Sally Geary and Alison James at Shortland Street. Photo / Supplied via The Spinoff
By Naomii Seah
Originally published by The Spinoff
Watching a soap opera is no substitute for a medical degree, but that doesn't mean Shortland Street isn't committed to accuracy – most of the time.
For most people, accuracy is the least of their concerns when tuning into Shortland Street. But for every "please tell me that's not your penis" scandal, the show has addressed plenty of real-life medical issues. Over the years these have included everything from Sarah Potts being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis to TK's battle with prostate cancer, to the prescient mystery viral illness of 2019.
In order to reflect these and other medical events accurately, the writing team has to call on the experts. Alison James is a storyliner, helping develop the plot lines, and Sally Gaery is medical adviser, helping direct the portrayal of medical events on set. Both James and Gaery are also qualified nurses, and their expertise helps ensure Shortland Street stays (somewhat) medically accurate.
The Spinoff: Kia ora korua! Could you please introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about what you do?
AJ: I'm Alison, and I was a nurse in the emergency department for six years before taking the job as a medical adviser to the story team. And since then I have progressed to become the medical adviser and a storyliner. I was actually forwarded the advertisement from Trade Me as a bit of a joke. I also have an English degree. It's a weird combo of skills that is probably only useful in this one job! I met with the head writer and that was nine years ago this year.
SG: I'm a nurse, and I have worked on the show for about 17 years part-time. I also work in Auckland Hospital in the emergency department – I do both jobs part-time. I teach actors who play nurses and doctors what to do. I also edit the scripts that come through from the dialogue writers; I make sure the medical stuff is correct before it's all published and goes to air.
What do you think is the best part of the job?
AJ: The people that I work with are amazing. But also I get to design a world and a healthcare system that I want, rather than the one we have, which is imperfect. I can do things like get people access to treatments, and I can make treatments up when one doesn't exist. I get to think outside the box a bit and create that conversation about access and discrimination in healthcare. It's a way to get people thinking about things that they might not ordinarily think about, and issues they might not ordinarily come across.
SG: For me the best part of the job is that no one's sick – that's quite nice! It's lots of fun and it's a really good crew to work with. It can be busy and stressful, but compared to Auckland Hospital it's way less stressful. For me, it's really nice to have a break from all the real stuff.
Do you ever take inspiration from real life?
AJ: We try and make the show reflect what's happening to everyday Kiwis. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong, but you know, we always try our best to talk about the things that are important.
SG: I used to do the storylining as well, and often you'd use something that you'd seen at work. Something would happen and you'd change a little bit and put it into the show. Obviously you've got to be careful that people wouldn't recognise it, but you do get inspiration from stuff that happens. For example, some of the stuff in the emergency department at Auckland Hospital is often pretty out there.
What's the least realistic thing about the show, and does it bother you?
AJ: Something we say a lot is that we're not making a documentary. Nurses always get to take breaks on the show and that doesn't always happen in real life. Nurses also often have the energy to have a night out after they've worked a shift! Obviously that's the magic of television. I think it used to annoy me before I worked on the show, things like doctors saying words incorrectly or nurses' hair always being perfect and not looking like they've just worked a 12-hour shift. But that's the lovely thing about television: you can make a world that's aspirational and exciting and beautiful.
SG: On the show, if someone needs a heart transplant, they'll get one two days later. In reality, there's a huge amount involved in getting any kind of transplant: seeing psychologists and all the workup for it, going onto a waiting list, and then waiting for months. But that never happens on the show. The other thing that really irks me is that when people leave, they resign and they've gone the next day.
I do get a bit of hassle about it [from my hospital colleagues]. I have to say "it's not my fault" if things don't make sense, especially when things are wrong! But a lot of them would love to work here because the hospital is so horrendous at the moment.
Finally, what's your favourite storyline you've worked on?
AJ: It's a bit dark, but we did a story with the Mental Health Foundation about seven or eight years ago now. KJ Apa was on the show as a kid called Kane, and he had depression. We did a story about his struggle and eventual recovery. What was great about it was that although we screened some quite dark stuff, we got some really good feedback from the public.
The Mental Health Foundation put extra staff on Lifeline, and people were reaching out in a way they hadn't before. For me, it was a real window into the impact that we can make. We're often talking not just about medical things, but social things that people haven't had the chance to hear out loud before. Things like sexuality and gender, and more recently with #MeToo stuff. Yes, on one hand it's just a TV show, but on the other hand, it is such an important part of people's lives, and of New Zealand life.
I think all New Zealanders feel some sort of ownership or stakehold in the show. By the time Shortland Street came onto our screens in 1992 I was a pre-teen, so it's kind of been along with me in my life in some way since its inception. I was around for the 21st anniversary, and that feels like five seconds ago. I'll probably be around for the 31st and the 40th!
SG: Probably my favourite storyline was the serial killer [Ferndale Strangler] story – no one knew who the killer was and I even had a nurse at work offer to do all my night shifts if I would tell them the name of the murderer.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
• To celebrate Shortland Street's 30th birthday, The Spinoff is dedicating a whole week to the good (and not-so-good) people of Ferndale. Check out more Street Week content here.