Coronavirus is a plot twist for Aussie TV, but Neighbours is rewriting the script

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Long-running soap opera Neighbours is about to go back into production following the COVID-19 shutdown — but it will be a very different environment on set.

Key points:

  • More than 100 Australian film and TV productions have been suspended during the pandemic
  • Neighbours will resume production next week with physical distancing measures on set and the studio split into “quadrants”
  • Many in the TV industry are hoping other suspended productions can learn from Neighbours and restart soon

There will be no kissing or holding hands, the cast and crew will be isolated into three distinct groups, and camera trickery will be used to make physically-distanced actors look more intimate.

“It’s going to look a bit odd,” said Chris Oliver-Taylor, the chief executive of Neighbours’ production company Fremantle Australia.

“[But] Neighbours is a show that can get away with it.

“We employ hundreds of staff who want to work and feel they can. It’s important we continue to produce a show that reaches millions of people in the UK and a significant audience in Australia.

“What we need now is escapism, Australian stories — and I’m sure our British friends want the Australian sun.”

Neighbours is believed to be the first suspended TV drama to resume production in the English-speaking world.

The news has excited many in the Australian TV industry, which was devastated by the coronavirus crisis after productions were suspended.

There are hopes the Neighbours production plan will become something of a roadmap for other programs.

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Less make-up and ‘no intimate scenes’

Mr Oliver-Taylor said Neighbours would run out of episodes in mid-June if production did not resume.

Production was suspended two weeks before Easter.

The studio has been divided into quadrants, with an operational hub, three distinct production teams and only three actors allowed to cross between the units.

“There will be no more than 100 people a day in any area, we’ll implement the four-square-metre rule and the one-and-a-half-metre social distancing rule,” Mr Oliver-Taylor said.

“We’ve got a nurse on set, different catering for everyone, males will have no make-up, women’s [make-up] will not be touched up, there are no intimate scenes.

“We’re going to assume if someone does get sick we don’t need to shut the entire shoot — we just close that group and carry on.”

Drama productions have been halted worldwide. In Australia, 119 films and TV shows have been suspended, including all TV drama series, two big Marvel movies and Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic starring Tom Hanks, which was filming on the Gold Coast.


Alan Fletcher, pictured with co-star Jackie Woodburne, is confident the measures will keep cast and crew safe. (Neighbours)

A hit in the hundreds of millions

Industry body Screen Producers Australia calculated the cost of the shutdown as exceeding $500 million, with an estimated $20 million in lost export revenue.

Some programs, such as the ABC’s popular comedy Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell, have continued, but without a studio audience.

Fremantle Australia has continued production of reality shows Grand Designs Australia and Restoration Australia, shown on the ABC, because these programs can operate without people coming into close contact.

Fremantle’s other big drama series, Wentworth, which is set inside a prison, remains shut.

“We can adhere to [these rules] with Neighbours but we can’t with Wentworth,” Mr Oliver-Taylor said.

A significant burden of the screen industry shutdown is being borne by freelance cast and crew, who are ineligible for the Government’s JobKeeper scheme because they are not permanent employees.

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Neighbours ‘demonstrates it’s possible’

Mr Oliver-Taylor said all Neighbours cast and crew had elected to return to work next week.

For 25 years, Alan Fletcher has starred in Neighbours as Karl Kennedy. He is also the on-set union rep, and — speaking in that role — said he was “absolutely confident” in the new production plan.

“If the virus crept into cast or crew, then the necessary health procedures will be there to protect everybody,” he said.

“Anyone considered high-risk will have special consideration as well.”


Neighbours stars, including Takaya Honda and Matt Wilson, will be split into teams that are kept apart. (Neighbours)

Kelly Wood, from the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) union, said the whole industry was watching to see if Fremantle could make a success of Neighbours’ return.

The president of Screen Producers Australia, Michael Tear, said Neighbours’ comeback “demonstrates it’s possible to manage the health and safety risks and figure out a way to resume”.

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Horror film shoots in Sydney cornfield

In the film sector, however, producers are hamstrung by their inability to secure insurance.

There is one exception — an independent American remake of the classic Stephen King horror Children of the Corn.


Almost 500 Australians are employed by the Children of the Corn production, Screen NSW says. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Produced by Lucas Foster and director Kurt Wimmer, it has continued shooting in a cornfield on the outskirts of Sydney, with a mostly Australian cast and crew.

A spokesman from state funding body Screen NSW, which has invested in the film, said the privately financed remake would spend $6 million in NSW and employ 490 Australians.

“[Union] members are telling us they’re confident to keep working,” the MEAA’s Ms Wood said.

“It’s all outdoors and there’s nothing in the script that requires people to be close to each other.”


The film is being shot in outer Sydney, mostly outdoors. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

The producers declined to discuss the shoot with the ABC but Ms Wood said an eight-page code of conduct had been adopted, part of the script had been re-written and crewing had been pared back.

She said the shoot was mostly outdoors in a specially planted cornfield and most cast and crew had been housed on location.

The project is independent of the corporate or studio system so it has not had to adhere to widely issued blanket shutdown orders.


The film is being produced in line with a special code of conduct. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

New reality for MasterChef

The highest profile TV show to have avoided shutdown is MasterChef.

After production company Endemol Shine started filming the latest series in January, it implemented tighter hygiene practices, as recommended by the Federal Government.

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A spokesman for the producers said social distancing and hand sanitising measures had been stepped up. They included spacing contestant cooking benches, and wearing gloves for team challenges and handling food in the pantry.

Additional handwashing stations have been added and judges will step up to taste individually portioned meals.

Meanwhile, back in the world of Neighbours, Alan Fletcher has figured out a fix for the new no make-up rule on Ramsay Street.

“I’ve become quite accomplished at makeup, so I’ll be doing my own,” he said.

Video: Four Corners looks at how coronavirus unleashed a financial wrecking ball right through the Australian economy.

(Four Corners)

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