Think this year’s Shortland Street cliffhanger was dramatic? The 1995 festive special was even more heartrending. Tara Ward remembers the Christmas episode that shocked a nation.
Christmas Day television is notoriously bad. You can guarantee a Royal Variety Performance and a Vicar of Dibley special, and Jamie Oliver is bound to chuck a litre of olive oil and some garlic into a dead bird and call it lunch. Thankfully, the offerings weren’t always this bad. In 1995 we were gifted a festive thriller that still resonates 20 years on: the day Carmen died on Shortland Street.
When Shortland Street’s closing credits rolled that Christmas Day, my jaw hit the floor. I ran outside to share the tragic news to my mother: Carmen Roberts, quick-witted nurse and beloved new mum, had just died. “But what about the baby?” my mother asked, in a tone of voice that was unusually serious. My family tolerated me watching Shortland Street, mostly so they could sit around and take the piss out of it.
The 90s were the golden age of Shortland Street. It was a show hitting its stride, leaving behind its early awkwardness and becoming a more self-assured production. I too hoped to shed my teenage awkwardness for a more confident life, one where my hair curled under just like Kirsty’s, where my shoe collection rivaled Grace Kwan’s, and where I could pash Martin Henderson all day long. Shortland Street was set in cosmopolitan Auckland; I lived in rural Southland. It was everything that the teenage me aspired to.
Watching this episode again was a joyful trip back to those halcyon days. I grew up with these faces: Lionel, Rangi, Nick, Grace, Tiffany. As the opening theme tune began its familiar synthesizer beat, I was instantly transported back to a pre-millennium Ferndale filled with burgundy wallpaper, mandarin collars and tapestry waistcoats. Is it you, or is it me? Two decades on and I’m still looking for answers.
Ferndale was a faraway land where the hair was thick and plentiful and the hospital corridors were awash with gel and mousse. Every scene featured background music from Strawpeople and Dave Dobbyn and some jarring Carl Doy-esque piano instrumental. Nurses wore the legendary lemon uniforms and coordinated their collar edgings to match the supersized Christmas tinsel.
The opening credits remain fabulously cheesy. I watched this procession of characters five nights a week, and god forbid there was a new face in the line up to throw me out of whack. The turning, the posing, the fake dialogue: everyone in Ferndale grinned like they’d just won Division 3 in Lotto. They were so happy to be there.
Except for Carmen, whose death caught us by surprise on a day supposedly free of sadness and tragedy. Looking back, it seems strange to think Shortland Street screened over Christmas. Just how did they lure us away from our yuletide beers and barbeques to watch a soap we could see any night of any week?
Answer: they drove a bloody great truck into Reception.
1995 was the first year Shortland Street made Christmas into a big deal, setting the bar for subsequent season cliffhangers. As impressive as Gareth Hutchins’ recent rampage was, I’m not sure it comes anywhere close to the pure shock value of that yellow truck powering through the electric doors, Pink Batts flying skyward.
Years later, I was reminded of this episode when a car drove through my fence on the morning of my wedding. As the emergency services swarmed around my house, I watched as my garden of one stick of mint and a lavender bush lay trapped and mangled beneath the ruins, just like Kirsty. I felt like I was living that episode. I was practically Marj bloody Neilson.
It wasn’t a cliffhanger by today’s standards. There were no unanswered questions or whodunnit moments; the crash kicked off the episode and after 22 minutes we knew the worst. Kirsty lay in a coma, Laurie suffered a heart attack and Carmen copped a knock to the head. She assured Guy that all was well: “we’ve got each other and we’ve got bubs. Things are looking pretty rosy.” Moments later, Carmen lay on the double bed of the Toroa, dead.
Meanwhile, a strange storyline involving Nick and a missing child passed as light relief to the truck crash. Today’s Shortland Street would make a big deal of Ramona’s baby being abducted after Nick left it in a supermarket car park, but back in 1995 nobody seemed overly bothered. An unsympathetic Jenny told Nick “it could happen to anyone.” Really? I reckon Jenny had a few skeletons hidden in her parenting closet.
They should have been worried. Without emails, cell phones or the internet, Ferndale residents had a shitload of free time on their hands. It’s weird to think of a time when the VCR ruled supreme and public pay phones were a pivotal plot device, but this was New Zealand as we knew it. Our survival as a species rested in the hands of medical professionals who saved lives with what appears to be two overhead projectors and a microwave. This was really cutting edge stuff.
Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. Rachel was as feisty and independent as she is today. Chris was at his peak ladykiller, about to marry his 18th wife and fiercely committed to improving the health of the female pelvis. Did 1995 Warner just give us the world’s first duckface?
Also, how much does 1995 Chris Warner look like 1912 Matthew Crawley?
Twenty years later, the trampled tinsel, shonky lift doors and awful background music all add to Shortland Street’s retro charm. The show’s success, both then and now, lies in its ability to make emotional connections with its audience five nights a week. There’s a reason I still remember the shock and sadness at Carmen’s death: they made me love her. I never did match Grace’s shoe collection, nor did I marry Martin Henderson, but bloody hell, Shortland Street. That was one Christmas I’ll never forget.
Throwback Thursday is brought to you by NZ On Screen – click through to watch excerpts from 1995 Shortland Street Christmas Special and the entire Shortland Street collection.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.