Dan Bennett Interview

Having worked in the Home and Away script department under the likes of Ray Harding, Coral Drouyn and Bevan Lee, Daniel Bennett’s arrival to the Script Producer chair in 2005 heralded the beginning of a new era for the show. After departing in 2007, Dan worked in many executive positions before he returned to Home and Away in 2015. As his final storylines come to air in the first few months of 2017, Dan was kind enough to take time out to talk to BTTB about his long history with the show.

Interview conducted by Matt in January 2017
Questions by Dan (F) with additions from the BTTB team


Did you always want to be a writer?

From a very early age I knew I wanted to work in television in some way, shape or form. I was just innately drawn to it. Exactly what space in the industry I wasn’t as clear on until my mid-teens. I’d always enjoyed English and Drama at school, and did quite well in both, but it was when I was about 14 or 15 that the script writing side of things really started to formulate for me.

How did you first get into the business?

To say I’ve been blessed with good luck along the way is an understatement. My journey first began when I was 17. As a huge fan of Home and Away, I wrote a sample script for the show and sent it to the script department. (Sadly there are many more restrictions about reading unsolicited scripts now so this is no longer possible.) Fortunately, then Script Assistant Kylie Needham (who has since soared on to become Writer/Story Editor extraordinaire on many wonderful productions) appreciated my initiative and invited me to observe the goings-on of the show for a day. I was beyond chuffed!

A few years later, when I was in my first year at University (studying a Bachelor of Creative Arts, majoring in Creative Writing) we had a long mid-year break and I wanted to make the most of it so I reached out to Kylie once more and asked if I could join the team for work experience. I was thrilled to receive a ‘yes’ and spend a week in the department, observing and helping out with synopses etc.

At the end of the first week, they asked if I’d come back for a second. I happily obliged! At the end of that second week I bid a sad farewell to the gang… but a couple of months later received an email asking if I’d be interested in joining the show as a Script Assistant (the entry-level position at the time.) I accepted with enormous gratitude, deferred my Uni course… and the rest is history.

Your knowledge of the show was praised when working under then Script Producer Coral Drouyn. When did you first start watching the show and what were your favourite storylines?

I started watching the show on January 17, 1988 when the Pilot episode first aired in Australia. I was a fan from the start. It was my first real TV obsession.

I had many favourite storylines growing up. The ‘Summer Bay Nutter’ story was the first of the long-term mystery strands for which Home and Away has become synonymous, so that stands out for me. Of course the Meg and Blake story will forever be a favourite – human, truthful, heartbreaking, poignant… perfect storytelling. Chloe’s rape and the reveal of her attacker was really compelling television. Irene’s introduction and the exploration of a flawed parent desperately trying to make right. There are so many – I could go on and on forever.

Did you find having this prior knowledge of the show’s history a significant advantage when it came to story generation?

Certainly. To have a strong footing moving forward, it’s always important to have a good knowledge of what has come before.

How important do you think it is for the show to acknowledge its past? Is it difficult to strike a balance in doing so whilst not excluding the younger viewers?

For me, it’s desperately important. Of course shows evolve – just as the medium of television in its totality has evolved, and continues to do so – but I’ve always been a big advocate for acknowledging and revisiting what has come before, while also embracing the wonderful new aspects of the show. It’s not always easy to achieve because, naturally, the here and now resonates more in press, publicity etc. – but where appropriate and achievable, I certainly think acknowledging the past is deeply vital.

With such a turnover of writing staff over the years, how is long-term continuity on the show (character backgrounds etc.) effectively maintained?

The show is fortunate enough to have a roster of writers that includes many long-term viewers who can bring history with them. There are also many spreadsheets compiled in-house (births, deaths, marriages, departures, arrivals etc.) to which to refer.

And, of course, we’re now blessed with the wonders of the world wide web in which dedicated fans studiously document the show, so often wonderful sites such as Back to the Bay are referenced along the way.

Do you take note of what the fans are saying on the internet, and if so, how much of a part does this play in the process of storylining?

Fan feedback of any kind is always taken in to consideration, in conjunction with the many other considerations when it comes to telling stories – broadcaster requirements, international needs, publicity, cross-promotional necessities, timeslot restrictions, where the story is falling within the survey year etc. There are lots of moving pieces!

You were the Script Producer (and later, Script Executive) for Winners & Losers. Do you prefer working on long-form drama or a soap opera and why?

I wouldn’t say I have a preference. Both bring with them their own challenges that keep things interesting.

