We used to have conversations about how long it would last. I was 19 at the time and my only knowledge of soaps was Neighbours, so I offered up a very confident "seven years…maybe 10". Now as Shortland Street hits 25 years running, it’s become so ingrained in our lives, I don’t think anyone can imagine 7pm without it. Whether you watch it, never have, or used to and don’t anymore, there's no denying that Shortland is part of New Zealand’s identity. It’s right up there with the All Blacks, and thanks to a very insightful mandate set out by NZ on Air all those years ago, it speaks to us in a language we understand – ours!
Not only did it help define our televison industry, it continues to be a vital part of TVNZ’s programming – consistently winning the ratings war at 7pm, therefore being the best lead-in show for night-time viewing, not to mention making a heap of money from advertising.
By the time I arrived on set, Shortland Street was actually quite high functioning for a production so young. The sets had stopped falling over at least. We still had one set, the café, which was constructed in a shed out the back of the studios. We would reroute the cables externally so we could adhere to our multi-camera fast turnaround formula, and even though we had to wait for the rain to stop between takes because of its noisy tin roof, we shot in it for many years. Because that’s what we did, and still do. We make good on whatever challenge presents itself, our biggest challenge being time. People have always talked about how fast the show is shot...and I will say right now, we shoot it faster today than we ever did before.
The changing face and digestion of television has meant Shortland Street storytelling has had to become more sophisticated. Characters and stories have become more intricate, as we attempt to match the TV shows around us. And sure, new technology has helped us in this evolution, one example being we now record on all three cameras simultaneously, which makes for an abundance of material and options. But at the end of the day, we are still writing five episodes a week, shooting five episodes a week and editing five episodes a week, and that will never change.
What has changed is the life of a New Zealand actor. Many Kiwi actors still have to supplement their careers with other sources of income, but for many, Shortland Street has provided the opportunity to be a working actor, often for months and even years at a time. Making a living from acting is a gift, but also a steep learning curve. I will never forget when the Inland Revenue set up office at the studios and audited a large number of the cast, a little reminder to us that we were in uncharted territory. They wanted to check we were playing by the rules; we needed the rules defined, and suffice to say, claiming GST on ciggies and milk at the petrol station was not allowed.
So let’s combine these two elements: year after year playing the same character, five days a week and under very real time constraints. We often reference the theatre when we analyse what it is to act on Shortland Street, but unlike theatre you have a camera two metres away from your nose, and truth is the only way to a successful performance. And let me tell you, I have seen some magic in my time on the show – actors reaching depths of emotion in that small amount of time, under the pressure of that schedule. It’s moving, and an honour to be a part of.
Not only have the actors bared themselves for their characters, a huge number have gone out and shared their time for the greater good. Becoming a recognisable face on this particular show makes you hot property. Whether its school fundraisers, talking to kids, or dedicating time to charities to assist in raising awareness and funds, many Shortland Street actors have given their energy generously over the years, a by-product I don’t think anyone anticipated.
So the question I get asked the most, outside of ‘what’s your favourite scene?’ (do they realise how many I’ve done?) is this one: why do people love Shortland Street so much? I think it goes back to that original mandate; the show's duty as a ‘public service’ while it was funded by NZ on Air was to ‘reflect New Zealand’s cultural diversity’ and ‘address issues of specific relevance to young people’. Even though the show has reinvented itself through the years as the TV watcher has become more discerning, it has never strayed from reflecting New Zealand's people and New Zealand perspectives, along with a good dose of Kiwi humour.
Did you know that the immortal line “You’re not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata” was originally edited out of the script for sounding too silly? But then they chucked it back in, and the rest is history.
- Angela Bloomfield played Rachel McKenna on 1000s of episodes of Shortland Street; her character endured alcoholism, bulimia and an epic on-off relationship with Chris Warner. Bloomfield acted in film Bonjour Timothy and TV's Ride with the Devil, and has directed episodes of Go Girls, Shortland Street and Jackson's Wharf.
Shortland Street can claim a number of firsts: the first five-day-a-week drama, the first fast turn-around NZ serial drama geared to a commercial market; it was also the first NZ soap to be exported. It has become iconic NZ television, and lines from the show have entered the culture: most famously, “you’re not in Guatemala now Dr Ropata!”
