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An Australian Soap Opera Returns, With Distance and No Kissing

An Australian Soap Opera Returns, With Distance and No Kissing

The series, which has run for 35 years and aired more than 8,300 episodes, had been on a monthlong hiatus because of social distancing measures that have halted the production of television and films in Australia.

They stand 5 feet apart, cannot hold hands, kiss or simulate a brawl, but the cast and crew of “Neighbours” — a long-running Australian soap opera that returned to production in late April amid coronavirus restrictions — still hope to convey the same heightened conflict, intimacy and drama that the show’s fans have come to love.

The series, which has run for 35 years and aired more than 8,300 episodes, had been on a monthlong hiatus because of social distancing measures that have halted the production of television and films in Australia and around the globe.

But as Australia charges toward its goal of totally eliminating the virus within its borders, “Neighbours” has become among the first TV shows in the world to have its cast and crew return to set, if at a distance.

“What we do have is a lot of space,” the executive producer Jason Herbison said of Fremantle studios, the show’s home in Melbourne, which is among the largest production facilities in the Southern Hemisphere.

“We’re able to very quickly monitor everyone’s interaction and footprint, should we have an incident,” he added. “We’ve been adapting.”

“Neighbours” isn’t the only thing shooting these days. Animated projects, documentaries and some reality TV, as well as shows explicitly embracing the new rules of life in a pandemic, like Netflix’s upcoming “Social Distance,” are still being produced with appropriate precautions.

But “Neighbours” is likely to be one of the first scripted series in the English-speaking world, at least, to return to the set after being halted because of coronavirus restrictions. As such, it could set an important precedent for the global screen industry as it tries to figure out how a phased reintroduction to shooting television series and films might work.

The industry has plenty of financial incentive to do so: In the United States alone, TV ad revenue could drop by as much as $12 billion in the first half of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019, according to the research firm eMarketer. The Hollywood Reporter estimated that the virus and its fallout could cost America’s movie business at least $17 billion in box office revenue through the end of May, while social distancing measures may last far longer and at least temporarily reshape the industry. (For how long is anyone’s guess.)

In Australia, the coronavirus shutdown has cost the country’s film and television industry more than $325 million, according to the interest group Screen Producers Australia.

“It’s had a very devastating effect,” said Matthew Deaner, the chief executive of the organization. More than 115 productions in Australia had been halted, he added, including the shoot of an Elvis biopic in Queensland, on Australia’s east coast, that saw its star, Tom Hanks, fall ill with the coronavirus.

Deaner said he hoped that the return of “Neighbours” to production, and the lessons learned, might help Australia ultimately gain a stronger foothold in the international film and television business, given the country’s progress in quashing the virus so far.

“Australia has the possibility to be developing a pipeline for global consumption well before other markets,” he said. “There is a great opportunity from this.”

To film the show safely, the production has put several rules and routines in place. All cast and crew members have their temperature checked when they enter the studio. Once on set, they are divided into cordoned off shooting units, with only three actors permitted to cross between these designated zones at any time. Male performers wear no makeup and women are forgoing touch-ups.

Cameras are positioned to make the cast appear as if they were standing or sitting closer to one another. There are no extras. And although soap operas are known the world over for passionate embraces and violent clashes born of unbridled emotion, on the new “Neighbours” there will be no touching and no physical intimacy.

Instead, producers said the camera will cut away in the cliffhanging moment before a kiss or a punch. Viewers may also be expected to read between the lines when their favorite character gazes wistfully at a lover across the room.

“It’s going to take all our efforts to play our characters as believably in love as what they are without the access to each other’s intimate proximity,” Stefan Dennis, who has played the character Paul Robinson on the series since 1985, wrote in an email about the on-screen relationship between himself and Rebekah Elmaloglou, who plays his wife.

“Thank God I did all those years of theater training and mime,” he said, “because we will be doing a lot of talking to absent actors.”

Set in an imagined suburb called Erinsborough that mimics a typical Australian neighborhood, the show has historically involved many backyard gatherings and barbecues. Now, actors will be shot in smaller groups and the footage will be cut together to put them all at the same party, the producers said.

For cast members, some of whom have been on the show for decades, the new distancing measures have been challenging.

“It feels overwhelming,” Jemma Donovan, who plays teenage character Harlow Robinson, wrote in an email. “It feels strange not being able to do the basics like stand close to each other or even hug and kiss when being in a relationship on the show.”

Ryan Moloney, who has played Toadie Rebecchi on the show for 26 years, agreed that it felt “a bit strange” not to be close to his co-stars. “We are literally just down the hall from each other or around the corner, but we can’t see each other if we’re in a different zone,” he wrote in an email.

The show considered simply incorporating the pandemic into the narrative, which would have meant it wouldn’t need to obscure the virus’ effects. But “Neighbours” is written and filmed far enough in advance — episodes shooting now will debut in mid-June — that producers were afraid the story would be outdated by the time it aired.

Instead, they settled on the middle ground of simply having characters wash and sanitize their hands more and exhibit other subtle behavioral changes, “almost as if coronavirus passed by in a nearby suburb,” said Herbison, the executive producer.

Besides, he added, “people are turning to ‘Neighbours’ for escapism.”

Some fans, who have followed characters’ personal growth, romance and losses for decades — including in Britain, where the show has a huge following — breathed a sigh of collective relief when they found out production of the soap opera would continue, despite the global pandemic.

“I’ve been watching it since I was about 10,” said Samantha Folino, an avid fan who helps run a Facebook trivia and gossip page for the show.

“If they actually stopped filming, and didn’t come back on ever again,” she said, “I would probably cry.”

(Livia Albeck-Ripka@c.2020 The New York Times Company)
first published:May 12, 2020, 18:30 IST