Playing dead

By Alan Perrott

When Beloved characters fall victim to the killing fields of TV, the effects are far-reaching. Alan Perrott talks to three actors who have died and died again.

Tandi Wright's death as Catherine Duvall in Nothing Trivial shocked fans and her family. Photo / Matt Klitscher
Tandi Wright's death as Catherine Duvall in Nothing Trivial shocked fans and her family. Photo / Matt Klitscher

The first time Claire Chitham died, her phone ran hot with warnings never to do it again.

Not without giving people a bit of warning, anyway.

Especially her family - it's not every day a parent blithely sits in front of the telly only to watch their daughter have a head-on collision with a double-decker party bus while riding a motorcycle and carrying a backpack full of marijuana after her fiance had dobbed her in to the police for drug dealing. And all close up, in high definition.

Then there was the time her brother tuned into Outrageous Fortune after being given cast-iron guarantees that he would never have to watch his sister having sex. It could be a long time until he checks out his sister's acting forays again.

The demise of Claire Chitham’s character Aurora Bay in 'Outrageous Fortune' caused an uproar against the series’ creators.
The demise of Claire Chitham’s character Aurora Bay in 'Outrageous Fortune' caused an uproar against the series’ creators.

"Hell yeah, the reaction was a total shock to me," says Chitham, who'd been playing the now-deceased character Aurora Bay, "and I think it was a shock to the writers as well.

We had no idea people had fallen in love with her quite that much."

The credits had barely started rolling after Aurora's death on Outrageous when the first message came in: "I know it's just a TV show and it's not real, but that was really horrible and I just wanted you to know, I love you."

Then came the calls letting her know how upsetting it was to see a close friend looking very dead: "That's not something any friend should have to go through ..."

And that was just the start of it. The next day it was suggested she check out the show's comment thread on Trade Me.

The usual debates about the dickishness and sex appeal of various characters had been flowing back and forth until about 10.25pm, when the first "Noooo ..." appeared, followed immediately by "I'm standing in my lounge crying", "OMG, you killed Aurora" and a litany of expletives and tirades against the show's writers.

Actress Claire Chitham.
Actress Claire Chitham.

The outcry was sufficient enough to have those dastardly writers dragged on to Campbell Live to explain themselves before the nation.

As it turned out, Aurora's fate had been sealed a year earlier, once the second season had screened in 2006 and funding for a third had been confirmed.

A sacrifice was called for to kick things along, and given she was only ever intended as a fringe character, her early demise would enable them to send would-be husband Van West careering off on a whole new storyline - excellent.

As ever, in such cases, it was up to the show's producer to deliver the grim news: "The good news is, we need you for another season. The bad news is, you're gonna die."

In other words, you're about to become unemployed for the sake of a plot device.

So, as any well-trained, experienced actor would do, Chitham got straight on to her agent. "Well, it had been great fun, with no regrets and I had plenty of notice, so I had to use [my death] as motivation to keep going and growing."

Which is the ugly truth of acting. You're expected to throw your soul into establishing a new, believable persona and encouraged to see your fellow cast and crew as family, then - just as you've settled in enough to make future plot suggestions - you're run over by a bus. Or a plane crashes into your hospital. Or you get some horrible, rare disease.

Whatever, it's almost always an outrageously gratuitous death. Especially if you work in soap, the killing fields of television.

A paper published in the British Medical Journal back in the relatively benign 1990s found that British soap opera characters were almost three times more likely to come to a grisly end than any fellow Brit of the same age and sex.

Especially if you were working on Eastenders, where your chances of dying in any given episode were double those of dear old Coronation Street. Overall, 64 per cent of soap deaths were violent and/or obscure and involved people in the prime of life, and that's before isolating the usual season-ending bloodbaths and characters forced to leave the set because of some threat of terminal nastiness.

Still, as sad as Chitham was to leave the crew, Aurora Bay had served her purpose.

Chitham had just come off an eight-year stretch as Shortland Street's goody-goody girl-next-door. Her character Waverley Harrison (nee Wilson) beat the odds and survived her plot-life, but she did end up fleeing to the 'Naki after her paranoid husband thought she was a prowler and pulled a gun on her.

