By ELEANOR BLACK
After eight years as a non-speaking fixture on New Zealand's favourite soap, Graham Puddle will break his silence to satisfy his public.
The white-haired Shortland Street extra has become something of a cult figure, lingering in the background of pivotal scenes faking conversations with other extras. But his popularity means he will soon get dialogue, says programme publicist Dorita Hollings.
When e.g. published a special issue last week to mark 10 years of the soap, a regular viewer wrote to complain because we didn't mention Puddle.
"As lesser actors have come and gone, Non-Speaking Older Male Doctor has soldiered on, acting his non-speaking heart out in the background of more scenes than I can remember," wrote Vaughn Davis of Ponsonby.
"A twitch of his eyebrows or a crane of his neck as he attempts to be seen over the shoulders of taller cast members, conveys more than any Nick Harrison bleat, Robonurse glare or Minnie Crozier vacant stare ever could."
In fact, the affable Puddle has a character name, Dr Ben Marshall, and a specialty, cardiology.
The 65-year-old was upgraded to featured extra five years ago from nameless immigration officer and anaesthetist. He joined the show after being made redundant from a forestry job, but says, "I don't do it for money, I do it for love."
He turns up at the studio two or three days a week, but spends much of his time cooling his heels in the green room. Patience is a vital quality for the featured extra, he says.
While he has never performed surgery or had a romantic fling with a nurse like the other doctors on Shortland Street, Ben Marshall has been present, about two metres behind the action, at some of the soap's biggest events - including the earthquake of 1997, several fires and Dr Michael McKenna's wake. His biggest moment was when he turned up in a helicopter to treat Damien Neilson (Mark Ferguson), boyfriend of Kirsty Knight (Angela Dotchin). That was the popular Dotchin's last scene.
Puddle has outlasted every hospital boss, seen out numerous marriages and watched families come and go. His contribution to the programme was recognised with a big birthday cake in November and plans to give Dr Ben Marshall something to say.
Puddle, however, is not sure he is ready for his alter ego to speak.
"I don't want that responsibility."