Right from the first episode Shorty (as it’s affectionately known) made an impact, with a canny sex scene ensuring the show would turn heads.
In 1991 funding body NZ On Air invited television networks to submit proposals for a daily soap opera aimed at the 14 – 25 demographic. Although TVNZ’s Shortland Street beat out TV3’s Homeward Bound, TVNZ’s top executives assessed the project as too high a risk. However programming and production executives actively encouraged the concept, with Bettina Hollings, Caterina De Nave and Don Reynolds spearheading the push. In 1991 an agreement between NZOA, TVNZ, and South Pacific Pictures assured a year’s worth of episodes, and a three million dollar budget to work with.
Australia’s Grundy Television aided by providing extra financial assistance, writing advice, and production expertise, leveraging their proven soap opera production experience, the most relevant being The Young Doctors (1976–1983).
The production efficiently blends melodrama, social realism and comedy and turns out the required hospital soap opera elements: medical crisis, romance, human drama, comedy and cliff-hanging suspense. Despite Shortland Street’s format — populist entertainment based on imported genre models — the show has a very strong local flavour. Over the years, the storylines have had an uncanny knack of relating to and even anticipating, contemporary political, social and cultural issues.
The original setting, a private health clinic, reflected the current drive by the then-government to make health services more ‘user pays’. Later political changes in the Shortland Street administration seem to parallel restructuring within New Zealand’s health sector. Other political issues that have impacted on New Zealand society have also been dealt with in the show’s storylines, including changes in the education system, Māori land grievances, the Civil Union bill and union disputes.
Shortland Street has been a significant vehicle for changing the way ethnicity is represented on New Zealand screen. From the beginning, a diversity of cultures have been cast. Nancy Brunning (Jaki Manu), Temuera Morrison (Hone Ropata), Rene Naufahu (Sam Aleni), and Lynette Forday (Grace Kwan) were the first in a long line of Māori, Pacific and Asian talent to walk the hospital’s corridors.
In particular the portrayal of Māori and Pacific Islanders as urbane middle-class professionals (doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, CEOs and entrepreneurs) represented a positive change for those cultures, who, apart from the odd character in Close To Home and the likes of Billy T James and Jim Moriarty, had scant presence on primetime television or stage.
The production has also been something of an unofficial industry training institution, both behind and in front of the cameras. Original Shortland producer Caterina De Nave argued that “you can always tell a Shortland Street actor, they’re technically very good .. they can cope with any changes that have to happen quickly on location or in the studio”. A sampling of names that have been through the Shorty stable reads like a who’s who of Kiwi acting talent: aside from long-timers Michael Galvin (aka 'Dr Love') and actor turned director Angela Bloomfield, the list includes Tim Balme, Geraldine Brophy, Alison Bruce, Danielle Cormack, Shane Cortese, Marton Csokas, Oliver Driver, Martin Henderson, Anna Hutchison, John Leigh, Robyn Malcolm, Miriama McDowell, Temuera Morrison, Dean O'Gorman, Craig Parker, Madeleine Sami, Miriama Smith, Antony Starr, Joel Tobeck, Calvin Tuteao, Karl Urban, Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Katie Wolfe and Tandi Wright.
Writers who scrubbed up on the show include some major names in NZ television: people like Rachel Lang, James Griffin, Gavin Strawhan and Kate McDermott. Among the directors who've gone on to varied industry careers are Mark Beesley, Murray Keane and Britta Johnstone. Former director's assistant Rachel Jean became drama and comedy commisioner at TV3, while directors Laurence Wilson and Tessa Hoffe went on to direct for major English soaps like EastEnders and Coronation Street.
Due to Shortland's primetime family time slot of 7pm, the storylines and scripts are kept in line with broadcasting standard guidelines. Early plots were fairly conservative, but over the years they have become bolder in content, daring to openly reference issues such as homosexual relationships, promiscuous sexual behaviour, AIDS, drug and alcohol abuse, teenage sex, suicide, cot death, child abuse and violence.
The long-running production has consistently reinvented itself. Shortland Street's continuing presence as the flagship Kiwi soap opera is testament to the production’s ability to adapt to ratings downturns and shifts in audience expectations.
- Mihi Murray (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Awa) has been an actor, writer, artist, DJ and radio presenter.