Which Home and Away storylines are you most proud of, or feel represent your best work?

Another question on which I could ramble for ages! I’m really proud of the storyline that saw Flynn diagnosed with cancer, and the challenges that brought him, Sally and their family. We received a letter one day saying that because Flynn had his mole checked, this viewer’s husband did too – and he was diagnosed with a melanoma as a result. Because he was able to get treatment early, he ended up being okay. That was pretty incredible for all of us.

I can’t go past the Summer Bay Stalker story. It was designed as an ‘umbrella’ arc to turn the occasional Home and Away viewer in to a regular viewer (while we hopefully drew them in with the other strands to keep them watching beyond the end of that story) and it certainly worked for us – we were often the most watched program (not just drama) in the country. In its 18th year that was a pretty extraordinary feat. Cassie’s domestic violence story with Macca was also important.

More recently I was proud of the story involving Olivia’s abuse and her self-harm, which dovetailed in to an origin story for Irene which gave us a whole new understand of why she’s been like she’s been. I’m also a real sucker for a glorious soap bitch so the antics of Amanda back in the day – and Charlotte more recently – were also big highlights.


2005-2007

As mentioned, one of the most popular storylines during your original tenure was that of the Summer Bay Stalker, Zoe McCallister. Where did the idea for Zoe come from, and was it a challenge to start off such a long-running arc from your very first episode?

When I first stepped in to the role, it was important to me to find an arc that would bring lapsed viewers back to the show while also turning some of the occasional viewers in to more regular viewers. A true ‘water cooler’ story was the best way to do that, and so I went about devising the Summer Bay Stalker mystery. Drawing on the superb Sarah Lewis arc which had aired the previous season, it seemed fitting to tie the new mystery to that one. And it also helped to answer the question that was never really resolved: how did Sarah escape from the psych ward to enact her final revenge?

It was from that question that the whole story really started to take shape. Because of the intricate nature of the arc, it was essential that we knew the beginning, middle and end of the story from the outset. In many ways – not least of which because there were no massive cliffhangers left unresolved at the end of the 2004 season – the 2005 return gave us the chance to do a bit of a reset from the very first episode so it seemed only fitting that this massive mystery thread was introduced from the get-go.

The return of Sally Fletcher to the forefront of the series was praised highly. What prompted this move?

It just seemed like the most logical next step. Summer Bay House had been without a solid family anchor for a while, and in Sally and Flynn we had the perfect next generation of foster parents. Also, we felt strongly that Kate Ritchie had been underutilised for many of her years on the show. It was time for her to rightly take her place front and centre as the female lead of the show.

We said goodbye to Henry Hunter after a relatively short time on the show, was the character not working out as planned?

Tobi wanted to concentrate on his schooling and the character wasn’t required for a frontburner story, so it was a mutual evolution.

The highly rated Episode 4000 in 2005 saw many of Alf’s friends and family return for his 60th birthday, could you tell us more about the development of such a landmark episode?

As a long-term fan of the show, I was very keen to mark the 4000th episode in a special way. Basing it around stalwart Alf seemed only fitting, and provided us with a natural reason to bring many old faces back. We put together a wish-list of people from Alf’s past we wanted to see again, and thankfully most of them agreed. The structure of the episode was then devised.

Sadly many of the appearances could only be brief cameos because we had so much to fit in to such a short amount of time, but it was a real treat to be able to touch base with some former favourites and get an update about what they’re up to now. A lot of that episode actually hit the cutting room floor because of length so there were even more updates on past characters that unfortunately viewers never got to receive.

Did you ever toy with the idea of bringing back Roo or Quinn for the episode, or even introducing the ‘lost Stewart sibling’ Debra?

We reached out to Justine Clarke to reprise her role as Roo (this was prior to the Georgie Parker recast) but it wasn’t workable at that time. She offered to do a voice message for us that could have been recorded off-site but we instead decided to use her absence to fuel the Duncan thread. Quinn got a mention but, no, there were no discussions about actually seeing her again. And as for poor old Debra… I think she’s lost in the Land Of Characters Soaps Forgot forever!

We also saw the return of Chloe Richards for a guest stint, before her shock death. Whilst it acted as a catalyst for the fantastic return of Diana Fraser, and a departure storyline for Jesse McGregor, did you think it a risk to kill off such a memorable character?

I knew it was a gamble, but it felt like one worth taking. Thankfully it proved true. The 4000th episode couldn’t just be a nostalgia-fest – it had to be used to propel story moving forward and there was just so much meat on the bones with this one that we decided to role the dice.

