A good Korea move

Neigh­bours is mov­ing to re­flect the coun­try’s eth­nic di­ver­sity, writes Colin Vick­ery

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NEIGH­BOURS is about to get eth­nic. When Su­san Bower took over as ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of the Chan­nel 10 soapie at the start of 2008 she re­alised the show didn’t re­flect the cul­tural mix of the Aus­tralian com­mu­nity and has slowly set about chang­ing it.

First came the de­ci­sion to put more eth­nic di­ver­sity into the show’s ex­tras (peo­ple in the back­ground in the hospi­tal, on the street, at the school and in Char­lie’s bar).

Next to change were the smaller walk-on roles and speak­ing parts, ‘‘50-worders’’ as they are known in the in­dus­try.

Now Neigh­bours is set to in­tro­duce 15-year-old Korean ac­tor Hany Lee into the core cast as for­eign ex­change stu­dent Sunny Lee.

Karl and Su­san Kennedy (Alan Fletcher and Jackie Wood­burne) take Sunny in af­ter Rachel (Caitlin Stasey) leaves for Lon­don. A forth­com­ing sto­ry­line, in­volv­ing Harold’s house be­long­ing to the Sal­va­tion Army, will be an­other op­por­tu­nity to fea­ture more cul­tur­ally di­verse char­ac­ters.

It is a timely move. In July the show was branded as ‘‘too white’’ by Bri­tain’s racial equal­ity chief Trevor Phillips. He slammed the pro­gram, as well as Chan­nel 7’s Home and Away, af­ter com­plaints from black and Asian view­ers.

UK soaps were also on the hit list, but this time for hav­ing ‘‘to­ken’’ char­ac­ters who were stereo­typed as Asian shop­keep­ers (Dev in Corona­tion Street), and black sin­gle moth­ers (Denise in EastEn­ders).

Back here there was ugly talk of a ‘‘White Aus­tralia Pol­icy’’ when it came to cast­ing ac­tors for top-rated soap op­eras.

‘‘I’ll be quite up-front — when I took over the show ( Neigh­bours) every­one was very white, in­clud­ing the ex­tras,’’ Bower says. ‘‘It was on my agenda (be­fore the UK con­tro­versy) to change that.

‘‘I would like it ( Neigh­bours) to re­flect Aus­tralian so­ci­ety, but I can’t give Libby and Dan a black baby so it has to come in a nat­u­ral way. I don’t be­lieve in bring­ing in peo­ple for the sake of it. It has to be part of the story and it has to be be­liev­able.

‘‘I know we’re go­ing to get flak about this gor­geous lit­tle Korean girl who’s go­ing to be com­ing in next year, be­cause you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

‘‘We’re go­ing to get in trou­ble with that. They’ll say ‘oh, you re­acted’ (to pres­sure from Phillips’ crit­i­cism). Well I don’t care what peo­ple say. That’s been the plan for a long time.’’

East West 101 pro­ducer Steve Knap­man says the charge of be­ing ‘‘too white’’ shouldn’t just be lev­elled at our lo­cal soapies. It is a prob­lem right through­out Aus­tralian tele­vi­sion dra­mas.

Packed to the Rafters, All Saints, Rush, McLeod’s Daugh­ters and Sea Pa­trol are all pre­dom­i­nantly white. SBS’s RAN and The Cir­cuit, as well as East West 101 have been no­table for their di­verse cast­ing.

‘‘I think com­mer­cial sta­tions are trapped in the past and need to open up a bit,’’ Knap­man says. ‘‘Do­ing East West made us re­alise we ended up re­flect­ing a truer pic­ture of Aus­tralia.’’

The charges of racism aren’t con­fined to Aus­tralian drama.

Grey’s Anatomy star San­dra Oh has been out­spo­ken about her Hol­ly­wood strug­gles and that show’s con­certed ef­fort to re­flect the cul­tural di­ver­sity of the US.

‘‘What’s great about our show is that you can have two peo­ple who are not white talk­ing to­gether and they’re main char­ac­ters,’’ she says.

‘‘It’s a tremendous change. Hope­fully peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ate it.

‘‘It’s hard in Hol­ly­wood if you’re dif­fer­ent in any way. Be­ing AsianAmer­i­can it poses tremendous chal­lenges and dif­fi­cul­ties.

‘‘I don’t think it’s tem­po­rary,’’ she says of the move to more di­verse casts. ‘‘It’s a change but it’s a very slow change be­cause there are other casts that are re­flect­ing that, like Lost. I think there’s some in House.’’

He­roes and ER also have mi­nor­ity char­ac­ters in lead roles.

In the past, pro­duc­ers have jus­ti­fied all-white casts by say­ing there aren’t enough top qual­ity eth­nic ac­tors to get top roles, but Knap­man says that is a lame ex­cuse th­ese days.

‘‘We’ve cast 160 parts (for the sec­ond se­ries of East West 101) and it’s a huge cross-sec­tion of eth­nic and cul­tural groups,’’ he says.

‘‘There’s a huge pool of tal­ent out there.’’

Bower, who has also had se­nior pro­ducer roles with McLeod’s Daugh­ters and Canal Road, ac­knowl­edges there are a lot more good young Asian, in­dige­nous and African ac­tors than in the past but says pro­duc­ers must ul­ti­mately se­lect the best ac­tor— what­ever his or her eth­nic ori­gin — for any role.

‘‘That would be across the board — it doesn’t mat­ter whether they’re white, black or pink with pur­ple spots,’’ she says.

It is re­al­ity TV shows, rather than dra­mas, that are bet­ter re­flect­ing Aus­tralia’s cul­tural and eth­nic di­ver­sity.

Pro­grams such as Aus­tralian Idol and So You Think You Can Dance are unashamedly cross-cul­tural. Even bet­ter, they dig back into the fam­ily sto­ries of con­tes­tants to present a more rounded por­trait of their lives.

RE­CENT Aus­tralian Idol fi­nal­ists in­cluded Thanh Bui, Chris­lyn Hamil­ton, Roshani Prid­dis and Mark Spano and So You Think You Can Dance fea­tured Demi Sorono, Sermsah and Vanessa.

Now it’s time for Aussie dra­mas to catch up.

Ac­tors union na­tional di­rec­tor Si­mon Whipp says he has been cam­paign­ing on the is­sue for 20 years and has seen lit­tle im­prove­ment.

‘‘Our mem­bers are miss­ing out on roles for no other rea­son than they are not white,’’ he says.

1 and 6: Pro­ducer Steve Knap­man says com­mer­cial sta­tions (screen­ing dra­mas

in­clud­ing Packed to the Rafters and Sea Pa­trol) are

trapped in the past. 2: SBS’s East West 101 and The Cir­cuit (above) have cross

cul­tural cast­ing.

3: San­dra Oh says Grey’s Anatomy re­flects the cul­tural di­ver­sity of

the US.

4: Aussie soaps in­clud­ing Neigh­bours and Home and Away blasted as “too white”

in the UK. 5: Korean ac­tor Hany Lee, 15,

joins Neigh­bours next year.

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