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The tragic death of former Home and Away star Dieter Brummer is merely the latest shadow to be cast over the sun-soaked world of Australian soap operas. Brummer, 45, was found by police in Sydney on Saturday after concerns were expressed for his welfare. His passing is not regarded as suspicious.
Home and Away made Brummer an international heartthrob when he was cast as Shane Parrish aged just 15. Parrish’s romance with Angel (Melissa George) was Home and Away’s answer to Kylie and Jason on Neighbours –a fictional love affair which had viewers gripped.
But it was all a lie. Brummer and George even didn’t get on. “It wasn’t like anything off screen,” said Brummer. “It was all on screen.”. And he struggled in very material ways after leaving Home and Away.
The realisation that his professional career had peaked while he was still a teenager was difficult to come to terms with. And he didn't seem thrilled with the role that made him a star. "I’m not sure how proud I am of what I did," he said in 2014. "From the clips I’ve seen on YouTube, it’s hard not to cringe." On a practical level, life post-Home and Away was not easy. Feeling typecast, he found it difficult to move to the next level. Between acting roles, he would work as a window cleaner.
Soap operas are among Australia’s biggest cultural exports. Yet in recent years it's become clear that life on set isn't all sunshine and smiles. Home and Away’s great rival Neighbours was, for instance, recently embroiled in a scandal about its “toxic” work environment – with the production accused of both racism and sexism.
The racism charges were levelled by indigenous actor Shareena Clanton. She said another cast member repeatedly used the n-word in her presence. “There was a lot of commentary that was highly inflammatory, sexist, misogynistic, crass and crude – the kind of comments that if I were to make in any other workspace would absolutely [result in] instant dismissal,” she revealed.
“But somehow people just continued to get a gentle word spoken to them, or have a polite side word between [the alleged perpetrator] and the person who was offended by what was being said.”
The contrast between the sunny vision of teenage life presented by Neighbours and Home and Away and the allegations levelled by Clanton could not be any sharper. The same is true of the claims of sexism made by Saskia Hampele, who played Georgia Brooks on Neighbours from 2012 to 2015.
Hampele was one of a number Australian actors to publicly support Clanton. “Whilst I never encountered racism on the show, but am in no way surprised that it existed, I certainly experienced and witnessed a lot of sexism and power structures that protected bullies and bigots instead of calling out and reprimanding abhorrent behaviour,” she wrote on social media “I so deeply respect you for speaking up.”
And then in April Sharon Johal, who had left the series the previous month, said she had suffered “direct, indirect and casual racism”. During her four years portraying Dipi Rebecchi she was referred to constantly as “you people – you know, Indians”. Later, actor Sachin Joab said his character was cut from Neighbours after the series reversed its plan to introduce an Indian-Australian family. He also claimed the actors portraying the Kapoors were expected to work far longer hours than white counterparts.
“[The Kapoors] were shooting every single day, Monday to Friday. And other actors that were full-timers, all of whom were Caucasian, they might show up and do a scene once a day, then have a whole day off, or several days. Yet, they’d get paid weekly wages plus annual leave and sick leave and whatever else, whereas [I] wasn’t getting any of that.”
Responding to Clanton, production company Fremantle announced an independent review. And it stressed its commitment to a work environment “where employees and others in the workplace are treated fairly and with respect, and are free from unlawful discrimination, harassment, victimisation and bullying”.
A toxic workplace scandal and the death of a former teen heartthrob taken together remind us that life as portrayed in soap operas is usually an illusion. And that the gulf between fantasy and reality is rarely wider than in the case of Australian soaps, which appeal largely because of their bronzed, upbeat cast and cheery settings.
In Brummer’s case the difficulty flows from the sheer popularity of Home and Away. As Parrish he became frozen in time. Even in middle age, casting directors saw him only as a blond teenager. He eventually came to rue his decision to join the soap. Might his life in showbusiness have played out differently had he said “no”?
“You get typecast. It’s hard for producers or casting agents not to remember. I’m still “that bloke from Home and Away’ 20 years later”,” he reflected. “Sometimes you sit back and think, ‘I wonder what it would’ve been like if I didn’t get that job at 15?’”
Some actors have, of course, side-stepped the “curse” of Home and Away and Neighbours. Kylie Minogue used Neighbours, in which she portrayed national sweetheart Charlene, as a springboard to pop immortality. Margot Robbie and Russell Crowe had their first breaks in Neighbours; Home and Away helped give the world Heath Ledger, Guy Pearce and Chris Hemsworth.
The grim truth, though, is that once you cycle past these half a dozen or so Hollywood names the list of Aussie soap regulars who have gone on greater things is short. For the majority, Neighbours and Home and Away represent the pinnacle of their success.
“What I've done for 25 years is a variation on one character — 50 shades of Harold, that's all,” Ian Smith, who spent more than a quarter of a century portraying bumbling Harold Bishop on Neighbours, told an Australian newspaper.
“One time I went for a bit of a taste outside the protected walls [of Neighbours]. But all the casting people were kids. They adored Harold and couldn't see me playing anything else. So I gave in to security…I think I might have been a good actor if I I was tested.”
Smith’s grumbling didn’t seem to harm his standing on Ramsay Street, where he was a regular until 2009. Yet the treatment of Australian soap stars perceived as getting out of line can be brutal. In 1993, following eight years on Neighbours, Alan Dale was unceremoniously kicked into touch after complaining about his $30,000 per year pay.
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That his ejection was to be permanent was confirmed by the decision to kill off his character, Jim Robinson, with a heart-stack. Dale wasn’t deterred by the rough-house treatment. He went on to appear in Star Trek: Nemesis, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Captain America: The Winter Soldier – at least one of which was more enjoyable than a Neighbours double-bill.
Likewise shown the door from Ramsay Street was Shane Connor, following written and verbal warnings abut drugs use. Connor, who played Joe Scully, admitting using drugs but denied falling asleep on set or absenteeism. He sued and received £84,000 damages.
Just as with Neighbours, the producers of Home and Away are seemingly not above letting go of a “problematic” actor. Rob Mammone had already starred in The Matrix Reloaded the Matrix Revolutions when he was cast as Doctor Sid Walker. However, he angered the powers that be by claiming on Twitter that he’d had to re-write scenes in which his son-in-law contracts cancer. After leaving the show in murky circumstances he claimed he’d been punished “for speaking up for the truth too often”.
The soap, meanwhile, foreshadowed Neighbours recent difficulties as it was entrenched in a racism row in 2012. Actor Jay Laga'aia claimed the decision to write him out was racially motivated. He said the scriptwriters had refused to put Laga'aia and Greek Cypriot cast member Ada Nicodemou on screen together. He tweeted: “As someone who lost his job on H&A because they couldn’t write two ethnics that weren’t together, I’d like a chance to ply my trade freely.” (A spokeswoman for the show denied his claims, insisting that Laga'aia's storyline had simply "reached a natural conclusion.")
Home and Away and Neighbours are small screen institutions that have remained popular from generation-to-generation while surviving potential extinction-level events such as the rise of streaming. But the tragic case of Dieter Brummer is a reminder that what these shows ultimately peddle is an illusion– and that the reality behind those fantasies can be heartbreakingly bleak.