Life is short, Shorty goes on, seemingly forever. That makes about as much sense as anything these days. I was a television critic with a new baby when the show started. The old theme song - Is it you or is it me? - had lyrics so enigmatic they might have been written by predictive text, had that existed in 1992. Try puzzling over this myopic metaphysical conundrum - "If you want to find a way of searching for another world, it's hard to see … Shortland Street" – when you have baby brain.
Somewhere in my study there is a CD containing Shortland Street, the club mix, which samples the immortal words of the show's underrated genius, Nick Harrison: "I sure wouldn't pass up a free ticket to psychedelia." The show may not have been anyone's free ticket to psychedelia, though the feature-length 25th anniversary eruption of that sleeping giant, Mt Ferndale, during which, from memory, the cast staggered around covered in volcanic ash trying to kill each other, had its trippy moments. But the show has been a sort of Great (ish) New Zealand novel in endless mad commercial half hour instalments. In a review a year into Shorty's run, by which time I had gone from sneering at it along with all the other critics to refusing to answer the phone when it was on, such a cult favourite had it become, I referred to a character as Madge rather than Marj. Easy mistake. Madge was the Palmolive dishwashing liquid lady – "You're soaking in it!" Marj was the Street's original receptionist, responsible for launching an equally sudsy product by picking up the phone and trilling its remorselessly prosaic first line: "Shortland Street Accident and Emergency Centre!" Elizabeth McRae, who played Marj, sent me a good-natured note I still have, written on the back of a 1993 Shortland Street postcard – is this a collector's item by now? – pointing out my silly error. "Madge seems such a smudge of a name," she mused. I interviewed her once. She is a legend.
The title sequence to that first episode featured a sort of Doctor Frankenstein scene in which a giant pair of defibrillator paddles was brandished, as if to shock local serial television drama into life. At a time when we were struggling to make a sitcom that didn't make you want to emigrate, the patient seemed a hopeless case. Yet here we are.
For me, the show's golden age was the Lionel Skeggins years. Played in the 90s by the great John Leigh, Lionel could be viewed perambulating through the clinic with his food cart, juggling his muffins in the background to some histrionic scene. To this day, we don't know what happened to Lionel after he fell off that cliff. Though he further disrupted the soap space time continuum by reappearing for brilliant cameo amid the 25th anniversary mayhem, telling Chris Warner, "Mate, I don't know you, and you've got sick on your shoes."
I haven't watched much lately. The 30th anniversary episodes are a chance to catch up with everyone from TK Samuels to another long-running icon, the Briscoes lady. Hilary Barry and Jeremy Wells have all but become core characters. The only OG is Michael Galvin's Dr Chris Warner. He has gone from the Street's Dr Love to our own version of Ken Barlow, ousting "You're not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata" as the show's greatest line with his internationally celebrated, "Please tell me that is not your penis!" Shorty is ever up with the times, so Chris is now having his #MeToo moment.
When the show had its 10th anniversary, my review joked that calling the festivities The First 10 Years was a threat. It's a threat Shorty has made good on. Apart from all the only-in-Aotearoa moments and deathless dialogue – "Sam, you are as soft as a Dacron duvet" – it has proved an exceptional training ground for actors, directors and even the audience. Without Shortland Street would we ever have had the confident, recognisably "us" audacity of Outrageous Fortune?
So, to Shortland Street and all who have at one time or another sailed on her, happy birthday. Thank you for your service.