STAYING IN / Long Runners: No 7: Home and Away

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The Independent Culture
Age: Nearly six. Born on 18 January 1988, the show didn't hit Britain until a year later. We see it about eight months after Australia does, although the gap is shortening owing to the actors' long summer break (which they spend in Sunderland doing panto).

Frequency: One episode every weekday, shown twice.

That's quite a habit: Cheaper than smack and twice as comforting.

What's it about? Imagine Neighbours by the sea, but with foster families instead of nuclear families.

Why foster families? Over to Home and Away's script editor, Greg Stevens: 'Young actors hang around for about two to three years and then move on. If you start with a normal family, you have to introduce cousins and long-lost brothers after a couple of years and before you know it you're introducing cousins seven times removed. With foster children it's perfectly legitimate to bring in new people.'

Who's been there all along? Most of the older actors - they're not so keen to move on. Pippa had a Dr Who-like change of physiognomy three years ago when actress Vanessa Dowling stepped down and Debra Lawrance took over. Her kids just carried on munching their breakfast.

Have you seen these actors before? The older ones, yes. In The Young Doctors, A Country Practice, Prisoner: Cell Block H, Sons and Daughters, etc, etc.

Who makes it? Australia's Channel 7. Channel 10 produce Neighbours, while newcomer Paradise Beach (on Sky over here) is made by Channel 9.

Which one do Aussies prefer? Home and Away is Australia's Coronation Street, regularly beating Neighbours.

Why is Neighbours more popular over here? It had two years' head start.

Which other countries receive Home and Away? Canada, Ireland, Sweden, Spain, Israel, Jamaica, Belgium, the Bahamas and New Zealand. It was dropped in America because they couldn't understand the accents.

How has it developed over the years? Greg Stevens: 'It was more light- hearted and silly in the beginning. For example that storyline with the crazy schoolteacher who went and hid out at the haunted house, we'd never do that now. The situations have to be real.'

Is that all? 'We've also cleaned up the language. We had this greeting in an early episode: 'Goo'day mate, how they hanging?' There's no way that would get on air now.'

Is the show moral? According to Greg Stevens, yes: 'It reflects a liberal philosophy, but our kids don't smoke and they don't sleep around.' Actually the soap does little else but moralise in a remorseless do-the-right-thing sort of way. Teenagers probably get more moral guidance from half an hour of Home and Away than from a week of school and parents.

This is all very well, but why do you watch it? The freelance journalist working from home is as prone to the temptations of daytime TV as any housebound individual. And then, of course, there is Sophie.

Who? She's gone now, but she was a petite, sulky character played by a Greek-Australian actress called Rebekah Elmaloglou. She had these smouldering eyes and . . .

And? A chest that looked magnificent in tight pullovers.

Is this a solitary vice? I thought so, but discreet inquiries have exposed countless men with a similar fixation.

What's the staple Home and Away plot? Lurve, trouble with parents or school, surfing, lurve, runaways, trouble with lurve.

The bottom line: is it any good? Well, these things are comparative. It's better than Neighbours; the characters are more interesting and the storylines are developed over a longer period. Whether it is as good as Heimat (German for Home and Away), however, is open to question. If Hermann and Clarissa had been characters in Home and Away, instead of tortured lovers from Heimat, they would have been going steady by the end of episode one instead of still failing to go to bed together at the end of episode 12. But then if Sophie had been a character in Heimat, Hermann wouldn't have been so fixated on Clarissa in the first place.

Go on, answer the question. Is it any good? Yes.

(Photograph omitted)