Having racked up 22 years on Ramsay Street, Jackie Woodburne is ‘Neighbours’ longest-serving female star. During that time, her character, Susan Kennedy, has been through it all – assisting her mother’s suicide, an MS diagnosis and fostering various teenage waifs and strays, not to mention innumerable splits and reunions with her husband Karl.
Her latest storyline has seen Susan go up against the manipulative Finn Kelly – an ambitious teacher at Erinsborough High who is going to extreme lengths to oust her as principal. The latest twist has seen him swap her MS medication for strong painkillers without her knowledge, in an attempt to steal her job. Things step up a gear after Susan is hospitalised this week, but just how will she prove that Finn is up to no good?
As the plot heats up, we caught up with Jackie during a trip to the UK to find out more about what’s ahead for Susan and Finn, where Jackie also revealed what she would do if her on-screen husband were to quit the show, and explained why Ricky Gervais would be her perfect Neighbour.
How serious are things going to get for Susan in the coming weeks?
She is in absolute danger. When Paige has her baby and Doctor Karl comes to the rescue and she’s taken to hospital, there are very high levels of opiates in her bloodstream. She can’t believe she’s been taking strong painkillers without knowing, so who is putting it there? Elly thinks it is Finn and Susan is now starting to believe there is something in her theory. She’s been reluctant to take Elly at face value given their history, but she realises something is going on there. Meanwhile, it gets worse when Susan comes back to school as she’s been diminished in front of the kids, the educations department, so Finn is appointed acting principal and she is told to take some time off.
Could we really see her ousted as principal?
Absolutely, yes. Finn’s in there manipulating everyone around him. He starts an MS fundraiser, which is a lovely, kind thing to do, but it shines a light on the fact the principal has health issues that could impact on her ability to do the job.
You won huge praise for the MS storyline 10 years ago – are you pleased to be revisiting Susan’s health problems?
It is. They didn’t lean too heavily on the MS because it was meant to be a possibility. It’s more about Finn’s manipulation of the situation and him taking his moment and work it to his advantage. At the same time, he’s trying to woo Elly and convince her he’s not the man she thinks he is. She’s lonely and vulnerable and she could be maneuvered.
We’ve seen a dark side to him in an argument they had – is that going to be explored more in their dynamic?
Elly is very mindful of the fact he has that anger in him. He is capable of violence and all kinds of things. He’s very clever, because on top of that he’s very charming, good looking and you want to like him and believe what he’s saying. He’s a really great sociopath.
He’s also groomed Xanthe and it’s quite a dark storyline for ‘Neighbours’, given its G classification in Australia…
It works so well because Xanthe is such a sweet, innocent girl. She is someone who could be groomed and manipulated because she is so trusting. She will be devastated when she finds out about Finn because he’s convinced her he has a life-threatening illness but doesn’t want anyone to know. But being a good little Cinderella, she wants to look after him. He convinces her to go away with him and it’s quite dangerous. We trod a very fine line of what we could show and what we couldn’t, and what we could imply with our young audience, and I think they’ve done it really well.
If Susan is forced out as principal, what would you like to see her do next?
Well, it’s Erinsborough and she did become a newspaper editor with absolutely no experience. Every journalist I know wants to know how she did that! But she was keen, a quick learner and she is an English teacher so she could spell! I’d like to see her in a power role. I love doing stuff with Stefan Dennis (who plays Paul Robinson) so maybe something with him, because they have this grudging respect for each other, which we really enjoy playing.
Finn is the latest in a long line of arch enemies for Susan, but how does he compare to the likes of Sarah Beaumont and Izzy Hoyland?
The stakes are different. With those two, it was her marriage and her life. It undercut everything she saw herself as – a wife, a partner, a mother. It hits you in your self-esteem about your appearance and your personality. With Finn, it’s her professional self. You would maybe try and come back from it from a more pragmatic place. Susan is a bit of a ninja, which has been a good plot device, as she has got to play him and hold her cards close to her chest.
Susan and Karl have split up numerous times in the 22 years you’ve been on Ramsay Street but are they together for good now?
I hope so! There will be ups and downs obviously, but I hope they keep us together. I think they’re at this stage in their lives where the scales have fallen from their eyes, certainly for Susan. She knows who this man is and she loves him anyway. They absolutely get each other and love each other, warts and all. They’re still very attracted to each other, as we know from the infamous blue box. The crew have a lot of fun with that blue box. I can’t tell you the stories as they’re pretty X-rated. Fletch (Alan Fletcher, who plays Karl) and I love doing old people comedy sex stuff. We love, love, love it! Dressing up as naughty nurses and dirty doctors. When people talk to us about stories, that’s what fans remember. We actually have a delicious one coming up off the back off this very dramatic story. They go away for a couple of weeks, but there’s a beautifully funny story they come back with. We could barely get through it for laughing when we shot it.
