Lydia Jenkin

Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Shortland Street turns 20 in explosive fashion (+photos)

For the anniversary of its two decades on screen, Shortland Street is celebrating with a feature-length episode that aims to top the previous disasters that have befallen the soap. Lydia Jenkin goes behind-the-scenes.

Michael Galvin, Sally Martin, Gerald Urquhart and Rachael Blampied of Shortland Street. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Michael Galvin, Sally Martin, Gerald Urquhart and Rachael Blampied of Shortland Street. Photo / Steven McNicholl

It's gone 8.30pm on a Thursday night, and it's getting chilly outside South Pacific Pictures - the Henderson building that is both the production company's office and acts as the interior and exterior of the Shortland Street hospital.

It's odd to be standing outside familiar doors, in a carpark that has been the stage for so many television milestones - car bombs, a horrific truck crash, secrets revealed, plots formulated, drug deals done, relationships begun and forever ruined.

But tonight the cast and crew are two and a half hours into a marathon 10-hour nightshoot. They're filming what is surely one of the most explosive events in the spectacular history of the Shortland Street carpark. Despite the cold, there's a quiet buzz under the clear night sky.

TimeOut can now reveal what all those recent references to an "upgraded helipad" on the hospital roof have been leading up to - a fiery chopper crash.

As the pyrotechnic specialist sets up his smoke, sparks, and fire, and a St Johns Ambulance arrives on set, there's a definite air of anticipation.

Elsewhere, extras are rugged up in dressing gowns waiting for their cues. Capable-looking blokes run around with lights and booms and mics and screens. Makeup crew touch up gelatinous smears of blood and black-smoke residue. Some 60 people are involved in the shoot, and everyone is treated the same - there's no trailers for the actors or directors (the cast even share their dressing rooms), and no diva behaviour. What is noticeable is the sense of camaraderie.

This set-piece has been a huge operation for the whole crew. Particularly the art department, which had to source helicopter wreckage - they're using the one which smashed into Auckland's Viaduct in November last year, while the accompanying sound is care of the crash which was captured by a TVNZ camera man. Welcome to Shorty's 20th birthday episode. It's going to go off with a bang ...

While the crash will constitute roughly five-and-a-half minutes of the episode (they'll be shooting for another couple of nights yet), there's also another team working inside on the interior scenes.

It wouldn't be a celebration without the return of some familiar old faces. So there will be a plot line involving the entire Jeffries clan returning to Auckland.

As well, the iconic Marj Neilson (Elizabeth McRae) who uttered the show's very first piece of dialogue when she answered the clinic phone with "Good afternoon, Shortland Street Accident and Emergency Centre" will make an appearance.

So the past is coming back to haunt the present cast for the celebrations - and in that spirit TimeOut sat down with some current cast members to watch that very first episode, from May 25, 1992, and reflect on how times have changed.

Our selection is Gerald Urquhart who has been playing Dr Luke Durville for five years; recent arrival Rachael Blampied who plays conniving Dr Bree Freeman; Sally Martin who's long been popular for her role as party girl Nurse Nicole Miller; and long-time star Michael Galvin, who's been playing Chris Warner since the beginning.

"Thirty seconds on screen and you've had your first kiss. It took me four years," Urqhart quips at Galvin as we watch ladies-man Dr Warner bed an aerobics instructor played by Suzy Aiken, only minutes into the premiere episode.

There's plenty of friendly banter among the cast members - it's almost hard to believe Shortland Street's not really a comedy when you hear the ribbing and the jokes. Some things they note about the first episode are technical - the lack of foley or environmental sound, and the absence of many "establishing shots".

Martin: "The thing I find most difficult to watch though is actually the sets. They make me feel uncomfortable."

Galvin: "They're kind of claustrophobic, no depth, very flat."

Martin: "You also have no sense of whereabouts you are. It could just be any room redressed. There's no sense of um ..."

Galvin: "...flow, or geography. Like a nightmare."
Blampied: "Oh, and what about that nurse when they're delivering the baby - 'pant with her, pant!"'

Martin: "Speaking of pants, holy heck, Temuera Morrison had some amazing pants!"

