A good Korea move
Neighbours is moving to reflect the country’s ethnic diversity, writes Colin Vickery
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
3: Sandra Oh says Grey’s Anatomy reflects the cultural diversity of
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.