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FeaturesDecember 11, 2014

Street Week: Harry McNaughton on Cliffhanging

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The Christmas cliffhanger is Shortland Street’s most glorious moment, when the show’s silliness and ambition are deafeningly amplified. Ahead of tonight’s finale, Duncan Greive spoke with key storyliner Harry McNaughton about the cliffhanging process. //

Gerald Tippett was one of my favourite characters during an extremely strong Shortland Street era. A fastidious receptionist and executive assistant, he was immaculately groomed and gave off the air of human who bathed in moisturiser each night before sleeping in a bed full of care bears.

He was famously asexual, a tough gig on a show which demands constant coupling (when not making sweet love, the characters have to kill one another more often – an expensive exercise). Tippett was strong advocate for asexuality, starting – or was it joining? I forget – a support group, and vocally defending his right to choose cuddling over carnality. It was at once comic and quite serious and considered – the classic Shortland Street tone.

Being Shortland Street, though, Tippett’s asexuality didn’t prevent him marrying – twice – and his return remains tantalisingly open, as his character currently resides in the US, with his wife Libby Jeffries.

Tippett was sensitively portrayed by Harry McNaughton, and while his character is away from the Street, McNaughton has returned to write and now storyline the show. Heading into his second Christmas as a storyliner, I spoke with him about his debut during the ‘Strangler’ plotline, the importance of the cliffhanger to the show and the decision to go with a less traditional approach this year.

What motivated the decision to move away from the usual death and destruction this year?

We wanted to be quite careful that we didn’t just keep doing Christmas cliffs where people hold the hospital hostage, or planes blow up, or serial killers went rampant. Because if you do that every year that builds up an audience expectation that it’s going to happen every year. Then you end up trapping yourself in this kind of vicious circle, where you tell stories that are more and more ridiculous in order to justify the audience’s expectation.

It’s not a place you want to be in, because after a while it just seems crazy and not justified and not at all satisfying, really. We wanted to do a Christmas cliff that felt a little bit different and the challenge is to get stories that are gripping and exciting, but you want to come back after three weeks, even though there isn’t necessarily a building exploding.

You have had a lot of death and core cast change over the past few years. Was that also a consideration? That you couldn’t afford to lose many of these long-running characters?

Let me start off by saying you never, ever want to lose any cast. We definitely don’t slash-and-burn on a whim. Most of the time it’s just that story dictates that characters have reached the end of their life on the show and that’s often quite a sad thing. Well, it’s always a sad thing, really; as a writer you’ve got to love all the characters.

We definitely were aware of the fact that lots of people had left the show over the course of this year, and I think the audience has had – from my point of view – enough of darkness and death and grief this year.

Looking back again to some of the cliff-hangers you’ve worked on, were there any that particularly stood out? It felt like your era coincided with some really ambitious productions.

My first was the serial killer story, and I think that’s probably arguably the most famous Christmas story we’ve ever done. That was really fun to be a part of. I actually auditioned for the character that turned out to be the serial killer, Joey. They said, “Oh! We’ve already cast that, how do you feel about playing another character?”

That was amazing to be part of, because there were three suspects in that serial killer year, so there was a huge amount of work that got put into telling a really long-running intrigue story and making it actually really complicated for the audience to figure out who it was that had done it. That took a huge amount of work.

In terms of the ambition of the show, to tell these complex storylines – do you think that that is part of Shortland Street‘s DNA, that it constantly challenges itself?

Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think Shorty’s has always done that and it has, traditionally, been very different from other soaps in the fact that they do that. The dude who’s our head writer at the moment, Jos King, he looks at soaps as a meta genre, so you can tell different stories within soaps, and each of the stories that you tell can exist in a totally different genre, and I think soaps are uniquely placed to be able to do that.

I think they feel really satisfying, when you’ve got stories that have really different tones running against each other. Yeah, so again, I’m trying to do that at Christmas: trying to run some comedy against some stuff that’s a little more serious and, hopefully, put in a very big rug-pull at the end of all of it.

Was there any resistance, from either within South Pacific Pictures or the network, to the idea that you would move away from the traditional tense, dramatic, deathly finale?

There were probably some raised eyebrows at points, when they were like, “Ah! So… where are the big, dramatic high points? And where are the huge stakes?” But I am hoping that, by the time people got to the end of the document and read the very end of Christmas, they went, “Oh, okay. That’s how you made it work.” Hopefully.

In terms of the reputation for big stunts and so on, is that something that we can expect from the last week still? Or is part of the move away from that meaning that we’re not going to see helicopters crashing or shipping containers blowing up or anything like that?

Um … look. It’s Shortland St – you’re always going to have some pretty awesome high points. Just because we’re not doing it in the week of Christmas doesn’t mean that we’re not doing it, at all. One of the really important things has been to say, “Okay, well if we’re going to tell the stories in a slightly different way here, then how can we also make things unexpected in the follow-up to Christmas?” We’re going to have some pretty massive stuff happening in the new year, which will be great.

In terms of the christmas cliffhanger, how present is that – in both your mind, as a writer, and the general consciousness of the whole organism – that everything has to rise to meet that particular moment?

It’s such a good questions and I think that question doesn’t even apply to Christmas cliffs, it applies to the idea of cliff-hangers, in general. The idea that you’ve got to lead the show on whatever this high point is. It’s funny, when I started I was like you really focused on cliffs and you’re like, “Okay, gotta build the story towards a cliff. Gotta have a cliff that makes sense. Gotta have a cliff that has stakes.”

The longer I’m here the more I realise that you can kind of relax, a little bit. You don’t need to freak out about cliffhangers, because if you’re telling the story in a good way – if you empathise with the characters, if you’re telling a story that makes sense, if you’re putting all your footsteps in the right places – then you’ll find the cliff. The stakes probably won’t be what you expect and the story probably won’t go in a way that you expect, but that’ll be all the more satisfying because of it.

Watch last year’s exceptional, explosive cliffhanger – Harry’s first as a storyliner – below.

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