"So Aurora was a treat to play, really," says Chitham from her Los Angeles home. "People had got used to seeing me as Waverley and I was a little worried that I'd been stereotyped or typecast, then there I was - back again as a leather-and-lace bikie chick having lots of sex."

She even rather enjoyed playing out her first death scene, even if she couldn't share the experience with her family - spoilers are unprofessional, to say the least. Instead, it was her final appearance as a corpse in a coffin that spooked her: "That was really weird and I did feel a little sacrilegious, like I was playing with fate in a strange sort of way. The crew was really quiet, too. We used a real funeral home and I think shooting that was difficult for everyone, really.

"They kept asking me if I was okay, so I kept making jokes to make light of it ... so watching that scene at home was a bit of an out-of-body experience."

But by the time her final scene had aired, Chitham had already moved on - doing some theatre work and training as a Pilates instructor, then a trip to Australia for a guest spot on Neighbours and eventually on to her present base in the United States.

Another Kiwi actress enjoying an American afterlife is Tandi Wright.

As Dr Catherine Duvall, one of five central characters on TV One comedy-drama Nothing Trivial, we last saw her being struck by a van, and just after she'd finally got her love life sorted.

For a show that was always more about charm than harm, it was an incredibly jarring ending to the third and final season. One online reaction spoke for many: "Freaked out, jumped up screaming followed by goosebumps! Think I'm going to have nightmares."

Not to worry, though, fans reasoned, we'll get the happy ending in the next series. Except there was no next series after TVNZ decided the show's ratings couldn't justify the money it'd cost to make it. And who exactly can the fans blame for this unexpected downer? Tandi Wright.

This is where real life blurs into the neverland of a television show. In that world, Wright's character Catherine was battling to sort out her life while living on her GP's salary. In our world, Wright is an actor and her family's breadwinner, and signing another three-year series contract would have continued to prevent her from auditioning for parts that might interfere with the show's schedule. Essentially, it made her untouchable to other employers.

Actress Tandi Wright.
Actress Tandi Wright.

So, she met with the show's producers, explained her dilemma and said she wasn't sure if she could recommit. As a reward, she was called to a private meeting before the third series kicked off, where she got the bad news and was asked to keep it quiet.

"I knew they might have to kill me off," says Wright, now auditioning for new roles in Los Angeles. "They always have to do what's best for the series, but as an actor it was a heartstopping moment. There's nothing that makes me more sick than turning down work."

If she'd never died on screen before, she had an idea of what she was in for - her mother, the actor and author Dinah Priestley, so far has three deaths in her CV: two on Shortland Street alone. "So I know what it's like to be on the other end of it."

Still, she didn't expect anything but nostalgic celebration when she went to a friend's place to enjoy her final performance with her fellow cast and crew. As it turns out, it is a little weird watching yourself die and the sombre air was heightened only when one writer's mother started sobbing and had to leave the room - she hadn't been warned of the impending disaster.

As she was being soothed, Wright's husband was at home fielding anxious calls. "Mum was quite upset, she called a couple of times and she's an actor, she so gets it, but there's this gut reaction, you need to hear the person's voice and that's completely rational. I feel really bad about it all, actually, like I was personally responsible for giving people a bad time. Especially as there wasn't another series. There was no catharsis, no aftermath; just this brutal scene and then it stopped."

But this is television, so if the demand is there Catherine may yet rise again. In January, TVNZ spokeswoman Megan Richards said writers had been hired to start work on a single-episode finale to pull together the show's loose ends.

Knocking off good characters is one thing, but how about a real stinker? You'd be hard-pressed to find one who rejoiced in his stench more than Shortland Street scene-stealer Darryl Neilson.

Over three years he'd dated a woman so he could steal her eggs, faked his own children's kidnapping, burned his brother's paintings, blackmailed his mum's boyfriend and drugged a rival before locking him in a barn so he'd miss his own wedding. Then, at the peak of his powers, actor Mark Ferguson suddenly asked the show's writers to kill his character off.

