3 May 2024

A cliffhanger for Shortland St

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 3 May 2024

It's our own soap opera, telling New Zealand stories to a loyal audience. But Shortland Street may be starring in its own drama

Anna Thomas

Anna Thomas had a cameo as a marriage celebrant Photo: Supplied

A warning - suicide is discussed in this podcast

New Zealand's own long-running soap Shortland Street doesn't hesitate to kill off its much-loved characters. 

But would TVNZ dare to kill off our favourite soap? 

That's the fear as times get tough in television - even though it's been pointed out that advertising pays its bills. But for how long?

We don't have any definitive answers yet, but today on The Detail we speak to a former star turned director of the programme; a well-known TV face who nabbed a cameo; and someone you might not expect to be an ardent fan - RNZ presenter, Kim Hill. And she has a wild storyline idea she reveals in the podcast. 

Nurse Wendy Cooper was killed off in 2016. She was shot through the heart. 

She had to die - her "foster son", K J Apa, was heading to Hollywood, as many of the soap's former stars have done. 

The actor who played her, Jaq Nairn, jokes that she loves the kind of two degrees of separation that everyone has with Shortland St. 

"Everyone knows someone who knows someone who's been on the show ... or someone's auntie's cousin's brother worked on the show, or met such-and-such, and I love that New Zealand has a show like that," she says. 

Now she directs the show - and has been for the last eight years. 

She tells The Detail she still gets recognised ... Nurse Wendy was long dead when she went to Fiji for the charity Heart Kids, to raise publicity for what Starship Hospital does. 

She was mobbed. 

This in spite of the fact that the real surgeons from Starship were there to operate on 15 children, a trip they do annually. 

"There's nothing that makes an actor feel more inadequate that actually seeing a real heart surgeon," she says. 

"The bizarre thing to me was walking along a corridor and all these people came running towards me as the actual surgeon who's saving the actual lives walks past (the other way)."  

"I was like ... 'she's the hero, I'm just on a TV show!'"

But the real-life consequences of talking about dark and difficult subjects on a TV show can be significant. 

"I think we can never underestimate the importance of the stories that we tell," she says. 

The one that sticks in her mind from her time on the show was over a storyline involving Kane (K J Apa) about suicide. 

"The producers and the writers and everyone at SPP (South Pacific Pictures) was so determined to tell that story with the integrity that it deserved. Every line was gone over with a microscope to make sure that we had it absolutely right. It was incredibly difficult to film, it was horrible to film ... eight weeks later when it aired I was at the supermarket and this woman came up to me.

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Where would Shorty St be without Dr Warner?  Photo: Screengrab / Shortland Street / TVNZ

"She said, 'you're Jaqui, you play Wendy ... I just have to tell you that that storyline saved my son's life.' She said the discussion that (we'd) had with Kane on air allowed us to have that conversation with our child, because we knew he was struggling. 

"There are no words for that." 

Nairn says it displays the importance of telling our stories on television, and that's a theme from fans. 

Anna Thomas encountered the crew of Shortland St, including actors such as Martin Henderson, Angela Bloomfield and Temuera Morrison when she was filming for Fair Go. 

"They needed a marriage celebrant," she says. So she did the honours. Now she enjoys catching up with episodes to see how they've dealt with an issue. 

"More often than not life imitates art - they tackled the pandemic before it hit. They've dealt with things like cultural diversity; they've dealt with Big Pharma; addictions; same-sex couples, corruption ... they discuss the issues of the day in a way which I think kiwis can relate to." 

And Thomas says it's not just a training ground for actors, but for those behind them nurturing the talent, and the crew. 

For Kim Hill, self-confessed Shortland Street tragic, watching at 7pm is her day's pudding. 

"It's a sort of transitional moment of my day," she says. 

"Soap operas are always a mystery because they're so bonkers," she says. 

"It requires such a suspension of disbelief ... the plots are sometimes quite mad. And how come they have the most intimate conversations gathered around reception in the waiting room? And always go to the same place for dinner or a drink? And mostly seem to live in the same apartment block? And how long can Chris Warner go on for?"

Hill says while you might be thinking, 'this is insane', for some reason they're all human. 

And Shortland Street is often way ahead of its time on all sorts of issues, she says - "loads of serious issues. It's quite out there, and it does it in a relatively responsible way. I quite admire it for that. I'd be terribly sad if it went." 

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