It was December 1984 when Stefan Dennis, then a relative unknown, arrived onto the huge Neighbours set to fill Paul Robinson’s high-heeled shoes.
He’s widely identifiable here and overseas after four decades and nearly 9000 episodes, and he’s about to say goodbye to one of Australia’s favourite villains as the legendary soap comes to an end to filming on Friday.
Dennis says – as he chats in between takes on the extremely cold outdoor shoot – that he’s really had no time for emotions yet, despite the fact that he’s the only cast member to have been on set for both the first and last days.
“I’m just coming to work every day,” Dennis adds, “and each day is busier than it’s been in a long time with very, very long hours.”
“So we’re just doing the same show we’ve been doing for the previous 40 years because we have a show to put on till the end of the week.” But… that’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Because he’s a huge sook – in his own words – Dennis expects a flood of tears when cut is called for the final time on Friday.
While giving in to all of his emotions will be simple, narrowing down his most memorable memories will be more difficult. When we first spoke five years ago, Dennis remarked that it was a foolish question to ask. That’s understandable, given that he’s the only original cast member still living on Ramsay St, a fictional cul-de-sac with plenty of TV magic to select from. His character, the often villainous Paul Robinson, has been held hostage, lost a leg, been thrown in jail, suffered from amnesia, or just gone to the altar on repeat.
He has six spouses and nine weddings, two more than Jarrod “Toadie” Rebecchi of Ryan Moloney.
Daniel MacPherson, who portrayed Joel Samuels, Melissa Bell, who played Paul’s younger sister Lucy Robinson, Peter O’Brien, who played Shane Ramsay in the first episode, and Natalie Bassingthwaite, who played one of Paul’s wives Izzy Hoyland, have all been revealed for the show’s final months.
Ian Smith played Harold Bishop for 21 years and was delighted to be asked to reprise his role as Kylie Minogue’s Charlene’s fuddy duddy stepfather. The now 83-year-old recalls his first day on set as if it were yesterday.
“That’s strange,” he adds. “I remember knocking on the front door on Ramsay St and Kylie answering.” “I believe she was dressed as a clown,” says the narrator. They were all having a costume party of some type in there.
“However, do you know what?” I just had a feeling this was significant.
“I didn’t know why.” I had a feeling this show would impact my life.”
That is exactly what happened.
“I spent a lot of time on stage,” he says, “both in musical theatre and straight theatre.”
The stars of Neighbours experienced, or endured, almost Beatle-like mania during the height of their powers. At the Water Rats event, an exclusive British A-list party, Smith had his own Beatle moment. He and his on-screen wife Anne Charleston were blown away to be among such illustrious company.
Then one of the Beatles, George Harrison, came up and requested for Smith’s autograph.
Smith exclaims, “I just couldn’t believe it.” “There I was, signing an autograph for a Beatle.”
“Well, for the rest of my life, that’s been my favourite story.” To be honest, I froze… I’m not sure what he said because I was so star-struck.
“I’m not sure if all of the Beatles are Neighbours fans, but I know he was.”
While bringing Harold back was a triumph, the news that Minogue and Jason Donovan would reprise their roles as Charlene and Paul’s younger brother Scott Robinson sparked a frenzy of anticipation.
Dennis says it was great to see so many of the originals again. The years that followed just slipped away after a few seconds of modest uneasiness.
“When you work on a project like this, you become such close pals,” he explains.
“On and off screen, we were quite close.” We used to collaborate and have fun together. I was simply thinking of all the shenanigans we used to get up to in the studio and on weekends.”
Do tell if you’ve been up to any mischief. It was mostly innocent fun, from skating down the corridors with on-screen brother Donovan to trying to slip in the background of live news coverage to wave to their mother (Ten’s news production headquarters used to be housed at the Nunawading studio).
Although, after a heavy Friday night out on the town, frequently crashing the set of Channel 10’s children’s show The Early Bird Show with Darryl Cotton might have been pushing it.
“We’d probably go out all night at clubs or whatever,” Dennis recalls, “and then come in horribly strung out the next morning.”
“We wouldn’t even go to bed.” Perhaps eat breakfast before heading to work.
“Then one of us would come up with the brilliant notion of crashing The Early Bird Show.” Darryl’s face would turn red as we walked into the studio, shouting, and then we would just take over.”
And the sass is still going strong in these closing days. Viewers may see some nasty words on the fridge in the Quill-Tanaka household if they look closely. Actors waiting to practise a scene, it turns out, frequently rearrange the magnetic letters into all sorts of amusing statements.
Dennis has also seen that the letters to Paul’s office at Lassiters Hotel are beginning to fall off, with the last S falling off just this week.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing if a letter dropped off every day until we were just left with three letters — ASS?” he jokes.
And ass is an apt moniker for Paul. Alternatively, you can be a jerk. Alternatively, a villain. And it’s this aspect of Dennis’ long-term alter ego that he’ll miss the most. It’s what audiences missed when he returned to Erinsborough in 2004 following a 12-year stint in the United Kingdom. Producers decided to redeem Paul by scripting a storyline in which he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and had it removed, along with his wicked impulses.
Dennis explains, “He became really squeaky clean, and I went with it because that’s my job.”
“However, I kept saying to the audience, ‘Guys, the crowd despises Paul being kind.'” Producers would probably answer, “Yeah certainly,” assuming I was dissatisfied with my situation.
“A few months later, we were performing in front of a large crowd at a charity event following the Black Saturday bushfires.”
“Because I held the microphone, I asked the audience to raise their hands if they appreciated Paul’s kindness. A total of three hands were raised. I cast a glance over at the producers who were also present and gave them a kind nod.
“Then I said, ‘Who enjoys Paul being mean?’ Everyone else in the building raised their hand.
“I went to the producers and said, ‘there’s your answer, gentlemen,’ with the audience as my witness.
“And from there, they gradually began to restore him to his current state. “I’m a bit of a jerk.”
Dennis, on the other hand, has no plans to retire in real life — “actors don’t retire, they die.” “Is there anyone out there who will offer me a job?” Dennis says, jokingly pleading.
When asked what legacy he hopes the institution leaves, he pauses.
He observes, “It’s odd – it’s not what it’s going to leave, it’s what it’s not going to leave.”
“At this point, I’m going to become a little political.” I know I seem prejudiced, but it’s a well-known truth that we’ve done tremendous things for Australian tourism and the sector as a whole. Mentoring, training, and placing people in jobs are all examples of this. As well as establishing trends and fashions.
“I keep bringing up the fact that during the initial Covid lockdown, we were the first production to come up with a model for us to get back to work.”
“Little old Neighbours in Melbourne was in charge of all the production studios all over the world getting back to work.”
“(Executive producer) Jason (Harbison) had phone calls every day from studios around the world asking how do we do this.
“At the end of the day, it is just a TV show and TV shows come and go, but because this has been so iconic and historic, it’s a shame that is not going to be able to continue what it has been doing for all of these years.”
Neighbours, 6.30pm, 10Peach until August 1