Tara Ward recounts the surreal experience of being invited to Chris Warner’s intimate 50th birthday shindig – eruptions and all.
Last year Chris Warner celebrated his birthday by having sex on his couch. To everything there is a season, for one year later I found myself perched on the same sofa, drinking gallons of pink water and listening to Claire Chitham warble “is it you, or is it me?” I had stepped into a parallel universe, where the champagne was actually L&P and people ate lunch in their dressing gowns, and life would never be the same again.
Hello from the other side, New Zealand. It was Shortland Street’s 25th birthday, it was Chris Warner’s 50th birthday, it was all my dreams come true.
I nearly peed my pants when the lovely people at Shortland Street invited me to be an extra at Chris Warner’s birthday party. Would there be party games? Maybe Chris would play Anchor Me on his guitar and I’d sit attentively at his feet, like he was Fraulein Maria and I was one of the Von Trapps. I’d do hilarious impressions of his ex-wives and he’d laugh like a drain and maybe let me run my fingers through his hair. I’d be the gift that keeps on giving. Rude? I’ll show you rude.
I vowed to be a human sponge that soaked up the Shortland Street goodness until I grew heavy and pooled all over the floor. It didn’t take long. I lost my shit the moment my feet touched the hallowed ground of the staff carpark. “This is where Leanne held her fire drill!” I squealed, and promptly spilled the entire contents of my bag on the ground. A woman with bigger problems walked towards me, her pasty face covered in blood and bruises. Dead woman walking? Welcome to Ferndale.
Chris Warner was somewhere inside the South Pacific Studios and I was a dribbling bloodhound desperate to sniff him out. I lurched through corridors lined with photos of Shortland Street legends, bouncing off Jonny Marinovich and smashing into the Jeffrey sisters until I found the other extras invited to this exclusive soirée. Together, we made the long, silent journey into the studio — through the empty hospital café (RIP Wendy), past Mo’s kitchen where Kate cooked Christmas lunch (RIP ham), before stopping at a rack of handbags and stethoscopes (RIP me).
At last, the pilgrims reached Mecca: the Warner mansion. Before us stood the god that is Chris Warner, his golden hair glistening like a beacon amid the gloomy haze of my nerves. I swear choirs of angels began to sing. “Mi casa, su casa,” he said, extending an arm over his kingdom — the iconic ‘tell me that is not your penis’ stained glass window, the oven Rachel cleaned the night she nearly drowned. I’m sure I caught a whiff of Rachel’s ghost as we crossed the threshold into nirvana. It smelled like bitter regret, and it was glorious.
My Spinoff colleague Alex and I waited nervously, ready to extra like no extra had extra-ed before. We were two spindly saplings amid a forest of legends — Waverley and Nick, Drew McCaskill, the three Warner sperm babies. I remembered the episode the triplets were born, when Carrie screamed so loud my Dad made me turn over to Holmes. Look at us now, them joking about how ‘eruption’ sounds like ‘erection’ and me astride Chris Warner’s sex couch. I really was living my best life.
I hoped to spend the day doing what I do at most parties, which is get drunk behind a pot plant. That was before Alex and I discovered we were ‘Featured Extras’, meaning we’d be in front of the camera, in full view of the nation, two moronic amateurs about to ruin the greatest celebration Shortland Street has ever known. Oh, the horror. What in the name of Sarah Potts was Shortland Street thinking?
Before I could dive roll to freedom out of Harry’s bedroom window, the assistant director talked us through our first scene. I leaned against the Warner front door and waited for the magic words “crouch behind a spider fern with a stolen box of Blenheimer,” but they never came. Instead, Alex was to carefully remove her coat and I was to saunter over to the drinks table. Straight to the booze? Things were looking up. I’d been method acting the crap out of this moment for years.
A hush descended upon the gilded paradise of the Warner mansion, and a voice from the dark shouted “action.” For the love of sweet Hone Ropata, this was it. Gird your loins, we were going in.
We stumbled inside, Alex wrestling her coat into submission while I elbowed people out of the way in my desperate thirst. Glass in hand, I gazed around with a sense of wonder as if I had just emerged from the birth canal, and threw my head back in mimed hilarity. Hahahahaha! This party was amazing! I was amazing! I was no longer an idiot random who had dragged her coat-grappling friend in off the street. I was Meryl Streep, I was Marj Brasch, I was practically writing my Oscar speech in my head.
