Kath & Kim: articles

JANE Turner and Gina Riley

The Kath & Kim code

JANE Turner and Gina Riley are nervous. They may be two of the most successful women no, make that, people on Australian television, whose much-loved show Kath & Kim is now screened in 11 countries but, today, the pair are distinctly uncomfortable. It's a case of "don't look at moiee".

Turner and Riley have reluctantly agreed to be photographed and interviewed as themselves - as opposed to alter egos Kath Day-Knight and Kim Craig.

They're promoting their new series, the first since they jumped into the Barina and moved from the ABC to the Seven Network. And they admit that they find it hard when they can't hide behind Kath's high-waisted jeans and Kim's bumsters and G-strings.

"It's hard to know what to do; how to come across," admits the softly spoken Turner. "We totally love dressing up as funny characters and hiding behind other people, because it's so much easier. I know exactly how Kath acts; she could be Prime Minister and she'd know what to do, whereas I wouldn't have a clue.

"I just try to smile and look to camera and look pretty," she continues, smoothing down a strand of her short, blonde and very-straight hair. "You can't try to be too serious, though, because you just look like a w**ker if you do that."

Riley snorts with laughter - a common occurrence - then adds, "Even though we're comedians, we're not in any way wacky or zany. It's beyond difficult, excruciating even, (to do this)."

Excruciating or not, there's no mucking around with these two, who have politely, but firmly, kept the shoot moving along at a cracking pace. You can see how they balance being mums (Turner has a daughter, 10, and two sons, 18 and 15; and Riley has a 10-year-old daughter) with their roles as creators, writers, executive producers and - not forgetting - stars of one of Australia's most successful comedy series ever.

But they insist their lives haven't changed that much since Kath & Kim brought them international fame (at least in those countries where the show has aired, such as the US, UK and, more bizarrely, Finland and Sweden).

"We've had to do a lot more photoshoots," quips 46-year-old Turner, "but it's been fantastic. Having success makes you more relaxed and happier - and not so ambitious."

"Yes, it's not like a burning thing any more - like I have to do something," agrees Riley, also 46.

"And I don't know if that's an age thing or having had some success, but I do feel more relaxed.

"And it's been fun, too, having a turn at (success). Because our turn will end sooner rather than later, probably, but it's fun while it lasts.

"And having a success with one of your best friends is the most fantastic feeling in the world, because you're both experiencing exactly the same thing together."

Interviewing Turner and Riley is a bit like watching a game of tennis - coincidentally Riley's current passion. ("I love it. It's my new craze," she enthuses.) The pair are so relaxed with each other that they constantly talk over each other and finish one another's sentences. They frequently descend into hoots of laughter, lapsing into Kath and Kim's familiar voices and struggling to remain serious for too long. As Glenn Robbins, who plays Kath's man-bag-carrying husband, Kel, in Kath & Kim says, "The girls are always only a breath away from bursting into laughter. It's always on the edge 99 per cent of the time."

But then, they've been making each other laugh for a very long time. They met aged "17 and 18" (Turner is older by six months) when the star-struck teenagers both attended St Martins Youth Arts Centre in South Yarra. But they didn't hit it off immediately. "We didn't really like each other at first," admits Riley.

"When I first saw Gina, she had the lead part in a musical and I was like, 'Why has she got the lead?'" remembers Turner. "But then she started singing and I was like, 'OK, she can be the lead.' So it was as if we were eyeing each other off at first, but we became friends pretty soon after that. We were both on the same wavelength with the jokes from the start."

"Yes, we've definitely had the same sense of humour from day one," agrees Riley.

That sense of humour has been the backbone of their relationship over the years. "But we also complement each other with our different skills," says Turner. "I think you're more 'big picture' whereas I'm big on little detail."

"You don't remember anybody or anything, but then you remember these really funny little details," laughs Riley, the slightly more gregarious of the two.

"And Gina's probably more assertive than me," adds Turner. "But I'm more buzzy and busy. That's probably related to having three kids and having had them earlier. When you have children, there are always a million things going on in your head at the same time, but (Gina's) getting more like that since she had her daughter. I've always been a fast metabolism-type person."

"Yeah, that's why I'm fat and you're thin," says Riley, dissolving into peals of laughter.

The pair say they never argue. "We don't really fight at all," says Riley. "I think Kath & Kim happened at a good time for us; we're a bit older and more willing to hear somebody else's opinion, which might not have happened 10 years ago."

"Our egos don't get in the way," agrees Turner. "We've learnt it's much better to be in synch and work together. It's a trust thing. Because (Kath & Kim) has worked, we ultimately trust each other. We've obviously hit on some magic formula, which we don't want to ruin, so we do everything we can to protect it. You don't want to bugger it up."