Kristy Wright was as superb in her return as she’d always been, and totally onboard with what was to happen. It turned out to be a wonderful catalyst for great drama for many months.

Irene had a difficult few months where it turned out her lodger, Corey Henderson, was in fact slowly poisoning her in order to wreak revenge for being on the jury that sent his father to prison. How was it to develop such a twisted storyline for one of Summer Bay’s most loved matriarchs?

Lots of fun. We knew Lynne would have a field day with it! It actually came about because we had to write Irene out for a period of time (I think Lynne was going off to do panto) so we thought – rather than just sending her off to seeing Finlay or Damian again, let’s set something up that will provide her with strong story once she gets back. So we sent her off to jury duty and devised the Corey arc. It was certainly one the higher-camp stories but it was a hell of a lot of fun!

A moral debate was brought up when Robbie Hunter switched off his grandfather’s life support. What with Robbie’s HIV scare also, was there a deliberate effort to bring out the more serious sides of the character?

We wanted to make sure we gave the wonderful Jason Smith the chance to show the many different facets to his character. Robbie was such a sweet, innocent, moral boy – to have those characteristics challenged certainly brought extra layers to his character. It was really about Robbie growing up and seeing the many greys in the world. Jason did a fantastic job. The scene where he confesses to Tasha on the beach will always stick in my memory.

What prompted the move of bringing Josh West back to Summer Bay, to wreak havoc and then kill him in one of the show’s greatest murder mysteries?

Home and Away villains have always worked best when it was the town vs. the outsider – rather than the baddie coming from within. And we wanted an arc that would challenge the whole community. A real ‘Summer Bay’ story, not just a character-specific story. So having Josh come in as the new town mayor with his secret Project 56 allowed us to tie in many of the characters on the canvas and give us a nice umbrella arc for a period of time. It worked really well for us on many levels.

We saw a huge year for Barry Hyde which not only saw the revelation that he was responsible for his wife Kerry’s death, but an exit storyline that unmasked him as Josh West’s killer. What were your thoughts on Barry’s involvement in those stories, and what do you think happened to him? The last we heard on-screen was him awaiting trial in the city.

We really wanted to understand more about why Barry was like he was. What had made him such a closed book? What had contributed to his emotional disconnect and fractured relationship with his son? So the backstory re: Kerry and Jonathan was devised. It gave Ivar Kants and Chris Hemsworth some really juicy stuff to play with.

And having him kill Josh – to ultimately protect Kim, not himself – seemed poetic and right. I think Barry probably spent a little time in prison and is now living a lovely life up the coast somewhere with a good book!

Had Ivar Kants stayed on in the role of Barry, could you have envisioned Irene and Barry getting married? Or did his departure prevent his photo ending up on Irene’s infamous ‘dead shelf’…?

Poor Irene and her ‘dead shelf’. That’ll happen when you’re on a soap for this long! 🙂 Marrying Irene and Barry off was never part of the plan. We devised the Barry story and it came to a natural conclusion so sadly we had to say goodbye to Ivar. But at least it means he didn’t have to end up dead like everyone else in Irene’s life, so that’s an upside!

Morag Bellingham saw a long stint as a ‘semi-regular’. How do you like writing for Cornelia and was there ever a plan to make her permanent?

Morag is one of my all-time favourite characters, and it was always such a pleasure to write for her. She gets the most delicious lines! Morag worked really well for us in her semi-regular capacity. There were no discussions about upping her to a full-time contract.

You mentioned liking a good ‘soap bitch’ and Amanda certainly delivered on that, though we saw a different side to her on the revelation that her arch-enemy, Belle, was in fact her long-lost daughter. What was the thought process behind this surprise development?

Amanda had started to become a little too one-dimensional. There was a risk the character was going to be written in to a corner. We loved her so much and didn’t want to end up in a position where we had to lose her, so it was essential to find a way to ground her a little more and explore new dimensions to her character. That’s where the idea for Belle came from.

It turned in to a wonderful relationship with lots of story as a result. And what a joy to be able to bring Belle to the canvas. In Jessica Tovey we knew we’d found someone special, and she certainly resonated with the audience in a big way for a long time.

We obviously can’t speak about this period without bringing up the infamous Scott/Kim/Hayley paternity triangle. It seemed to divide opinion with the viewers, but did you feel it was a successful storyline on the whole?

