Millions of Neighbours fans were devastated when the show was axed from world-wide television screens in 2022. The adventures of Ramsay Street’s citizens had held audiences enthralled for 37 years, and now it's back, with Amazon and Channel TEN Australia having rescued the programme. To celebrate the return of the iconic Aussie soap, Alan Fletcher, who has played Dr Karl Kennedy on the show for 28 years, has released a fan tribute to one of Ramsay Street’s most beloved characters - Susan Kennedy. We sat down with Alan for a chat about life as and outside of Karl. Glued to the screen; Eamon O'Neill.
Hi Alan, how are you doing today?
I'm just short of terrific, thanks Eamon. I'm having a lovely time talking about Neighbours to people, and, you know, I never shy about rambling on about Neighbours. It means so much to me, and people are giving my song a lot of love.
You're looking great; the hair has all grown back!
Yeah look at that! Amazing, isn't it? You'd never know it was a wig, would you? I'm joking of course. Yeah, I've been fortunate enough to be treated by one of the Australia's most eminent dermatologists. He's been helping people get their hair back for years, so yeah, I'm very fortunate.
Going back, Neighbours really evokes childhood for so many people. I can't be the only person that has said that sort of thing to you.
Oh, totally, I mean, when Neighbours was axed, that's all that people wanted to talk about; they just wanted to talk about how a huge part of their life was going missing, and how a big chunk of their life has been taken away, and you know, we all felt that very keenly. Interestingly, Amazon saw that, they recognised that, they saw the outpourings of grief, and that's when they sat back and said; "you know what? This show deserves another run", and mercifully they saved it.
Did you expect to get that call inviting you back? I mean, with that big final show you must have thought this really was the end of it.
Absolutely, and luckily I had things to, like I already had a tour of my Dr Karl show booked for September; I had what was then the Neighbours Farewell Tour that was booked for March; I had a music tour booked for March, so I had a lot to look forward to, and of course the Country Music Festival in Australia, Tamworth in January is always a big occasion. So I had an enormous amount to go to, but a lot of people didn't. You know, a lot of people were thrown out of work; they had nothing to go to. And the audiences were just shattered, but of course, mercifully, Amazon stepped in. I couldn't believe it. No one could really believe it. And the Neighbours Farewell Tour turned into the Neighbours Celebration Tour, and it was a joyous, joyous tour.
I wanted to rewind to whenever you joined the soap as Dr Karl Kennedy in 1994, and I'm guessing that your initial stint was for like a nine month contract.
Well you're right. Every contract was for a year, but it was kind of nine months because they had to let you know three months before the year was up, if you wanted to extend, so you really only knew for nine months of any year whether you had a job. But you know, in our businesses as actors we're roosters one day, and a feather duster the next day. You just have to accept that, but when Neighbours was axed, it was hard to accept it because everybody was thrown out of work. It was really tough, and then on top of that, seeing the fans being so upset about the show being axed, it was kind of a really dark time.
You spent 28 years playing Karl Kennedy, I mean, that's your life, isn't it?
It is. It's my life in art. But the great thing about Neighbours is of course, you don't work 52 weeks in the year; in fact, most years I'm actually only there for about 30 to 32 weeks, so that frees me up to do an enormous amount of touring, an enormous amount of song writing, and putting out albums and doing other things and little bits and pieces here and there; some musicals or that sort of thing. I've been blessed to have a very varied career, and that's why I was able to keep doing Neighbours, to be honest with you because Neighbours was like, the main body of the instrument and all this other stuff I got to do was some of the strings.
Speaking of strings, and Dr Karl was frequently seen playing guitar in the show; was that part of your character, or did you bring the guitar playing into it?
That was actually created by the writers. They knew that I played rudimentary guitar, so for Karl Kennedy, way back at the beginning, they very clearly came up with an idea that Karl Kennedy had been in a band at university called The Right Prescription, and it was it was made up of medical students. And he had a signature tune, which was called 'Free as a River', which was kind of like a Bob Dylan-esque protest song, and that was Karl Kennedy's life. Over the years, they started to expand Karl's music, so I started to write songs for Karl. Now this was a fantastic challenge, because Karl Kennedy's music is just slightly off; it's just slightly cheesy; there's something not quite right about it. So writing songs that are just a bit too obvious, or a bit too this is fun. So I've got a bit of a stock of Karl Kennedy songs, plus of course, yeah, he had a kind of a Wiggles children's entertainment phase there, where he was in a band called 'Oodles of Noodles'. Yeah, it's been a very varied musical career for Karl, and especially because Karl's music, you know, everybody hates it!
That brings us nicely to new single 'I've got a crush on Suzie K', which is not as cheesy as it could have been; you wrote that one yourself, didn't you?
Yeah, I did. It was a collaboration with the music. It had another form, and I reworked the lyrics. I loved it. I loved doing it because it's slightly sardonic; I mean, do you use news lines like; "like a disease without a remedy, I've got a crush on Susan Kennedy"? Doing those sorts of rhymes is what song writing is about; it's about finding that the inner rhyming, and the fun of it. But it's also reverential; the song also acknowledges the fact Susan Kennedy is the queen of Ramsey Street. She is much adored, and that's why the fans love the song.
