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Street Week: In Defence of Ferndale

Want to know why we’re dedicating a week to a mostly-maligned soap? Duncan Greive makes the case for Shortland Street as New Zealand’s most underrated piece of pop culture. //

A few years ago, while working on a story for Metro magazine*, I had lunch with Shortland Street’s publicists in Ponsonby on a sunny day in autumn. They were great company, all the more so because we shared a deep, abiding affection for the show and what it meant to New Zealand. I loved being able to share some of my wilder theories about the show with an appreciative audience, and they threw gossip and ‘inside Ferndale’ scoops at me like confetti all afternoon.

Toward the end, one told me something which floored me then, and still does to this day. “The writers have been toying with the idea of having a paedophile on the show, “ I was told. “But not as a villain – as relatable character living with a disease.”

A sympathetic child molester! Who on earth would do such a thing? Even the edgiest US cable shows know to stay the hell away from that barrel of moral outrage. But little old Shortland St, a daily soap from the bottom of the world, was keen to ask us some very challenging questions about how we conceptualise paedophilia in contemporary society.

It hasn’t yet happened, though I wouldn’t be surprised at any point if it did. Because from the first Shortland St has existed to challenge middle New Zealand’s conception of self. What do we look like? Where do we come from? Who do we love, and how do we love them?

For over 22 years it has answered the these questions, over and over, five nights a week, nearly every week of the year. To many New Zealanders, particularly those who consider themselves of a refined cultural sensibility, the show is at best an embarrassment, at worst an abomination. It’s a punchline, something the foolish and dull-witted do with their eyes each night over dinner. If you must watch a soap, they say, make it Coro.

They’re the fools. Because Shortland St is a marvel, to my mind the most Herculean piece of popular culture this nation has created. That’s not to say it’s the best, whatever that means – just its most extraordinarily vast, influential and complex.

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Here’s a necessarily incomplete list of situations which Shortland St put on our screens – often for the first time – over the years: interracial couples; same-sex couples; lesbian kisses; gay kisses; inter-generational relationships; female CEOs; minority CEOs; maori and pasifika doctors, nurses and surgeons; adoption; abortion; religious torment; underage sex; police corruption; drug and gambling addiction; alcoholism; rape; domestic violence; emotional abuse; the malfeasance of Big Pharma; the challenges and opportunities of public-private partnerships; struggling small businesses…

Honestly, I could go on forever. But hopefully that gives some sense of what a remarkably progressive show it has been. That was initially woven into its funding, whereby New Zealand On Air chipped in $3m per annum over its first three years – ⅓ of its miraculously low production costs – in return for its producers undertaking to create a show which showed a vision of a modern, multi-cultural New Zealand to itself.

This was no small thing. In 1992 New Zealand was indeed multi-cultural, but much more so in certain enclaves than others. And its self-image was of bi-culturalism – one which key characters like Sam Aleni, Grace Kwan and Shanti Kumari helped break down. This was a conscious decision, driven by producer Caterina DeNave, who noted the lack of diversity on Australian soaps like Home and Away – still an issue to this day – and vowed that Shortland St would be different.

Aleni was cast after DeNave discovered there was only one Pacific Island paramedic in the whole country in 1992. It’s evidence of an activist, aspirational streak which somehow survived its transition from public to private funding, and remains a core part of the show to this day.

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That it has managed to be so very politically correct while remaining incredibly entertaining is perhaps its greatest achievement. Because Shortland St is not just important and admirable, but also a whole lot of fun to watch. The storylines tend to remain just this side of the plausibility line, unfurling over months, sometimes years, when set against the insane pace of their Australian equivalents.

And what storylines they are! The murderous campaign of pharmaceutical giant Scott Spear. The truck plowing into reception at Christmas. The sociopathic madness of Darryl Neilson and Ethan Pierce. Serial killers, drug gangs, self-immolation, bombings and a goddamn helicopter crash – there is nothing Ferndale’s poor benighted residents haven’t had to stare down.

