Australia Week: What happens when you get two trans-Tasman soap immortals together in the same room? We found out in 2016.
To mark the opening of the trans-Tasman bubble, The Spinoff is casting an eye across the ditch all week – read our Australia Week content here.
It could be a vision of the end of the world: Alf Stewart and Chris Warner, two characters who between them have spent over 50 years watching their friends and loved ones die at the hands of deranged serial killers, deadly bomb blasts and killer viruses, together in a lonely hospital waiting room. One is a small-town bait shop owner from Summer Bay, Australia, the other a world-class surgeon from Ferndale, New Zealand. They are the sole survivors.
Ray Meagher (Alf) and Michael Galvin (Dr. Warner) are the only remaining cast members from the first episodes of their respective shows: Home and Away, which first aired in 1988, and Shortland Street, which began in 1992. With Meagher in Auckland to perform in Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical (he plays Bob, an outback mechanic) we wanted to get them together in the same room and film them talking about their characters’ unusually long (by soap standards) lives.
Alf Stewart rarely travels further afield than Yabby Creek. Now he was coming to Ferndale.
Shortland Street is filmed at South Pacific Pictures, just off Lincoln Road in West Auckland. The back of the studio doubles as the front entrance of the hospital which can be seen at the start of every episode. The car park is the same car park where Huia Samuels exploded in a ball of flames.
Inside is a labyrinth of offices navigable by cast photos of every show that’s ever been produced at the studio. Turn left at Outrageous Fortune, hang a right at New Zealand Idol season one, then go down the stairs when you see the original cast of Go Girls. That’s where Alf met Chris.
“G’day mate,” said Meager. Sorry for being late, said Galvin. He introduced his daughter – “it’s the school holidays” – and welcomed his Aussie counterpart to his place of work. “Do you guys have dressing rooms?” he asked. “I’ve always wanted to ask that.”
Meagher began a detailed history of the Home and Away dressing room situation, 1988-2016. “I’ve got one,” Galvin bragged. “Well, I share it with two other guys. How much annual leave do you get?”
Waiting outside the set where the interview was to be filmed was like standing in a butterfly enclosure. Endless rare species of Shortland Street character fluttered past on an unknowable course. TK Samuels! Kylie! Damo from IT! Galvin introduced Meagher to Glen, the dastardly villain who drugged Rachel McKenna and drove her to leave Chris Warner in the previous night’s episode.
“This is Will [Wallace] – his character just got rid of my character’s wife,” he said. “Oh yeah,” Meagher replied, “kidnapper or shooter or…?”
The reception area of Shortland Street Hospital is like one of those stress dreams where everything looks familiar but the dimensions are all wrong. From the front desk you can look through the open elevator doors into the ED where Wendy Cooper and countless others have laid bleeding to death on the operating table. When the studio doors close it is eerily quiet.
“Whatever happened to just flipping on the fluoros and saying ‘action’?” Meagher wondered out loud as a couple of harried technicians fiddled with the lights. Galvin held up the list of questions we provided as a guide for the interview. “I don’t want it to look like these are my questions,” he said.
For exactly 15 minutes a former hospital CEO and a former caravan park owner compared their weird double lives. They reminisced about the old days and long-forgotten characters who went to the dairy and never came back, and speculated about how their own characters will one day die (“This is a terrible question,” Galvin warned before asking, “you don’t have to answer it”).
They may come from different worlds, but Chris Warner and Alf Stewart get on like a house on fire. In all but one of the photos on my phone, Chris Warner is in the middle of some wild gesticulation, his mouth open and his hands all blurred. In the one where he’s not, Alf Stewart’s eyes are closed, and his head is tilted back in laughter.