Daily soaps are deeply unfashionable and failing all the time. Shortland Street endures because it’s so much more than just a soap, argues Duncan Greive.
To celebrate Shortland Street’s 30th birthday, we are dedicating a whole week to the good (and not-so-good) people of Ferndale. Check out more Street Week content here.
Around a decade ago 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,” they said. “But not as a villain – as a 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 Street, 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 still hasn’t happened, though I wouldn’t be surprised at any point if it did. Because from the first Shortland Street 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 30 years it has answered 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 Street 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. I had its producer, Oliver Driver, on my media podcast The Fold recently, to discuss Shortland Street at 30, and why it has endured when similar products, like Neighbours, have fallen.
“I think Shortland Street is very different to Neighbours. And I think Shortland Street’s better than Neighbours,” said Driver. “I think that the fact that we have this show that plays five nights a week that reflects us and our society is really important. And I think that will always be important for us to have something that feels absolutely 100% Kiwi, and, and allows us to kind of talk to the nation and talk with the nation in a way that is not the news.”
The most progressive show on New Zealand television
Here’s a necessarily incomplete list of situations which Shortland Street put on our screens – often for the first time – over the years: same-sex couples; lesbian kisses; gay kisses; gay sex; inter-generational relationships; women CEOs; minority CEOs; adoption; abortion; religious torment; underage sex; police corruption; drug and gambling addiction; trans teens; alcoholism; rape; domestic violence; emotional abuse; the malfeasance of Big Pharma; the challenges and opportunities of public-private partnerships; how to navigate co-governance; negotiating racist incidents deep into the past.
The list could go on and on. 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 – one third of its miraculously low production costs – in return for its producers’ undertaking to create a show that showed a vision of a modern, multicultural New Zealand to itself.
This was no small thing. In 1992 New Zealand was indeed multicultural, but much more so in certain enclaves than others. And its self-image was of biculturalism – one that 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 and vowed that Shortland Street would be different.
Aleni was cast after DeNave discovered there was only one Pacific paramedic in the whole country in 1992. It’s evidence of an activist, aspirational streak that survived its transition from public to private funding, and remains a core part of the show to this day.
Activism, but make it entertaining
That it has managed to do all this while remaining very entertaining is perhaps its greatest achievement. Because Shortland Street is not just important and admirable, but also a whole lot of fun to watch. The storylines tend to remain just the right 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 ploughing into reception at Christmas. The sociopathic madness of Darryl Neilson and Ethan Pierce. Serial killers, drug gangs, self-immolation, bombings and a goddamn volcanic eruption – there is nothing Ferndale’s long-suffering 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, time slot and format to hem them into a comfortable range of potential action, Shortland Street 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 show’s 30th anniversary week kicked off with a pair of episodes filmed in the style of a documentary, starring Seven Sharp’s Hilary Barry as herself, a TV reporter visiting the hospital to interview its key staff. This summer off-season saw a mini-series called Retribution, set in Christchurch, a tributary of the main show. It did this despite the strain of the pandemic. Shortland Street 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 and barrel through whatever difficulties arise. To look at a nightly soap as an incredible dramatic opportunity, rather than a set of barriers to quality.
Yes, the writing is often corny – but no more so than many other primetime 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. This comes from a consistent thoughtfulness from the writers and producers. One current example: the way its most iconic character, series-long surgeon Chris Warner, is suffering through a series of very contemporary issues, from the surfacing of a tape showing a racist and drunken haka, to allegations of inappropriate behaviour with a colleague. “For Chris, it was… OK, we’ve got a, we’ve got an old white guy in charge of this hospital, in 2022,” says Driver. “Is that realistic? Is that what the conversation is? At the moment?”
A ratings juggernaut
It has done all this, and we have rewarded it with our attention. The show has often rated extraordinarily well. At its height “the viewing numbers were massive”, says Driver. “I mean, they were equal to the news.” As recently as a decade ago it averaged half a million viewers. That has fallen away with linear TV audiences more broadly, and just 215,000 watched it in the first week of May 2022. While it is routinely among the most-viewed shows on TVNZ OnDemand, that doesn’t come close to making up for the lost audience, and our divided attention has inevitably impacted its cultural power.
Yet even if it were to become uneconomic to make, the case for it to be funded by other means would be strong. “It’s a really good training facility, it brings people through and it spits them out, and they go off and do other projects and wonderful things,” says Driver. “But it also retains a lot of talent… [it’s] something that is much bigger than the sum of its parts.”
For Driver, that’s because Shortland Street is more than what it appears to be – and that’s what explains its enduring appeal. “Shortland Street isn’t really a soap opera,” he says. “It’s the format of a soap opera. And it’s five days a week like a soap opera, and it has soapy elements. But we don’t write it like one. And we don’t try to shoot it like one.”
That is down to a combination of the discipline and ambition of the production, but also what TVNZ allows it to be. “It’s very rare that the network would say to us, ‘oh, that feels a bit much’. We’re encouraged to be forthright and to challenge people and to put characters and situations and stories and families that reflect a New Zealand, not only that exists, but that is beginning to exist.” It’s this sense of a progressive, deeply curious television show that is what has made it so successful, and helps explain why it’s had such a profound influence over modern Aotearoa. Not just our television, but our society as a whole.
This story was adapted from ‘In defence of Ferndale’ – published as part of Street Week 2014.