Thursday 18 July 2019

Home and Away is 30 - here's why Ireland has an enduring romance with the Aussie soap

As the beloved soap from Down Under celebrates its 30th anniversary, Ed Power looks at Ireland's enduring romance with the sun-kissed series

Life’s a beach: The cast of Home and Away in 1988
Life’s a beach: The cast of Home and Away in 1988
Pippa-gate: The original Pippa, Vanessa Downing (left) was miraculously replaced by Debra Lawrance (right)

Here's a thought sure to make you feel ancient: it was 30 years ago this week when Home And Away first captured the hearts of soap opera fans around the world.

The Australian saga, set in fictional Summer Bay, aired for the first time in January 1988 and was soon essential viewing, both in the Southern Hemisphere and Ireland.

RTE was one of the first international networks to pick up the series. For a generation of teenagers, it provided a window into life on the other side of the world never seen before.

Summer Bay was a place of sunshine, romance and melodrama that could not have contrasted more sharply with the drabness of late 80s Ireland. Home and Away was escapist TV where you genuinely felt you were escaping to somewhere.

It quickly became a favourite - with the novelty that it was screened on RTE long before anywhere else in Europe. This ensured it was truly a nationwide success, as beloved in those parts of the country that lacked access to British TV as those in quasi-mythic 'multi-channel land'.

More than that, because it was broadcast relatively early in the afternoon, everyone's oblivious parents were blind to the occasionally dark and steamy storylines.

Extra-marital hooks-ups, rape, disastrous nuptials - all were grist to this post-teatime treat. Had they bothered to watch, our mothers and fathers would have been appalled. It also lacked for meaningful competition (unless you had access to BBC and Neighbours).

At a time when the only other widely watched soaps in Ireland were the thoroughly unglamorous Glenroe and grim British imports such as Coronation Street and EastEnders, it was a beacon amid the glum schedules.

Below are five reasons why, three decades on, the show has carved a permanent place in the hearts of an entire generation.

1. The channels

Two-channel land was a soul-sapping dystopia if your viewing habits went beyond the news or the Angelus (and this was hardcore Angelus, unblemished by hippy-dippy footage of soulful types gazing into the distance). RTE was still in many ways a 50s broadcaster that regarded the modern world as something to be ignored or viewed with fear and suspicion.

American imports such as The A-Team and Murder, She Wrote offered some succour, it is true. But these were, in their own way, no less chaste. Home And Away, by contrast, was awash with bitchiness, backstabbing and relationship drama. Storylines encompassing adultery, abortion, depression and bullying kept the dramatic fires crackling. If you were 13 and a bit zonked from your maths homework it was the most exciting thing ever.

2. The theme tune

Close your eyes and try to recall the Home and Away theme. Spooled right back into your head, didn't it? To describe Mike Perjanik's title ditty as 'catchy' is probably an overstatement as this implies you actively enjoy listening to it. But it certainly gets into your noggin and refuses to leave.

While several versions have featured over the decades, purists will regard the original Karen Boddington/Mark Williams duet as definitive. Indeed, you may even have purchased it when it was released as a single in 1989 (actually you probably didn't, as it stiffed at number 73).

3: The characters we loved (and loved to hate)

British soaps were populated by thoroughly miserable types. Their American counterparts were a blizzard of teeth, hair and over-the-top acting. Enter Home and Away, a soap recognisably about everyday people trying to get on with their lives. Tom and Pippa Fletcher were fundamentally decent souls, devoted to their five foster children. And their new neighbours at Summer Bay - to which they had relocated from Sydney - were a solid crew, including the soon-to-be-iconic Alf Stewart, who, when we first met him, was grieving for his recently passed wife. Compare that to Hilda Ogden threatening Stanley with a rolling pin or Bobby Ewing dreaming up an entire season of Dallas and the appeal was clear.

4. The mental twists

Having played Pippa Fletcher for two years, Vanessa Downing abruptly quit Home and Away in 1990. Rather than take the obvious route of writing the character out of the story, the producers simply cast Debra Lawrance in her place and pushed on as though nothing had happened. Just as crazy were the storylines, soon chock-a-block with dead lovers, Vietnam veterans and an extra-marital liaison involving a shark hunter swinging by Summer Bay. You didn't have any of that in Glenroe - a major contribution to Home and Away's popularity.

5. The glimpse of sun

Maybe it's just the memory playing tricks, but Ireland in the late 80s is remembered as a gloomy, grey place where you were as likely to catch a tan as you were to find a job without having to emigrate.

Into this came Home and Away, a slice of sunny escapism. You could watch it with the sound turned down and simply bask in the fact that everyone looked bronzed and healthy.

Irish Independent

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