Having both decided they wanted to be performers at a very young age ("As far back as I can remember, that was always my first love," says Turner), the pair gravitated towards comedy, honing their skills in Melbourne's theatre restaurants and comedy clubs before graduating to TV.

Apart from Turner's not-so-comic short spell on Prisoner in the early '80s, the pair became synonymous with sketch comedy in shows such as Fast Forward, Full Frontal, Big Girl's Blouse and Something Stupid. They soon became famous for their comic characters (Turner's Russian TV presenter Svetta and Bobbie Battista from CNN were standouts) and sharp send-ups of personalities including Paula Abdul and Kerri-Anne Kennerly (Riley) and Ita Buttrose (Turner).

Actor John Clarke, who starred with Riley in the Sydney Olympics spoof The Games, says Seven's Big Girl's Blouse - which featured Riley, Turner and Magda Szubanski - was groundbreaking at the time. "Big Girl's Blouse was a remarkable achievement. It was a brilliant show and one of the first that was written by, for and about women. They were very brave. A lot of people won't do the things they do on national television because of vanity. But they were making themselves look ugly, fat and vile, and they were up for that because they have loved making one another laugh for a very long time."

It was on Big Girl's Blouse, which aired in 1995, that the characters of Kath and Kim Day (as they were then), plus Kim's 'second-best friend' Sharon, first saw the light of... um, day. They proved such a hit that Turner and Riley later decided to flesh out the characters and write a TV series about them.

"The characters had had a very good response from the few people that saw them (on Big Girl's Blouse)," says Turner. "So, we thought it definitely had legs. And we were happy and confident writing it. It was never a struggle."

But it was definitely a struggle for the show to get up and running. Signed by the ABC, the show was dropped three days before production was due to begin in 2001. But the girls refused to accept it. Remembers Turner: "We had this phone call saying they had decided not to go ahead with Kath & Kim and we were like, 'What?... Anyway, Gina, what were we saying about this script?' We just kept going. We were too far down the track and had such faith in it."

Adds Riley: "We just felt it should be given a go. Not that (we thought) it was going to be hugely successful - just that it should be given a go."

Luckily the ABC changed its mind. And just as well; the day-to-day life of the 50-something empty-nester (Kath) and her spoilt daughter (Kim), and their respective spouses Kel (the 'great hunk o' spunk') and Brett, in the fictional Melbourne suburb of Fountain Lakes, was an instant hit after it first aired in May 2002. Soon, a collection of Kath and Kim's catchphrases such as "Look at moiee" and "Very ny-ioce", plus the show's infamous malapropisms (such as Kim's "I want to be effluent, Mum" or Kath's hunger cry, "I'm ravishing") entered the mainstream.

But the show wasn't without its detractors. Some critics were offended by its portrayal of suburban life. "The first reviews were terrible," laughs Riley. "One said, 'It's got terrible lines, such as: Does it make me a crim to keep myself trim, Kim?' We thought, why is that so terrible? We still think it's quite funny."

The pair refute the suggestion they're being cruel about people in the suburbs. "It's totally affectionate," continues Turner. "We're not poking fun at anyone. There's no one in the show, besides Sharon, who is particularly tragic. They're proud of themselves, they look after themselves, they're happy.

"It's our own lives. Everything that happens to us, we put into that show."

"Yes, the idea that we sit at a lofty height laughing at the masses is ridiculous," agrees Riley.

"Because we wouldn't be able to tap into it in that way if we were that removed."

After three series and a telemovie with the ABC, the Seven Network announced in April that it had secured the rights to air the fourth series of Kath & Kim for a reported $3 million. And while you might say that's a "ny-ioce little earner" for Turner and Riley, they say it just "seemed the right time to go" and that there was no animosity from the ABC.

"There were some things that we really wanted to do with the new series, such as a trip away, and we could never afford to do it," says Riley. "The ABC wanted to (put money into) nurturing new programs and Seven seemed to be the way to go because that's where we started - that's where Kath and Kim were born."

As ever, Turner and Riley are tight-lipped about what will happen in the next series ("We'd have to kill you if we told you," says Riley.) But what is known is that the show will include a trip to Coolum, on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, and features guest appearances from Eric Bana, Little Britain's Matt Lucas and Shane Warne.

"They don't do it for the money," laughs Riley. "The huge perk of having a successful show is that you can ring up someone such as Warnie, Kylie or Barry Humphries and say, 'Want to be in our show?'"

"Warnie was so much fun," interjects Turner.