From the start, Neilson was a character fans reacted to strongly. It all got out of hand after his sexual assault on Shortland Street receptionist Kirsty Knight (a plotline Ferguson now considers a mis-step). After it screened the actor was at a swimming pool with his real-life family when a young boy blocked his way, raised an accusatory finger and started shouting "rapist".

"I had to go up to him and say, 'first of all, stop saying that and do you even know what that word means?' Then I found myself in a public place explaining to this kid that it's a terrible concept, something you must never do, and I was thinking, 'God, it's just television', but for some people it's obviously a lot more.

"It's hard to identify why some characters seem to resonate with people more than others, but Darryl really did. He touched a nerve and I think it's because he really enjoyed what he did. He wasn't necessarily psychotic and, aside from the assault, he didn't do anything truly terrible. I think there was a lot of wish-fulfilment in what he did for some people."

But it was the spiteful burning of Darryl's younger brother's paintings that really drew out the haters. For a few months it didn't matter where he was, someone would stop to splutter: "But, but ... he worked so hard on them." Ferguson would slip on Darryl's trademark smirk and reply: "Yes, but they weren't very good now, were they?"

Actually, he relished any storyline that allowed him to needle actor Martin Henderson, who played younger brother, Stuart: "He was young and beautiful and so, so serious. I don't know if Martin remembers all that but if he does, I hope it helps keep him grounded," he jokes.

Mark Ferguson is an actor whose characters were killed off on TV. Photo / Natalie Slade
Mark Ferguson is an actor whose characters were killed off on TV. Photo / Natalie Slade

Ferguson remembers the day he stopped for petrol in Rotorua and was recognised by a local gang member. His notorious reputation earned him a round of hugs, introductions and an invitation to a party. He didn't go, but the idea of having his own private army had a definite appeal.

His involvement in the show was an intermittent one - he'd appear, raise hell, then disappear again. Which was fun to play but difficult to plan a life around. Push finally came to shove and Ferguson said to the producers, "Okay, kill me off then" - so they did.

"Well, he'd lasted on and off for three years, and that's a long time for a bad guy. Then, as it turned out, the way he went out was close to perfect for the story. It had to be Kirsty."

The deed was played out on the houseboat, Toroa. Kirsty confronted Darryl over the dodgy drugs that had left her fiance in a coma. In response, he attacked, only to fall off the boat and drown, leaving Kirsty happily off the hook for his death.

The excitement rather faded for Ferguson when he had to spend a fair while floating face down in a pool until a diver nailed the last shot, looking up at Darryl's dead face. Then came the scene where his body was found washed up on a mudflat. He was lying half-buried in mud, which sounds fairly relaxing except the tide was coming in. They didn't get it right until his nose was almost fully underwater.

It was, in fact, the third time he'd succumbed to a watery end, his characters having drowned in both Sons and Daughters and Gloss: "I take a lot of care around water these days."

Happily, his last television death, in Spartacus, was on extra-dry desert land.

"So, that was it for Darryl," says Ferguson. "A memorable, reasonably spectacular full-stop. Television's a little bit brutal like that ... but just as I'm thinking 'that's it for that show, no more waiting by the phone', three years later I get a phone call: 'How would you like to play Darryl's younger brother, Damien?' It was kind of a laugh, an in-joke really, and that always appeals to me."

Apparently this younger-yet-identical Neilson had spent the past few years traipsing around the Himalayas doing good deeds. But his true mission was to help actor Angela Dotchin (who played Kirsty) leave the show alive and so, after a few episodes, Damien's home for sexually problematic teens caught fire, he suffered horrible burns, Kirsty decided she loved him and the last we saw was the pair flying off in a helicopter to get treatment and live happily ever after.

It was a rip-off, really, and Ferguson kicks himself that they didn't have him peel off his fake burns, look up and, in pure Darryl tones, say "Hello Kirsty", then pan away as the chopper flies off with her screaming.

"Now that would have been high soap." Especially if the chopper had exploded.

- NZ Herald

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