Home and Away celebrates 30 years on screen in 2018, and the one constant presence in the fictional coastal town of Summer Bay has been Alf Stewart.
The curmudgeonly but cuddly character is the Australian soap’s most identifiable face, a respected pillar of the community dispensing straightforward pearls of wisdom with colloquialisms and catchphrases that have made him a TV icon.
The role has even earned soap legend Ray Meagher a Guinness World Record as the longest-serving actor in an Australian serial, but what’s the secret to Alf’s success? Other than making “Stone the flamin’ crows!” an endlessly quotable line of dialogue, of course. We asked Meagher himself on a recent visit to the UK…
“I’ve always fought to keep a line through the character so that whatever situation he’s in the audience will know how he’ll react,” reveals the star. “I don’t interfere with the writers and always try to make what they give me work. But I don’t believe in too many surprises and changing the character for the sake of it, or as a gimmick. The audience will spot it and feel let down.
“After 30 years, Alf is still Alf. He’s the same guy. The characters who last are the ones with that through-line, like Marilyn. She’s funny but doesn’t chase laughs as such, she gets them just by being who she is.”
As with the characters, and as is true with any long-running show, Home and Away is at its best when it remembers what made it successful in the first place. Three decades is a long time to maintain interest and integrity, and Meagher is candid with regard to the inevitable ups and downs of the show staying true to itself.
“I think we’re there again now, it had a period where it wavered for a while when the River Boys ran rampant,” he admits, referring to the hunky Braxton brothers and their bad boy antics which dominated storylines from their successful introduction in 2011. “Steve Peacocke (Brax) and Lincoln Younes (Casey) were so good and performed their plots really well, but the writers at the time went with that and perhaps took the show away from its core.
“It’s a lot easier to write sex, drugs and rock’n’roll than it is for the bread and butter stuff. You touch on the dark side to keep interesting, but for a few years it went off the rails a bit as there wasn’t enough of a mix.”
The original concept for Home and Away was borne out by chance, as often the best ideas are, when Channel Seven network executive Alan Bateman happened upon a small seaside town while driving back from a holiday. Spotting the possibilities of setting a serial in a close-knit community, the seed for what grew into Summer Bay was planted.
“The network had launched Neighbours in 1985 then cancelled it, and it was subsequently bought by a rival channel and the rest is history,” reveals Meagher. “Realising they’d made a mistake in letting Neighbours go they were looking for another half-hour show stripped across five nights a week.
“The real stroke of genius was the focus on fostering children, which meant a new intake of foster kids every few years and a chance to refresh the cast. You could have similar character types constantly coming in, like the bad kid who turns their life around and becomes a goodie, before the storylines run out and they go off to uni, or the actor goes to Hollywood! It gave the show a rougher edge and set it apart from Neighbours.”
Summer Bay’s reputation as a more dangerous domicile than Erinsborough’s affluent suburbia was evident in Home and Away’s recent spectacular stunt to mark the 30th anniversary, when a gas pipe explosion caused a sink hole to erupt beneath the town trapping Alf and daughter Roo at the bottom of it – talk about pulling out all the stops.
“The sink hole set they built was absolutely incredible,” marvels Meagher. “They wheeled it in and Georgie (Parker, aka Roo) and I were in it for a few days, she was taking pictures!”
It was also the setting for one of the biggest plot twists for Alf in the show’s history – believing he’s on the verge of death as they wait to be rescued, he tells his daughter her mother Martha, believed dead for 35 years, is still alive.
“Alf thought he was a goner and felt he owed it to Roo to tell her the truth. He always thought he’d tell her one day, and if the time had been right before a lump of concrete had fallen on his chest in the sink hole then he would’ve done it!
“The fallout is huge, and it’s given Georgie and I some really ripper scenes to play. You don’t get those moments every day so they are a bit special. It’s great to still get that after all these years, where you do a scene it feels that good, and the actor you’re working with agrees. You just hope you’re not disappearing up your own backside and what you felt translates to the screen!”
Does this mean Meagher is still content to be the mainstay of Summer Bay after three decades as Alf? “In 30 years this show has given me so many opportunities I wouldn’t have had without it and I’m eternally grateful for that.
“During that time there have been probably four or five offers for things I would’ve liked to have done but wasn’t able to, and I think that’s a very small price to pay for what it has given me. All things being equal, I’m happy.”
Home and Away continues weekdays on Channel 5 at 1.15pm and 6pm.