At 6.30pm on weekdays, television sets around the country have been tuning in to RTÉ for their daily fix of Home and Away since 1988.
My family didn’t have a television in the late eighties. I remember running to my friend’s house to make it in time for the theme music, crashing down on her sofa out of breath as the opening credits rolled.
My parents never knew my guilty secret. On days I couldn’t make it, and when a plotline was particularly juicy, my friend would phone me after dinner, breathlessly recounting the latest scandal.
So it’s like leaping back 20 years to hear the teens gathered in the Bishopstown Bar talking about familiar characters like Alf and Marilyn, as well as a whole host of names that mean nothing to me.
Kayla is particularly starstruck. In her late teens, with long blonde hair and liberally applied eye make-up, she’s recovering her composure after meeting her idol, Home and Away star Kyle Pryor, known to fans of the show as Dr Nate Cooper.
Kyle is in Cork on a meet-and-greet appearance arranged by Dandy Promotions.
For €14, fans can queue up for a chance to meet and be photographed with the dishy doctor. For a €20 VIP ticket, you can take a selfie with him.
Kyle is courteous if a little weary looking as he autographs posters, poses for photos, and doles out the occasional hug to bolder fans.
Born in the UK, Kyle only joined the show a year-and-a-half ago, and this is his first international promotional tour. He’s been in Kilkenny, Thurles, and Dublin already.
Has he discovered just how much Irish fans love Home and Away? “Definitely. The last couple of days have been pretty intense! They all call me Nate. Every now and then, someone will ask, ‘what’s your real name?’”
Damien Shreehan and Andy Cronin started Dandy Promotions last May, and have brought in other Home and Away actors, such as Dan Ewing, who plays Heath Braxton, and Steve Peacocke, who plays Brax Braxton.
They have also arranged appearances of Liverpool footballers, the cast of Geordie Shore, and UFC featherweight star Conor McGregor.
“There’s a massive Home and Away following in Cork. The Home and Away stars have been literally three times busier than the people from Geordie Shore, and you’ll see tonight that the age range is from 8-80 for Home and Away, which is brilliant,” Damien says. More than 250 people have showed up for their chance to meet Dr Nate.
How much do the stars charge to put in an appearance? Damien smiles: “It depends on how popular they are, I can’t tell you exactly but it’ll be at least a couple of thousand.”
Australia’s longest-running soap has enjoyed international popularity since shortly after its inception in 1987, but no fans are more ardent than the Irish.
Chatting to people in the queue, I ask what the appeal of Home and Away is for Irish people.
Most say they like the storylines, or that once you’re hooked, you tune in to find out what’ll happen to a particular character next — standard reasons for liking soaps, probably — but one girl, Megan Toher, had a different take on it: “There’s so many Irish people living over there that you kind of want to see what it’s like.”
1988-89, when RTÉ started showing Home and Away, is still on record as the year with the highest per capita rate of emigration since written records began, with 70,600 Irish people departing to find employment and a better future.
It’s easy to imagine that an Irish mammy would tune in daily for a glimpse of the far-flung shores where her son or daughter was seeking their fortune.
The beautiful beaches, gorgeous stars, and healthy outdoor lifestyle depicted on the show are probably a far cry from the reality for many young Irish people in Australia today, competing for jobs in construction, mining, and the service industry, yet the cosy escapism of the Australia of Home and Away continues to have mass appeal today, with more than 200 people emigrating daily in 2014.
Back in Cork, the long queue snakes its way down the staircase and out into the bar, moving at a snail’s pace as Kyle signs and smiles.
Dedicated fan Ciaran Ryan has been watching Home and Away since he was little. “I never miss an episode,” he says. “I like the characters and the settings — everyone would want to live there.”
Surely it’s a little awkward to meet someone you don’t know? What is Ciaran going to say to Kyle? “I just say I’m a lifelong fan of the show. The girls say different things, I’m sure!”
Everyone is behaving themselves admirably as they wait. The atmosphere is quite sedate compared to other similar events.
“Last New Year’s Eve, we went to see Heath Braxton in the Woolshed because I got tickets online for it,” Megan tells me. “There was underwear being handed over. I was just like, ‘OK, I’m going to leave now.’”
To be on the safe side, the organisers have extra security staff in case things get rowdy; two upstairs with Kyle, as well as his own entourage, and a couple more to keep an eye on things.
“You wouldn’t think you’d need it for a load of young girls, but sometimes you really do!”
or Kyle, being so widely recognised is quite a new experience. Having started off as a martial artist and stunt man, he wasn’t prepared for the fame of working on a soap.
“I generally had bit parts, on some big shows but character-wise nothing huge,” he says. “So this takes a bit of getting used to, everyone recognising you!”
Soaps hold on to their cast for long periods of time, and Home and Away is no exception.
Show stalwarts such as Lynn McGregor (Irene Roberts) and Emily Symons (Marilyn Chambers), and of course, Ray Meagher, whose stint as Alf Stewart has earned him a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest-serving actor in an Aussie soap, have worked for decades in the same roles.
Kyle isn’t concerned about getting stuck in the role.
“I think it’s actually a great springboard. The show is a good platform and I’m getting some great acting experience as well. I’m not going anywhere for a while yet, anyway.”
He’s currently enjoying the routine and stability of the work: “It’s more settled. It’s nice to have the regularity. As an actor, that’s gold really.”
As a new cast member joining a closeknit community of actors who have worked together for years in many cases, Kyle felt very welcomed. “It’s a real team,” he says.
“Everyone mucks in together. It’s a real fast turnaround show so it can be quite hectic and full-on so everyone just bands together. It’s a really good working environment.”
With RTÉ running 49 episodes behind Australian broadcasts, can Kyle give us any clues as to how things will pan out for his character in the rest of the season?
“I wish I could give something away, but I really can’t,” he says. “There’s lots of good drama. This year’s season finale really pushed me as an actor and I had great fun shooting it, that’s all I’ll say.”