What happens when you get two soap immortals and sit them down together for a chat? Calum Henderson was there to recount the making of television history.
It could be a vision of the end of the world: Alf Stewart and Chris Warner, two characters who between them have spent over 50 years watching their friends and loved ones die at the hands of deranged serial killers, deadly bomb blasts and killer viruses, together in a lonely hospital waiting room. One is a small-town bait shop owner from Australia, the other a world-class surgeon from New Zealand. They are the sole survivors.
Ray Meagher (Alf) and Michael Galvin (Dr. Warner) are the only remaining cast members from the first episodes of their respective shows: Home and Away, which first aired in 1988, and Shortland Street, which began in 1992. With Meagher in Auckland to perform in Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical (he plays Bob, an outback mechanic) we wanted to get them together in the same room and film them talking about their characters’ unusually long lives.
The two men had in fact met before. Reportedly they got on like a house on fire. So, happily, when the idea was pitched to them via the back-channels of their various publicity departments – would they like to interview each other or something – both said yes. Alf Stewart rarely travels further than Yabby Creek. Now he was coming to Ferndale.
Shortland Street is filmed at South Pacific Pictures, just off Lincoln Road in West Auckland. The back of the studio doubles as the front entrance of the hospital which can be seen at the start of every episode. The car park is the same car park where Huia Samuels exploded in a ball of flames.
Inside is a labyrinth of offices navigable by cast photos of every show that has ever been produced at the studio. Turn left at Outrageous Fortune, hang a right at New Zealand Idol Season One – yip, Ben Lummis – then go down the stairs when you see the original cast of Go Girls. That’s where Alf met Chris.
“Gidday mate,” said Ray Meagher. Michael Galvin apologised for being late. He introduced his daughter – “it’s the school holidays,” he explained – and welcomed his Australian counterpart to his workplace. “Do you guys have dressing rooms?” he asked. “I’ve always wanted to ask that.”
Meagher provided a detailed history of the Home and Away dressing room situation, 1988-2016. “I’ve got one,” Galvin bragged self-effacingly. “Well, I share it with two other guys. How much annual leave do you get?”
Waiting outside the set where the interview was to be filmed was like standing in a butterfly enclosure. Endless rare species of Shortland Street celebrity – TK Samuels! Kylie! Damo from IT! – fluttered past on some unknowable course. Galvin introduced Meagher to Glen, the dastardly villain who drugged Rachel McKenna and drove her to leave Chris Warner in the previous night’s episode.
“This is Will. His character just got rid of my character’s wife.” Meagher eyed him up. “Oh yeah,” he replied, “kidnapper or shooter or…?”
The reception area of Shortland Street Hospital is like one of those mild nightmares where everything looks familiar but nothing makes sense. From the front desk you can look through the open elevator doors into the ED where Wendy Cooper and countless others have laid bleeding to death on the operating table. When the studio doors close it is eerily quiet.
“Whatever happened to just flipping on the fluros and saying ‘action’?” Meagher wondered out loud as a couple of harried technicians fiddled with the lights. Galvin held up the list of questions we provided as a guide for the interview: “I don’t want it to look like these are my questions,” he stressed.
For exactly 15 minutes the former hospital CEO from Ferndale and the former caravan park owner from Summer Bay compared their weird double lives. They reminisced about the old days and long-forgotten characters who went to the dairy and never came back, and speculated about how their own characters would one day die (“This is a terrible question,” warned Galvin, “you don’t have to answer it”).
Two soap immortals, together at last. In all but one photo of the interview on my phone Chris Warner is in the middle of some wild gesticulation, his mouth open and his hands all blurred. In the one where he’s not, Ray Meagher’s eyes are shut, his head thrown back in laughter.
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