The actor that plays Susan Kennedy, Jackie Woodburne has Northern Ireland background, which I was surprised to learn.
Yeah, she's from Carrickfergus.
It must have been a big thing whenever you opened the Neighbours Celebration Tour in Belfast in 2022.
It was. In fact, we were a little bit gutted because back in 2020, Jackie and I began to do some filming as Karl and Susan in Dublin. We were going up to Belfast, and Jackie was going to be presented with, I think, the keys of the city at Carrickfergus, and COVID completely interrupted it, which was a shame. But yes, we opened the show in Belfast for the Neighbours Celebration Tour, and so we got a chance to really explore Jackie's connection with the town.
The song comes your album 'The Lighter Side of Alan Fletcher'.
I've got a hard copy album on my website moment, and I deliberately created the album because while I write some very serious sort of Americana folk songs, love songs, and songs with quite intense meaning, I also like writing comedy songs because I don't take myself too seriously. I've got a song called 'How Good is Bed', which celebrates the fact that having a good lie-in is one of the best things in the world. I've got a song called 'Spend a Little Time with Me' which is very much a country sort of, bit of fun. My song 'For the Love of Lager' is my favourite because it's about my passion for lager, and the fact that I can't have anything else; none of these IPAs or whatever they are. Also on there is a song I did in my band Waiting Room. When we toured we did a spoof of Smokie's 'Living Next Door to Alice', called 'Sleeping Alongside of Susan' which was a massive, massive fave, so that's on there as well. So yeah, 'The lighter side of Alan Fletcher', and that's actually out on my website, in the shop.
Neighbours has always been synonymous with music, and in the early days Craig McLaughlin, Kylie and even your co-star Stefan Dennis had singles out. What did you make 'Don't it Make You Feel Good'?
Well, the best thing about 'Don't it Make You Feel Good' is the film clip, which was done in the scenery dock at Neighbours! Amazing. Stef is actually, he's very self effacing about his music, and he actually explained to me that when he was doing his music, it just kind of misfired because there was a whole bunch of factors that got in the way of his music really taking off, and he says he learned a lot from that. You know, it's perilous business, the music business, and it's very hard to know what's going to get attention and what isn't.
Going back then to Neighbours. and what have been your favorite storylines, that you've been involved in?
Well, the big one for me obviously, was Karl and Susan getting married again in London, because that was a very momentous moment when Karl's love child with Izzy was born, on the deck of the boat as Karl married Susan. Great stuff like that. So many stories though; you know, the big weddings; Libby and Drew; the affairs with Izzy and Sarah; they're all massive stories. My favourite story was one particular episode though; it was episode 7000. If you haven't seen it, I'm going to ask you to go out and see it because it was as funny as a wheel. Karl Kennedy finds a scratch-it ticket worth $7,000, loses it and has to go looking for it. When he gets to Toadie's house, Toadie's having a naturalist lunch, and so Karl nudes up to look for his ticket and finds it stuck to Toadie's bum! My favourite scene, my favourite episode, and within it, when he finds that scratch-it, is my favourite scene.
That's the great thing about soap operas, isn't it? You can have the drama, and the farce.
Exactly, and I think that's why Neighbours has been so popular for so long, because that's exactly right; it's got a light touch. You know, for every bit of heavy drama we create, we create a light moment.
With Amazon rebooting the show, is the original Ramsay Street set being used again or will they change it up?
No, we're back in the same street, and we're in the same studios. Everything came together. I mean, there was no certainty about any of this, but it all came together. What we've done is, because there's been a break, we've been able to reinvent the show a little bit. So it's still the same Neighbours everyone knows and loves, but better sets. We shoot it better, and we shoot it in an improved way that look is better. It's more filmic. You see the sets from different perspective; you'll see walls that you never saw before, things like that. So it's pretty fantastic. I mean, honestly, how often do you get a re-do? It's amazing.
It must mean a lot, personally, to you to be stepping into those shoes again.
Yeah, and you know, people talk about; "how can you do the same job for 28 years?", and the thing is, I haven't done the same job for 28 years. It has been very different. The characters have developed so much, it's changed so much, and it'll change again. And the joy, that connection with fans means an enormous amount.
Who are the most famous people that you've met that have told you they're a fan of Neighbours?
Well, I mean, I've talked about Simon Cowell when Susan came to London to do the marathon, because in those particular episodes, we worked with one of my favourites, Michael Parkinson, may he rest in peace. Julian Clary was there, Emma Bunton was on the show, Neil Morrissey.; so many, and every single one of those people who came on the show said; "oh, we love Neighbours. We want to be a guest on it!" We've had so many celebs on Neighbours over the years, it's been fabulous. So yes, that means a lot that people who are very famous love the show.
What do you have coming up? Is it all Neighbours-related, or have you got more touring?
I've more touring, in fact when I get back to to Australia from here in the U.K, I've got two tours around Victoria in Australia, and New South Wales in Australia. Then, Tamworth Country Music Festival in January, and I'm planning a tour here in the U.K. next July again, for music and then hopefully doing my Dr Karl show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. So lots of plans in the pipeline.
You're never going to shake Dr Karl, are you?
No, I love him. I love him and I love the show, so I'm in no hurry to shake it.
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For more on Alan's music, visit his official site.