I did divide viewers but I am a big defender of this one. I think it worked a treat. The main complaint we got was ‘it’s just going on and on forever, I have to keep watching every night to find out what happens, it’s so frustrating…” Well, if we’re making you want to watch every night to find out what happens then we’re kinda doing our jobs. 🙂 Second only to the Summer Bay Stalker story, this was the highest rated arc from during that time. The paternity reveal episode rated nearly as highly as the Stalker reveal. So, yep, in my mind that was one of the most successful stories we did during that time.

Given that there was a heightened crime factor noticed during your first stint on the series, how do you think that’s developed in the years since?

I’d hate to be remembered for bringing a “heightened crime factor”. We always aimed to tell the stories necessary to draw the biggest audience. It worked.

Did it start a trend for the show? Not sure. Do I think crime became too much of a focus over the years? Yep. But my stories are included in that so… can’t really complain.

Television is a business – we work our best to deliver for our financers. If we made the show exclusively for the die-hard fans (of which I am one) it would be very different.

 


2015-2017

In 2015 came the news that you would be returning to the series to head the Script Department, 10 years after you first took over. Can you go into how your return to the top job came about?

I was part of the network executive team at the time, and the show was going through a period of transition. I was happy to help.

Did you find any significant changes in the show’s writing process compared to your last tenure?

Very much so. The promotional side of things certainly had a bigger focus this time around.

There’s no doubt that the Braxtons have brought a massive fanbase to the show, but at the same time there has been a distinct divide amongst viewers. With numerous returns and three spin-off episodes based around the family, what would you say to those that feel there may be an over-reliance on the characters?

The Braxton characters have certainly earned their place in the hall of Home and Away history. I wasn’t across their introduction or their evolution, but as I’ve said before – past is important for future, so it was necessary to embrace that part of the show.

During your second tenure, controversial topics such as child molestation, bigamy, rape, abortion, self-harm and coward-punching were tackled. Was the decision to tell these stories born out of a desire to tell harder-hitting stories?

It was only my intention to make the show as relevant as possible within the confines. I’m happy we were able to tackle these subjects.

We haven’t seen a nuclear family introduced to the show as regulars for 17 years (the Sutherlands), though that is about to change. Is there a view that a ready-made family unit of two parents with kids tends to limit storyline possibilities?

Certainly not. Decisions about new characters always come about dependent on who/what age groups are required to compliment the ensemble. But, yes, because it’s appropriate for the current set up – a new nuclear family is coming.

Does the tendency of the younger cast to only stay for a single, three-year contract ever hamper the writing of slower-paced relationship development? Were the younger characters of Ellie Page and Raffy Morrison introduced in the hope they may be able to stick around for longer?

Ellie and Raffy were introduced because they provided the best story. There’s no hampering based on length of contracts.

With the fostering of children and young people originally at the heart of Home and Away, do you think the show will be able to continue keeping that aspect alive for years to come as the idea of fostering changes in society?

I imagine fostering will always be a theme in Home and Away. To what degree is up to the story tellers of the time.

Billie Ashford left Summer Bay, under a cloud and accused of arson, a month into your tenure. Was this originally designed as an exit storyline, or was it always intended for her to return later in the year?

The Billie story you’re seeing now was always my plan.

After 20 years on the show, a bit of Summer Bay history was lost when Leah’s house was burnt down in 2015. Can you provide some insight into why this decision was made?

I wanted to give the wonderful Ada her due, and place her in the main house to make her front and centre. The burning of the house provided us with a way to do that.

Marilyn Chambers received an electric shock and fell into a coma. When she eventually awoke, it was discovered she had amnesia, and under the impression it was 1996, believed she was still married to Donald Fisher. Just before the accident, Alf conveniently went to visit Donald. Was the idea to bring him back ever toyed with?

Yep. We had a huge Fisher story planned. I hope it plays out one day.

After just over a year on the show, Denny Miller was accidentally killed by Charlotte just as she was about to head off on her travels. Was it Jessica’s choice to leave, and what was the reasoning behind killing her off instead of having her leave town?

Jessica’s contract was coming to an end and it provided us with good story moving forward so the decision to kill the character off was made.

Olivia Fraser-Richards returned to Summer Bay again in 2015, with the eventual revelation that she had been abused by one of her uncle’s friends. Was there ever a worry that this might have reflected bad on James’ character, given the faith placed in him by Chloe to provide a safe upbringing for Olivia?

Sadly, more often than not, those close to people being abused are unaware. So, no, there was no worry that James’ character would be badly viewed. It would be improbable to imagine James knew what was happening to Olivia. He’s not Karnak. Predators don’t tend to demonstrate their evil widely.

