I made 50 episodes of Shortland Street – in those 12 months I had more flying time than just about anyone else in the world," says Wilson, who is based in London where he currently directs top rating British soap Eastenders.

"It's incredibly full on but it's probably the best way to learn television."

Although there's no doubt that working on Shortland Street is a far from easy ride – De Nave describes producing the show as the equivalent of "climbing Everest every week" – it is clearly a production that touches the hearts of all those involved in it.

There is a running joke among the crew that "you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave" – as they believe the line from "Hotel California" reflects how often people leave Shorty, only to reappear a few years later, albeit often in a different role.

Most believe this is because working on the soap is so enjoyable, and it allows many to branch into new career directions. Current producer Steven Zanoski started out on Shortland Street as a writer and storyliner in 1995, and after spending time developing television series overseas, he returned to take the hot seat two years ago.

Acclaimed writer Rachel Lang began as a storyliner in 1992, became a script editor after six months and then was an executive producer until 2000.

"Joining Shortland Street was a real turning point in my career, it turned me into a writer," says Lang, who prior to the show dabbled with script editing, movie reviewing and journalism.

"What Shortland Street gave me was an enormous amount of practice in that genre really fast. I learnt so much and I got really good at coming up with ideas to target it in a particular way."

Lang admits that if she hadn't learned the skills she did on Shortland Street, audiences would never have been treated to the fruits of her imagination which followed – such as Outrageous Fortune and Go Girls.

The story of the show starting or resuscitating the careers of those who operate on it is a common one. Naomi Joseph, who began as a line producer in 1995, became an executive director for Walt Disney Company before a couple of months ago scoring a high flying programming position at Endemol Group.

Dale McCready began in television as a camera operator in 1995 and most recently was cinematographer on Merlin in the UK.

Nick Malmholt originated as a storyliner and script writer on the Ferndale soap, and worked on Bad Girls and Coronation Street, then landed a job as head of creative development at FremantleMedia.

And one of the show's most famous graduates, Niki Caro, has enjoyed a glittering career with a string of hit movies since she was a script writer on Shorty.

Another recognisable face who credits the soap with getting his blood pumping for working in television is actor and writer Oscar Kightley, who joined the team as a storyliner in 1999.

"I was an unemployed actor living in Auckland and teaching some drama at Southern Cross College when the producer, Simon Bennett, rang and gave me an opportunity on the story table," Kightley says.

"The impact it had on my career was huge. It gave me the discipline of writing stories and helped so much in the mechanics of writing 30-minute episodes. There are no schools that teach you those skills.

"The experience was invaluable when it came to writing Bro'Town. It was also my first introduction to South Pacific Pictures – which led to the producing of Sione's Wedding, which I wrote with James Griffin, who I'd worked with on the Shortland Street story table."

That story table is affectionately referred to by Streeters as the "table of pain". When a character isn't popular with the audience and may be written out, they are on "death row".

But gruesome terminology aside, something that has kept the show going all these years is the comedy – both on screen and that in the inner bowels of the production.

"The biggest innovation we brought when we launched the show was humour," says De Nave with a throaty chuckle.

"The key writer Gavin Strawhan, Jason Daniel [story editor and later producer] and myself made a decision that we would have a comedy story in every episode. People had never really laughed in serials before, it was seen as a big no no, and we thought that was quite crazy because Kiwis are funny."

And creating that humour generated plenty of laughs when the cameras weren't rolling.

"My husband used to tell me he couldn't believe I got paid for doing a job when I'd come home and say we had spent quite a lot of time doing chair ballet or singing disco classics," says Lang (for the uninitiated, chair dancing is where one pirouettes around an office on a wheelie chair).

"It was incredibly enjoyable, we had a lot of fun."

Of course, it hasn't been all plain sailing – there were challenges from the first episode. In the birth scene, a woman was scripted to deliver a baby on the floor.

But De Nave decided the floor was too dirty, so on the advice of the on-set qualified nurse, she had the actress on her hands and knees.

"And that caused a furore for some people who thought it was a very confronting way to give birth," recalls De Nave.

There was also a question mark over whether the word "placenta" should be used on air at 7pm. And don't get the crew started on that "dreadful" immortal line that has become a cult favourite, "You're not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata."

"We took it out of the script for just being too silly, a load of rubbish," snorts De Nave. "Jason Daniel took it out and then he went 'oh bugger it', and put it back in."

And in between the nurses association complaining they weren't being portrayed as professionals, and critics spreading poisonous jibes about the "over-acting, under-acting, cliched characters [and] corny scripts", there were the odd jitters from the network.

"We had two teenage guys, one was the serious guy with the really good looks, Stuart [played by Martin Henderson], and the other was supposed to be the spunky teen rebel – and that was Nick played by Karl Burnett," recalls Lang nostalgically.

"Initially it was meant to be Martin Henderson's character was gay, but then the network got cold feet because Karl's character wasn't the spunky rebel they had hoped – and they couldn't have their only hearthrob be gay.

"It gave us a bit of a problem with storylining and we had to work out why he wasn't interested in Kirsty – so that's why we made him religious."

When asked if they think the show will last another 18 years, the crew, past and present, have no doubt that Shortland Street will keep pumping life into New Zealand television for many years to come.

"I don't think there's another show like it," says Wilson. "I've probably worked on soaps in more countries than anyone else and on Shortland Street they do it with the smallest crew who work harder than anywhere else.

"It has lasted because of its quirkiness and its ability to reinvent itself – but not alienate its audience. It's got an organic life of its own."

It seems the heart of Shortland Street is not about to stop beating any time soon.

Sunday Star Times