Is the mixture of comedy and drama the secret to the show’s success?
I think so. We all pipe up when it’s been too long without a few laughs. You have to give light and shade and give people a laugh. All the characters have a sense of humour.
Have you and Alan ever discussed what would happen if one of you decided to quit? Do you have some sort of pact?
We’re very much of the thought of ‘do what’s right for you’. We’ve been together now almost 23 years and we both still enjoy the show and we both plan to stay on well into the future. I don’t think we’re going anywhere, but if one of us said to the other, ‘mate, I think I’m done’, the other would just say, ‘do whatever is right for you’.
Could you be there in 22 years time still?
Could you imagine! There would be walking frame sex stories. It would be quite horrific.
One storyline that really got fans talking was the Dee Bliss storyline (it saw Toadie Rebecchi’s dead wife return 14 years after being killed on their wedding day, only for it to be revealed she was actually a con artist called Andrea Somers). What was your initial reaction reaction when they set it out?
If you said your dead wife who you drove off a cliff with her blonde hair flying out the window, who was killed and we all mourned, was coming back, we’d all go ‘seriously, how are we going to sell that?’. I was like, right ok, but what those writers did was extraordinary, plus then the performances from Eve Morey (Sonya), Ryan Moloney (Toadie) and Madeline West (Dee/Andrea). Eve is one of the best actors in the world - she is phenomenal, and the other two absolutely matched her. Those of us working on the show, we see it everyday, but to see them step up and sustain that for 12 weeks… Incredible.
Andrea is still out there somewhere. Could we see her return to Ramsay Street?
Why not! Anything is possible. It has happened before… This is what makes me proud of the show. Yes, it’s a soap and reality is heightened, but it’s anchored in truthful performances from some bloody good actors.
What do you think happened to the real Dee? Is she still dead?
Maybe not… Harold survived. He managed to tread water all the way to Tasmania all those years later…
Toadie and Sonya are currently separated after he cheated on her with Fake Dee – will they get back together?
The weight of it has been helped by the fact the audience has known them for so long as a great couple who they love. Break it and people will care. Where they are now, it’s about regaining trust for Sonya, and for Toadie, it’s about clawing his way back in.
We’ve seen the addiction side of her history come to the fore recently – will she bounce back from it?
It will go on for a little while, but ultimately she will get her stuff together again, like she has in the past. She is an addict, but when she came to Ramsay Street, she had it together and she will again.
Have you got a favourite storyline from your entire time on the show?
The MS stuff I was really happy with the way that played out because a lot of people worked really hard. We wanted to get it right and not just be a soap version of someone being diagnosed with MS. It is a drama and we have to tell stories in a dramatic way, but we were authentic at the same time.
Have there ever been plots you’ve disagreed with?
Yes, the affair with the priest I struggled with a little bit because I thought it was a bit yuck. When they told me about that story, it just had a high yuck factor for me personally as I think there was a lot going on in the Catholic church at the time. And yet it was a really popular story.
Are you all vocal in feeding that back to the bosses?
Absolutely. They are great and will say ‘this is the story we’ve got coming. What do you think Susan’s reaction would be to that?’. They’re great about input and they’re very welcoming of it.
The Kennedys have got their grandson Ben living with them at the moment – is there any chance of a return for his mum and their daughter Libby?
I’d love to have any of the Kennedy kids back. There’s no chance with Jesse Spencer because he’s being a big TV star in the US. I love it when Malcom comes back, and Kym (who played Libby) was back in 2014 and it would be fantastic to have her return. I’d love to have the step kids, Zeke and Rachel Kinski, back too. Caitlyn Stasey is a ripper little actress but I think she’s living in LA now with a lot of other ex-neighbours.
Just like Margot Robbie…
She’s taking over the universe, as she should! She is ruling the world. She is the best girl, and with her, it was not a case of if, but when, because she could do it all.
‘Neighbours’ holds such a special place in the UK’s heart, but were you surprised by the uproar when it was reported it could be leaving our screens? (Channel 5 are since said to have renewed their deal to air the show)
Of course. You think there would be a bit of tweeting and a bit of stuff on Instagram, but huge responses like that, that was fantastic.
And even Adele got involved!
I know! She came to the Street. She didn’t let anybody know she was coming, but she took a picture outside the Kennedy house and Instagrammed it. Our publicity team flew into a frenzy and we all went down, but she’d long gone. We posted a little tribute online straight away, but it was extraordinary.
Who is your dream Neighbour who you’d like to see move onto the Street?
Ricky Gervais. I think he would shake it up brilliantly. But I imagine he would be looking at it like, ‘What’s she doing here? She’s meant to be dead!’ He would dissect it very well.
‘Neighbours’ airs weekdays at 1.45pm and 5.30pm on Channel 5.