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The endless summer

There were doubters at the start, but an iconic Australian show is set to celebrate a rare milestone.

FLAMIN' heck! A quarter of a century of Home and Away. That's a birthday celebration and a half, not least because when Ray Meagher joined the cast on the first show, playing Alf Stewart (a man known for using every cliched Australian phrase in the book), he reckoned it might be an in-between job for a few months.

''And here we are, 25 years later,'' Meagher says. ''The first six months flew, so I did another six months, and after that I signed for two or three years - and the rest is history.''

He says the secret to Home and Away is reinvention, even though characters such as Alf stay to anchor the series.

''No television show is going to stay in a 7pm timeslot on commercial free-to-air television if it stands still,'' Meagher says. ''Fortunately, this show has continued to reinvent itself.''

Steve Peacocke, who won a Logie last year for most popular male talent, is a relatively new actor on the show, with two years under his belt as Brax, the leader of the River Boys. He agrees with Meagher about the dynamic nature of the storylines.

''Our writers and producers really have their finger on the pulse of Australian society,'' Peacocke says. ''They put in an extraordinary amount of effort to see what's relevant to Aussies at the moment and to put it onscreen - whether it be a storyline to do with SIDS, bullying or drug abuse.''


Peacocke grew up in Dubbo, where his sister and girlfriend watched Home and Away regularly. He says the show is firmly entrenched in Australian culture.

''I just feel very privileged to be part of a show that's been so successful for so long, and I'm sure that's because it's such a huge team effort,'' Peacocke says.

''We always have guest cast entering the show saying it's the best working environment they've ever experienced.''

And it's not just the actors who love working in Summer Bay.

''There are a large number of crew who have been with the show for many years, some since the very beginning, and I think that speaks volumes for the team environment the show has created and maintains,'' the series producer, Lucy Addario, says.

''It's a very fast-pace, busy atmosphere behind the camera,'' she says. ''There's never a dull moment. At any one time, approximately 23 weeks of the show are at some stage of production. It's a long process, but very rewarding to see how strongly engaged and invested the audience is.''

When Home and Away first went to air on Channel Seven in January 1988, it was well received by viewers, but not an instant hit. In fact, it took about a year to build up the local audience. But, when the show went global, its audience was phenomenal, particularly in Britain, where viewers reached 17.5 million.

''It was pretty good to know it was starting to bite - you know, we struggled a bit in the first year to sort of get some traction,'' Meagher says.

He credits a massive marketing campaign for turning the show's fortunes around. ''Without that, we might not have lasted.''

Apart from its continued success in Australia, the British public's passion for the show still amazes Meagher, who has just had his first holiday in Australia for 23 years after spending every summer in Britain performing in pantomimes and two seasons in London's West End.

''When we first went over - just to be taken to another country and to be paid to work on stage there - I thought that was pretty incredible,'' he says. ''And then to be asked back, and back, and back, and back, that was fantastic.''

The show has been a massive drawcard for tourists visiting Australia, although many Britons end up a little confused when they go looking for Summer Bay and are pointed in the direction of Palm Beach, on the outermost fringes of Sydney's northern beaches. Surely no one in Palm Beach could have realised just how famous their caramel-coloured sands would become through Home and Away.

''I'm sure some of our fans do refer to Palm Beach as Summer Bay, but I think the residents of Palm Beach may not be so welcoming of the drama, heartache and odd natural disaster that inevitably comes with living in Summer Bay,'' Addario says, with a laugh.

So beyond all the celebrations surrounding its 25th year, how long will Home and Away last?

''While ever it's in good health and in safe hands, as it is now, it's got at least three years left,'' Meagher says. ''If it fell into the hands of imbeciles and idiots - and it was in those hands for a period of time way back, it was very sick at one stage but that was more than 15 years ago, thank god. But even if it fell into the hands of idiots it would take a minimum of three years to mess it up properly.''

Addario is even more optimistic, saying she hopes the show has another 25 years to go. ''I certainly hope so,'' she says. ''The best is yet to come,'' Peacocke adds.

There is a queue of actors waiting to join the show that has given so many Australian stars their big break. But it takes a lot to succeed in Home and Away. ''It's always exciting to welcome new faces to Summer Bay,'' Addario says. ''Apart from possessing that X-factor, they must be driven, dedicated, hard working and a team player.''

Peacocke agrees.

''Every actor sets out dreaming of going to Hollywood, so of course I hope I have the good fortune to work there one day,'' he says. ''And there's no doubt the experience Home and Away gives an actor puts them in good stead to give America a red-hot go.

''But until I find a beach as good as Palmy, I'm happy to keep my job here.''

Home And Away, Channel Seven, weeknights, 7pm

Home and Away's famous faces

Isla Fisher: Played Shannon Reed (1994-97)

When she appeared as flame-haired schoolgirl Shannon, little did viewers know Fisher would end up being a US film star, let alone being married to comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. Her films include The Wedding Crashers and Confessions of a Shopaholic.

Melissa George: Played Angel Parrish (1993-96)

She probably doesn't really want us to mention the A-word or even Home and Away (she would rather be walking her French bulldog in New York), but the show was her kick-start to bigger things, including the television series Alias and Hunted.

Chris Hemsworth: Played Kim Hyde (2004-07)

At the centre of rumours he will play Christian Grey in the film version of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey, Hemsworth is in the big league of Aussie stars in the US. His films include Thor and Snow White and the Huntsman.

Ryan Kwanten: Played Vinnie Patterson (1997-2002)

He is well remembered by Home and Away fans as true-blue Vinnie, but it is HBO series True Blood that has made Kwanten's name in the US. He has been touted for a number of film roles, including a controversial part as Charles Manson.

Heath Ledger: Played Scott Irwin (1997)

Ledger, who died before being awarded an Oscar for his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight, played the good-looking bad boy who helped Sally (Kate Ritchie) go off the rails. Their antics included a salacious night in the back of a panel van. Ledger's character was eventually expelled from Summer Bay High.

Isabel Lucas: Played Tasha Andrews (2003-06)

Strolling on set with Christian Bale during the recent filming of Knight of Cups, Lucas looked very comfortable in front of the US paparazzi. With Hollywood romances (Shia LaBeouf, anyone?) and leading roles, Lucas's star is on the rise. She is also an ardent environmental activist.

Justin Melvey: Played Harry Reynolds (1999-01)

If there is a perfect training ground for Days of Our Lives, then surely it is in Summer Bay. So hats off to Melvey, who went from Australian television to a role on Days of Our Lives from 2001 to 2003, playing Dr Colin Murphy. He later hosted the Fox show The Phone.

Guy Pearce Played David Croft (1991-92)

Although best known for his stint on Neighbours, Pearce did the double and also appeared on Home and Away for about a year as a teacher. Pearce has, of course, forged an extraordinary film and television career, with an Emmy win and individual Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations.

Tammin Sursok: Played Dani Sutherland (2000-04)

A Home and Away favourite, Sursok tried for a while to get her big break in LA before scoring a regular role on The Young and the Restless. Then came recurring appearances on Hannah Montana and a role in the ABC Family series Pretty Little Liars.

Naomi Watts: Played Julie Gibson (1991)

It was a fairly brief appearance on the show but it means Watts, who has been nominated for an Oscar for 2012 film The Impossible, is a Home and Away alumnus. She has since appeared in films ranging from Mulholland Drive to the recently filmed Diana.