With Olivia’s return, was the idea of bringing back James, grandmother Diana, or even Jesse, ever brought up?

Jesse has been brought up a few times, but Ben Unwin is enjoying another wonderful career now. I don’t imagine James or Diana will be seen again.

We learnt that Irene had a long-lost son, the product of rape, that she was forced to give up in her teens. With the continued hopes (by both fans and Lynne) for the show to re-introduce Irene’s existing children—and/or grandchildren Mark & Paul—what brought about the decision to introduce an additional child instead?

A new understanding of how Irene came to become the Irene we know led to the backstory decision. An origin story.

The character of Skye Peters was well-received by fans, however only five months after being promoted to the main cast, she left. Can you provide some insight into this?

We hadn’t hit the beats we’d hoped to hit with that character, so the decision was made to rest her.

It’s fair to say that the issue of diversity has caused a lot of criticism of the show in recent years. You had previously mentioned that you intended to address this during your recent tenure, but this didn’t appear to come to fruition…?

It was part of the plan, definitely. I was desperate for it. But unfortunately not all plans are able to come to fruition.

A number of viewers picked up on early hints indicating that the character of Brody Morgan could turn out to be gay. Was this the original intention before Jeannie came along?

No comment 🙂

BTTB were recently asked to compile a list of ‘Hits and Misses’ of the 2016 season for an article in TV Soap, which you mentioned you had read. What were your thoughts on it?

HITS

BILLIE’S PREGNANCY LIE — Huge umbrella arcs such as this one always bring long-term drama. And it ain’t over yet! By the time it wraps there will have been about 24 months worth of storytelling based on a singular idea. It’s what soaps are made of.

OLIVIA’S STALKER — Can’t take credit for that episode, it was done during my break. A clever denouement.

THE ‘OLDIES’ — The show is fortunate enough to have a wide-ranging group of characters, I think it’s important they’re all serviced.

DUNCAN’S RETURN — I’m all about history. Duncan coming back made sense.

MISSES

KYLE’S DEPARTURE — We had a different ending planned for Kyle but Nic Westaway made an emotional pitch for it to end this way, so we obliged. It’s not the way I would have chosen to go. The intention however was always for Kyle to go to prison. He had been introduced as an attempted murderer, and never paid for that crime. It was important to us that as the final Braxton said goodbye, one of them faced the music criminally for their illegal actions. It was just the WAY in which that final story was ultimately executed that would have been different.

THE CARAVAN EXPLOSION — I guess this one is a matter of opinion. I’m happy with how it played out.

JOSH & ANDY’S DEPARTURE — See above. We’d just sent one character to prison – something different was required.

WHO SHOT CHARLOTTE? — As much as I loved the Charlotte story, I wish I could redo the ending. The climax was one of my big disappointments. We saved the reveal for a big event week (which included the caravan park explosion) and it ended up kind of getting buried amongst everything else. After all the build-up to who killed her, I don’t think we delivered anywhere near as well as we could have on the denouement. I’d love to be able to redo that. It could and should have been much better than it was story-wise.

The following question contains a big spoiler for UK viewers. Until this episode airs in the UK, please highlight the white space between the asterisks below to read:

*In Australia, the season finale was widely talked about with #HomeAndAway trending No. 1 on Twitter the night it went to air. What prompted the shock (but incredibly welcome) move to have John Palmer as the arsonist?

Shane Withington and Emily Symons have been criminally underutilised. We wanted a big story for them. This certainly is that! It’s a story about how a pillar of the community can come back from such atrocities. Marilyn is very much wrapped up in all of it. There are many twists and turns – including the return of Morag – so keep watching!*

If you could pick any character from the show’s 29-year history to bring back, who would it be and why?

Sally. Always Sally. Home and Away is certainly much bigger than any one character, and has – and will continue to – survive any singular departure, but I do think a big chunk of the real Home and Away heart disappeared when Sally waved goodbye.

Having now left Home and Away, what are you plans for the future?

There’s a new project I’m about to jump in to which I’m very excited about that will occupy me for most of the rest of the year. Then, who knows? As long as I continue to work in the industry – and enjoy doing so – I’ll be a happy man.


Quick Questions

Favourite Holiday Destination?
London

Favourite Film?
Clue

Favourite TV Series (other than H&A)?
Will and Grace

Favourite Book?
A Fortunate Life by A.B. Facey

Favourite Food?
Any and all things!