Return to the shaky aisles on Shortland Street

By Rebecca Barry

There are some things you just shouldn’t see on Christmas Day. Like rain. Or your workmates. Or your favourite character on Shortland Street getting killed off. Remember when Carmen karked it as you tucked into your ham?

But this year you’ll get to use that new hanky to wipe away happy tears, as teen lovebirds Tama and Shannon prepare to tie the knot in a one-hour, ad-free wedding special on December 25.

It’s the first time the soap has played out its annual cliff-hanger early. The evil Dominic Thompson was killed off in a fiery explosion two weeks ago and the sentimental moments are being saved before the show goes off-air for a three-week break. Of course, there’s no telling whether all will go to plan ...

"The most memorable thing for me this year was when Tama found out that Shannon was playing on him," says actor David Wikaira-Paul (Tama). "I’d formed a huge bond with the character, so it was kind of personal. It surprised me how much I actually cared."

He’s not the only one. In its 13th year, Shortland Street also plays in Fiji, Niue, Cook Islands and Ireland. When the cast travelled to Fiji they were treated like gods. An independent fansite, streettalk.co.nz was launched and its forums are as passionate as if they were about real people.

Looking back on 2004, it’s not hard to figure out the show’s biggest drawcard. The highest-rating episodes included Dominic’s shocking return in the 3000th episode, Dom tied up and at Bernadette’s mercy, the episodes during Victor’s murder trial, and Dom’s death.

"Even though he was only really around in the second half of the year it was the year of Dom because he was just so big and awful," says producer Harriet Crampton. "But he had a good side. To have a villain who has a strong sincere love or passion makes you think, ‘Okay, he’s an absolute bastard but we know he does love Delphi’’’.

Head writer Maxine Fleming says she found it alarmingly easy to channel the evil into his character.

"The thing with baddies is they can only do so much before you take them away again but we definitely wanted to bring him back. It ended up that the body count was a little higher and that’s partly my fault. Ultimately we knew there would be some evil showdown with Chris."

Now that the longest-serving villain has been taken out in an inevitable case of good presiding over evil, who could fill the void? Crampton says the introduction of characters such as the popular Valentine family, the new young heartthrobs Maia Jeffries and Dr Mark Weston and the on-again, off-again nature of Toni and Chris’ relationship will provide plenty of fuel for drama in the New Year.

They weren’t the only ones to keep pulses racing. New doctors Sarah and Craig enjoyed a brief but electrifying courtship, until she revealed her brother was her son. Nelson and Jessie got together in the wake of Anne Kahu’s death — until the jealous Layla threatened everything. Li Mei met Norman, an undertaker who somehow put up with her when what he should have done was dig her a hole in the backyard.

All very entertaining. But was this year on Shortland Street as relevant to New Zealanders as last year’s euthanasia theme?

Fleming says melodrama was a priority over topicality this year but that’s not to say the show hasn’t covered compelling issues, such as Barb’s date rape.

"We have done rape stories before but we decided deliberately to do one where she was actually having a relationship," says Fleming. "It’s common and it’s not one we’ve told. It’s usually the villain who rapes the character so it was much more complex and more of a contemporary look at that issue than perhaps in the past."

Likewise, the Valentines — solo dad Craig and his teenage kids Jake and Scarlett — is a realistic situation for many families, she says. When Scarlett was bullied at school, the writers hadn’t realised it would strike such a nerve.

"We didn’t intend to treat it as an issue when we wrote that story — it was appropriate to her character," says Crampton. "Once we started we realised practically everyone around the writing table had been bullied. It had a real resonance for all of us."

Then there was the unpredictable Layla — obsessive, jealous and depressed. Her suicide made for one of the year’s most disturbing episodes.

"You have to be very careful about not encouraging people to take a similar route," says Crampton. "You have to make it perfectly clear that the fall-out for friends and family is devastating and that people are not behaving normally."

Maia also made quite an impact when she arrived in town from Sydney with her girlfriend Jay, Victor’s daughter, especially considering the gay characters on Shortland Street haven’t exactly been given a strong run in the past.

"She’s in relationships so it does come up but we have tried to avoid lesbian-based stories," says Fleming. "Of course when you have kids and stuff, that’s the thing they want to talk about. My daughter wants to know if they’re lesbians in real life and how do they feel about kissing. So obviously it is an issue but not for us so much."

Feedback from fans asked the writers not to turn her straight, says Crampton.

As for this year’s most cringe-worthy moment, the trophy goes to Tama’s Scribe impression, says Wikaira-Paul.

"I was cleaning a cafeteria with Shannon and he put a towel on the ground and slid along the floor and goes, ‘How many dudes you know got the skills to go and — shine a floor like this?’ I got mocked hard-out for that."

As long as it doesn’t come up at the wedding, it should go just fine. That’s if a certain ghost doesn’t show up on the day ...

THE SHOW: Shortland Street
THE TIME: Weeknights, 7pm; one hour Christmas special on 7pm Christmas Day
THE PLACE: TV2

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