"Yes, he was fantastic," agrees Riley. "He was absolutely happy to take the p*ss out of himself."

Barry Humphries says he was thrilled to guest star in the telemovie Da Kath & Kim Code in 2005. "I was quite honoured to appear in anything with them. I'd be flattered to be seen having a cup of coffee with them, to be honest.

"They're the best thing that's ever been on Australian TV. As soon as I saw them, I knew they were the goods. They're extremely attractive and intelligent, really good company, hard-working and modest. There seems to be no professional arrogance, which is my failing. And they don't stand still - they're constantly working on material, developing their characters and thinking of what's next."

As for what is next, well, don't bank on there being a fifth series of Kath & Kim just yet. The girls say they work on a series-by-series basis. "We'll just have to see how this one goes," says Riley.

The big decision to leave their foxy incarnations to go about their business anonymously in Fountain Lakes will be made when they feel "they have nothing more to say". Or, as Turner puts it:

"When things have moved on and what we're doing isn't quite hitting the mark."

"But we still love doing it, so hopefully that won't be the case for a while ... " murmurs Riley.

They admit they sometimes find the writing process difficult. "There's always the chance the next one might die on its arse," says Riley. "So we're always on our toes. It's not as if we're cruising. When we write, it can be pretty agonising."

"The more series you do, the harder it gets," adds Turner, "because you've used up all the ideas."

The pair write at Turner's house. "We tried to have an office once, but we just couldn't do it," says Riley. "There was no food on tap; we have to be in domestic surrounds, I think. But (writing) doesn't always come easy."

"I'll go, 'Do you want a coffee?'" adds Turner. "Or 'What about lunch? It's 10.30am. Let's have lunch.'"

"Yes, I think our record for lunch once was 10am," snorts Riley. "We have deleted whole episodes by mistake, too. We've done that twice. We weren't able to get them back, so we had to rewrite them straightaway so we wouldn't forget. It always happens just before school pick-up, as well."

Kath & Kim is, in many ways, a family affair, with the girls' husbands and children having appeared on the show. Riley's husband, Rick McKenna, who's also the show's executive producer ("We can trust him; hopefully he's not stealing the money," jokes Turner), appeared as Father Christmas in Da Kath & Kim Code and Turner's lawyer-husband John Denton played a Russian taxi driver in series one.

They say their kids are proud of what they do. "It's good, actually. This last series, I've taken the edits home and have been showing my eldest son, and he really gets it now," says Turner. "It's really great seeing their sense of humour develop - they get what we get."

Turner has been quoted as saying she doesn't want to play Kath for the rest of her life. "I want to do something else and push myself into a different area. Otherwise it just gets a bit boring to play the same person over and over again. Even though I love her, it becomes a bit mechanical and you feel you can do it with your eyes closed. I would like to play someone under 50, one day in my life."

They have mixed feelings about getting older. While Turner admits she's not exactly thrilled about it, Riley prefers to focus on the positive side. "I feel so much calmer and happier within myself than I did when I was in my 20s. People of that age seem so angst-ridden and I remember being like that. You don't know who you are and what you want to do, whereas that is much more sorted out now. And I quite like that feeling."

"It's more thinking about what you're going to do next," muses Turner, munching on a muffin. "You don't want to be out of touch or look like mutton dressed as lamb. You want to be doing exactly what is right for you at that age."

While Turner hasn't ruled out plastic surgery as she gets older ("If I had really baggy eyes, I might"), Riley isn't keen. "But it's very hard to see yourself falling apart on screen. It's pretty confronting, but it would be worse if you were known as a 'beauty'."

Earlier, both expressed pretty firm ideas about what they would and wouldn't wear at the sunday shoot, dismissing a few of the garments hanging on the rail. Turner says she loves clothes, yet hates shopping. "I love dressing up, but I hate traipsing around the shops and trying on things. I'd be very happy to be Kylie Minogue - who has designers giving her things all the time."

Riley agrees, saying she hates shopping because she struggles to find clothes to fit her size-14 frame. "I think that's true for anyone my size, and bigger. It's very hard to find clothes. It's so much better overseas, they tend to cater for a larger frame."

The forthcoming series of Kath & Kim promises new standards of sartorial stuff-ups and fashion, particularly for Kim. "I've gone further than I've ever gone, in this series," giggles Riley. "It's totally liberating. I was really nervous. But when I (was filming), it was really funny. And as long as it's funny, that's all that matters."

The fourth series of Kath & Kim will screen on the Seven Network from Sunday, August 19 at 7.30pm.

By Joanne Hawkins
August 13, 2007
Sunday Herald Sun