This speaks to its ambitions as a production, which comfortably match those it aspires to from a social standpoint. Where most shows – and nearly all soaps – allow budget, timeslot and format to hem them into a comfortable range of potential action, Shortland St never has. Instead it seems to take great pleasure in trying to test the limits of its format.

Over and over we see it taking bold risks in terms of the on-screen action, and its delivery. The hour-long Mondays through winter, and the annual feature-length episode are major undertakings. Through the Rugby World Cup characters discussed key plays from games the following Monday – a maniacal feat of production high-wire walking.

There’s always, always extra strain on a cast and crew already stretched to breaking point. Shortland St has done this stuff for years, not because it has to, but because the culture of its creators is to constantly challenge the limits of the possible. To look at a nightly soap as an incredible dramatic opportunity, rather than a set of barriers to quality.

Yes, the writing is corny – but no more so than many other prime time comedies and dramas. But the scripts are less important than the storylining, which is mostly fresh and inventive, only rarely slipping into the repetitiousness or dull sensationalism common in its counterparts.

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It has done all this, and we have rewarded it with our attention. The show rates in extraordinary numbers. Last year it averaged a hair under half a million viewers – 11.1% of our population. To give some kind of context to its popularity, take a look at American Idol. For most of the last 10 years it has been by far the most popular regularly scheduled broadcast in the US. And only during season faniles at its absolute peak did it ever get near the equivalent audience numbers that Shortland St pulls every damn night.

The show rates like that while presenting a vision of New Zealand both as it is, and it should aspire to be: open, tolerant, diverse and secular. Is it an exaggeration to say that we have better race relations because of Shortland St? That it aided our passage of first the Civil Unions and the gay marriage legislation? Maybe. But I don’t think so.

You’d think a show like that would be a national treasure, and valued as such. You’d think we’d be as proud of Shorty as we are of Lorde and Peter Jackson. But we’re not. In truth, we’re a bunch of dicks about it, making dumb jokes and essentially ignoring its existence when we talk about our culture.

That drives me crazy. Because yes, it’s a soap. Maybe you don’t watch soaps. Maybe you’re too busy or too fancy. But understand that this particular soap has no interest in the conventions of the form, takes malleable young minds somewhere worth going, jet-fuels our TV industry and generally has a helluva good time doing it.

That’s why we’re taking this week, which features the closing episodes of Shortland St’s 2014 season, to acknowledge and celebrate an underappreciated contemporary classic. We’ll have new Shortland St-related content all week, including a bunch of original writing and killer video from David Farrier and Shorty St Scandal.

It’s a whole week in Ferndale. We hope you like it.

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* The story was eventually canned, essentially because the publicists did their job so well that Simon Wilson felt like the topic had been done to death. He was probably right, but this piece is essentially the arguments I wanted to make.

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BONUS FEATURE

After writing a small piece praising Shortland Street in Sunday magazine (s/o to Rose Hoare for publishing that one) I got invited out to the set to take a tour. It was one of the best days of my life. Alex Casey had a similar experience recently, and her take on the experience is coming later this week. In the meantime, here are some lovely photos of my wife and I taking in Ferndale’s finest locations.

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Mornings start with a delicious coffee from the Shortland Street Hospital Cafeteria where in my mind I am a hardworking, uncomplaining barista

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After finishing my shift I pick up my wife Rachel McKenna from her house

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Catching up with current affairs in The Northerner over a delicious coffee from Sugar

After a hard day's coffee I like to unwind with a little GameStation

After a hard day’s coffee I like to unwind with a little GameStation

Waiting for a plastic sugery (cardiganectomy) consult with Dr Warner

Waiting for a plastic sugery (cardiganectomy) consult with Dr Warner

When not serving coffee I moonlight as CEO to help pay the bills

When not serving coffee I moonlight as CEO to help pay the bills. Warner’s hair gel expenses are out of control. Mine too!

 

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