Yes, the 90s wardrobe seems like an easy target for a joke, but this bunch aren't afraid to laugh at themselves either. They've all been through their own storylines that have made them cringe. It seems dancing is a common theme among the scenes the actors wish the writers wouldn't write for their characters.

Urquhart: "All the dancing scenes that Luke's been having to do lately, the tango and the voodoo love ritual, and then the other voodoo ritual. I'm just doing some crazy dancing."

Martin: "Don't talk to me about dancing. I had to slut dance with poor Robbie Magasiva while everyone else was sober."

Galvin: "The Shortland Street musical, that's what I always come back to as the worst for me. But no one watched it because it screened on September 12, 2001. Everyone was watching the news, obviously. It was Shortland Street's lowest-ever ratings, or something like that I think, because everyone was watching the news for 9/11. But it was painful. I had to do a rap. And then Calvin Tuteao and I had this sword fight. And when we were rehearsing it, it was like, 'oh, maybe this could look okay'. But then they gave us the swords and they were really, really heavy, so we ended up looking so useless. It was embarrassing."
Fortunately the musical interludes are few and far between, and the cast have just as many highlights to refer to.

Urquhart: "I really enjoyed the storyline with Matt Minto and Beth Allen and myself, with the whole drugging incident. That was fun working with them, but also nice for my character because it very much put him in a better light, and the audience started to almost champion him rather than thinking of him as a weirdo. It was a huge turning point for my character."

Both Martin and Galvin cite working with some of our local luminary actors as high points - Galvin got to work with Ian Mune when he made an ongoing guest appearance as the uncle of Chris Warner's long-lost son Phoenix. And Martin had some of her favourite scenes with Jennifer Ludlam, who played Nicole's mother.

Martin: "I just adore her because she's such a wonderful person and obviously an incredible actress. It was also very funny because her mum is homophobic [and Nicole is bisexual], and so she had some very funny lines."

Shorty (as it's affectionately known) has always been keen to portray characters of all sexualities (one might even say that various characters seem to have changed their sexual preferences more frequently than their haircut) and that's part of the general attitude which the producers and writers have always taken towards representing as many demographics as possible.

In 2000 the producers did a major revamp of the show, transitioning the hospital to a public hospital, bringing in low income families and writing off 14 characters. The storylines might often be melodramatic but they've clearly resonated with wide-ranging masses, and consistently made it one of the highest-rating local shows.

Which also means the cast are world famous in New Zealand, and often approached when going about their daily business, even in some of the most remote parts of the country.

Galvin: "It's nice, it's always nice. Even if they're giving you a bit of niggle, it's not done maliciously, it's just usually someone trying to be funny, so it's great."

Blampied: "The funniest part for me is that I'm not doing anything particularly special, I'm buying toothpaste or whatever, and to me that's not unusual, but to someone else, and this happened in Havelock North, it completely made her week that I was buying toothpaste in her supermarket. It makes me happy because it made her so happy."

Urquhart: "I remember being in Te Kuiti and someone yelling out 'what are you doing here bro?' 'Umm, just buying some muesli bars?"

Martin: "Yeah, I was in Ruatoria over Christmas, and bought a Ruatoria Pie from their Four Square and they loved it. I'd far rather be approached than pointed at and whispered about, so come forth and say 'hi', we won't bite."

Shortland Street is their job, and it may be a relentless, well-oiled machine that turns out 240 episodes a year, but these guys love their work. Which is lucky, really. Because sometimes that means running around at 10.30pm on a cold Thursday night, battling smoke and broken glass, and the urge to go home to bed. Good thing it's a clear night too, because they would've been shooting even if it was raining.

Back on set, veteran director Wayne Tourell asks Robbie Magasiva who plays Dr Maxwell Avia, to come running through the carpark one more time, while they try a different camera angle. Magasiva asks if he should be coughing or rubbing his eyes in reaction to the fumes of the smouldering helicopter, while the pyrotechnician sets up the sparks to go off at the right time.

Director of photography Drew Sturge checks out the alternate camera angle, while 1st assistant director Flora Woods makes sure the extras and the rest of the crew are all in place.

Action is called, and Dr Avia sprints out of the darkness, clambering over a crushed car and into the helicopter cab to check just who's inside ...and CUT.

What: Shortland Street's 20th birthday feature-length episode.
When: Monday, May 21.

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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