Alan Fletcher has played Karl Kennedy, the much-loved doctor on Neighbours for 20 years. The show celebrates its 30th year in the New Year, making it the longest running Australian soap of all time. Here, Alan talks to OnTheBox about what it means to be part of this exciting accolade, his favourite moments and what it takes to make it in a long-running TV series.
Back in 1994, did you ever dare to dream you’d be in it for the long-haul?
It never crossed my mind. I had a one-year contract and thought ‘this’ll be the coolest job in the world.’ But as a family we really started to bond, even after just the first few weeks we really gelled and, this is the coolest thing, after 2 years they asked for another 2 year contract on top of that. Then I blinked and I guess here we are!
What do you think it is about Karl and his family that made them so popular and enduring to last 20 years?
I think a lot of it is to do with strong, believable stories. I credit one of the reasons I’m still on the show as working with Jackie (Susan Kennedy). We’ve always felt very comfortable in our relationship as performers and I think that comes through. Jackie and I soon realised we have a very similar sense of humour and sometimes we’d look at each other and go “This scene is very ‘Mad About You’ or ‘Seinfeld’ and we’d kind of give it a ‘flavour’ of that show to find the fun.
What do you think it is about Karl and Susan that keeps audiences interested?
I think it’s because they’re really, truly destined to be together and there have been times where they haven’t understood that. As people grow, get older and evolve in their relationships things change – for instance, Karl had his mid-life crisis, thinking that he should go off and be on his own for a bit, explore other possibilities. But ultimately, most of this stuff is just being paranoid that something has passed you by. Sometimes you have to run away to realise that where you’ve come from is the best place.
Do you think Karl’s changes are a realistic representation of what the average family man goes through?
Oh, absolutely, I think that almost all people – whether they’re male or female – as they get older, the first question that starts to enter their mind is ‘have I missed out on something?’ For Karl, it was travel, seeing the world, all these fantasies. And I think everybody does that.
Are there any storylines Karl got involved in that you didn’t enjoy playing or that you thought were out of character?
Yeah, there was one, it was a storyline that I felt just a little bit uncomfortable with which was when Karl kind of became a spy. He was selling pharmaceuticals and he found out that his company was possibly selling out-of-date drugs to Africa so he started to spy on them, creeping around in the warehouse after hours. I just didn’t think it was a very ‘Neighbours’ storyline. I mean, you have to experiment with ideas and to have one story in 20 years that you weren’t completely happy with is a pretty good strike rate!
What do you think some of your favourite moments are from the last 20 years on Neighbours?
There are two favourite moments for me and both of them are weddings. The first is when Libby married Drew; that was an intensely emotional experience. We were so happy; it was just such a happy time. We had wonderful actors in that scene.
Was it almost like you were watching your own daughter get married?
Absolutely true, I know it sounds a bit dramatic but Kym was so special to us and when you throw yourself into the emotions of a scene, feelings flow naturally and you do think of her as being your own daughter.
The other wedding was when Karl and Susan re-married on the Thames. It was a slightly bizarre thing because, as you know, the light in London can fade very quickly. We were running out of light, so we just kept motoring up the Thames at high speed with the director screaming at us in the bitter, freezing wind, “Just keep going! Just keep exchanging your vows over and over again and we’ll get as much as we can!” So Jackie and I just sat there and got married three times! We were sobbing, it was very emotional.
What kind of qualities do you need to be an actor in a long-running, successful soap opera like Neighbours?
The first thing you have to do is leave your ego in your suitcase; if you try to have an ego and consider yourself to be something special you will very quickly realise that no-one wants to work with you. With the speed that we work at, it’s impossible to do that.
Have you worked with people who have been like that?
There’s one person I remember who came in like that initially and they very quickly realised that it doesn’t sit in a show like Neighbours. Coming in with an ego is often just a defence mechanism; they’re probably nervous about the new environment. But if you have a safe atmosphere, as we do at Neighbours, where people look after each other, you just don’t need it. You also have to be thoroughly professional; there’s no time to waste on set as we make 6 episodes a week.
One of the hallmarks of Neighbours has been that a lot of actors have gone on to be very successful in the USA and UK. Producers universally say that they really admire Australian actors because they have such a strong work ethic. Coming from shows like Neighbours is a great training ground.
Finally, what are your hopes for Karl in the future?
I’ve got a few ideas for stories that I’ve passed on to the writers. Karl’s turning into a bit of a ‘class clown’ and his ego’s so big that he’s always getting into trouble; I think people find that quite endearing. Audiences like to laugh at him, so as long as they continue to give me lots of good comedy as well as the more serious medical stuff so there’s balance, I’ll be happy as Larry.
The 30th Anniversary episode of Neighbours will be released in the UK in early 2015 on Channel 5, seeing favourites such as Kylie Minogue, Delta Goodrem, Ian Smith and Anne Charleston (Harold and Madge Bishop!) return to our screens.