Who was I kidding? I was a petrified waxwork who eyeballed the camera and collided with the actors. My head nodded so enthusiastically it was like a bladder on a stick. My mouth made silent syllables in a language that didn’t exist and I clenched my glass of pink water so tightly my hand formed a permanent claw. I apologised for being a gibbering idiot, but Alex just hugged her coat and told me to stop drinking the props. I nodded wildly and smothered my silent screams with another mouthful of pink water. It was a vicious cycle. I had peaked too soon. Chris would never let a hysterical stranger touch his hair.
I carried on like this for five terrifying hours. I waved my sweaty claw at a bowl of tiny party favours, waggled my head at a birthday cake probably made from the tears of Chris’s lovers, and gawked at a shelf of Reader’s Digest hardcovers. “They’re all first editions,” Michael Galvin boasted, but I think he’d drunk the pink water, too. I wondered if I should leave a note —“you had me at Anchor Me”, perhaps — in the hope Chris would discover it one Sunday afternoon, his head resting on a soft pillow of kiwi feathers, smiling as he remembered this magical day.
Magical, schmagical. I wasn’t the only disaster at that party, and it was every ham-fisted extra for themselves when Mt Ferndale shook the ground in a fit of rage not seen since Drew stole Boyd’s car park. Michael Galvin had promised us karaoke, but there was no way we’d manage an ‘Islands in the Stream’ duet while covered in hot magma. A crew member lay at our feet to wobble the set. “It’s just a tremor!” Boyd yelled, while I nodded at the bookcase and quivered like it was a 9.7 at the very least.
Spare a moment for the first victim: the Warner quiff. A make-up artist with more brushes than Bunnings sculpted Chris’ lustrous mane back into place, while I imagined drowning in a sea of falling fairy lights. Anchor me, my arse. There are worst places to meet your maker than Chris Warner’s lounge and while you will question many things about my performance that day, never question my commitment. I’d shaved my legs for this gig. I wasn’t going down without a fight.
Panic had set in. Nick ran up and down the stairs like a feral cat and Finn shouted “IT’S AN ERUPTION!” so loudly I heard it in my sleep. Worst of all, I’d run out of things to nod and point at. As we huddled around an imaginary television to watch the latest news on the chunderous party pooper that was Mt Ferndale, I wondered how Chris managed to turn his TV on without Harry’s help. Where was Hazza, anyway? I was too short to see, so I stared at the back of Frank’s head and imagined the devastation. Kylie reckoned it was the end of the world, but it seemed fine to me. Hairy, but fine.
It was my final scene. Mt Ferndale was about to swallow us whole. In years to come, they would find me entombed on the sex couch in a gritty layer of ash and pumice. Before me stood Waverley Wilson, the goddess of my teenage years, still resplendent in all her kooky magnificence. In the 90s she wanted to be Kirsty Knight, I wanted to be Kirsty Knight, we were practically the same person. The director gave me a fake phone, so I called my 14 year-old self and mouthed “YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT YOU’LL BE DOING IN 2017”. The day was done. It was my best work yet.
I’d made it out of Ferndale alive; could things get any better? You bet your cheese and pineapple hedgehog it could. There was one star from the Shortland Street galaxy that I was yet to see: my hero, Leanne. I found her in the women’s loos, a celestial vision in a green dressing gown who disappeared so quickly into a cubicle it was if she knew a deranged extra was waiting for her by the hand drier. Is it you, or is it me, Leanne? I contemplated jamming my head under the door to shout “YOLO, fo shizzle”, but decided I had danced with death enough today. I mouthed “I love you” at the locked cubicle door, and left the Queen to pee in peace.
To everything there is a season: a time to love, a time to laugh, and a time not to be arrested for stalking your idol in the toilets. I was looking for a chance or a dream, Shortland Street, and you delivered better than a truck crashing through reception. Happy birthday, old mate: may your cliffhangers always be epic, your dressing gowns forever fluffy, and may you never run out of that amazing pink water.
Read all our Shortland Street 25th anniversary coverage here.
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