The best way to experience Night Terrace is with your eyes closed. How else does one traverse time and space fighting Robot Hitlers and paleolithic megafauna with Susan from Neighbours?
Released last year, Night Terrace is an audio series produced by Ben McKenzie and John Richards. It’s like Doctor Who, if Tom Baker had corks dangling from his hat and was more interested in physics than flirting with his sidekick.
When you start to listen, you’ll immediately recognise the voice of the hero, Anastasia Black, played by Jackie Woodburne i.e. Neighbours’ Susan Kennedy, Australia’s longest-serving soap-opera star.
So did 20 years of playing a teacher, journalist, student, mother and wife prepare her for being a swashbuckling space adventurer? “All of those earlier pursuits prepared me well for time travel. I loved it, though I don't recall there being much actual buckling of swashes,” says Woodburne.
In the series, Anastasia has recently retired from her job at a shadowy scientific military organisation and wants nothing more than to relax and drink tea, safe at home. Of course, a door-to-door salesman (Eddie Jones, played by Ben McKenzie) turns up and they soon discover, accidentally, that Black’s home is a time-travelling space ship controlled via its sinks, teaspoons and plumbing system.
Over the course of several hundred cups of tea, Black and Jones go to ancient Australia, a pre-war British dinner party murder mystery, a disco planet and a colony of gender-non-specific subservient resort staff.
Because Neighbours airs five nights a week, its shooting schedule leaves no time for flubbed lines. “We certainly don’t linger on the Neighbours set and I think I have become quite good at working quickly and finding a performance level without a lot of time or rehearsal. However, even without the benefit of 20 years of fast-paced television, my fellow performers were equally adept, so I can’t claim credit there,” says Woodburne.
Night Terrace is the second project for the team who created it. Last year they made Splendid Chaps, a podcast themed around Doctor Who. They work well together and co-creator Ben McKenzie was reluctant for the team to split up.
“I’ve always wanted to create science fiction, to play in that kind of world. I think all fans of the genre would love to do that! When we did Splendid Chaps, the live podcast project, we realised that between us we had all the skills we needed to realise that dream: acting, writing, producing, sound design and engineering. And more importantly, we had an audience who might want it!”
They reached out to this audience via a Kickstarter campaign, which was successful, raising nearly $16,000; $6,000 more than their goal. Unlike most campaigns, they didn’t add a new episode or buy better recording equipment with the extra money. “[It] let us pay everyone working on the project a bit more. That’s not very fashionable or sexy in crowdfunding, but on a project like ours it’s the major cost, and on the low budget we planned to make it feasible to fund, we were definitely paying a minimum, but we were upfront about that and it was so great to see people continue to back the project knowing that’s where the money was going.”
The runaway success of NPR’s recent true-crime podcast, Serial, proves storytelling through sound is still very much a viable medium. “In the ‘80s I, along with many others, worked fairly regularly in radio at the ABC, recording plays and poetry. It’s even better now, with the advances in technology to add richness and texture to the recording process,” says Woodburne.
For McKenzie, the creative possibilities radio affords are exhilarating. “It frees you to use the full scope of your imagination. We can have giant spaceships and imploding universes and unlimited rice pudding and anything else we can think of, because we just need to use a little bit of dialogue and some sound and the listener fills in the rest. I like the fact that the house and all the places it lands and aliens they meet will look different in each listener’s head, but still retain the same character.”
As for including Toady in the next season? “It's true that everybody needs good neighbours, but Jackie is all the Erinsborough we need. Though you should never say never ... it all depends on the characters we end up writing! Perhaps we’ll approach Toady if we go to the planet of the wrestlers ... remember that storyline?”
Night Terrace is available for purchase from nightterrace.com.