In July 1998, South Africans were bowled over by SABC3’s pioneering soap, Isidingo – The Need. The themes of interracial relationships and homosexuality and the exploration of the lives of the working class, were a refreshing distraction from the staple diet of The Bold and the Beautiful and Days of Our Lives. Fifteen years on, the soap is besieged by controversies. Debashine Thangevelo caught up with Isidingo’s new head writer, Rohan Dickson, to learn his plans to restore the soap to its former glory…
WHAT set Isidingo – The Need apart from other soaps when it debuted on TV on July 7, 1998?
The soap boasted South Africa’s cream of the crop in the acting department, it was ingeniously penned and made inroads with its bona fide homegrown storylines. In a nutshell, it was addictive; a major talking point around the country.
In fact, it was unparalleled in its timeslot for almost a decade.
Then the wheels started to wobble, so to speak. Aside from the untimely passing of Ashley Callie, Michelle Botes left. With the resurgence of new characters, some of the longstanding ones faded into the background. There were rumours of disgruntled actors. The storylines started to dip – along with the ratings. And this state of affairs wasn’t helped by the fire that consumed the set or the short-lived reign of British head writer, Liam J Stratton.
But this article isn’t about a litany of problems that has been written about before. It is about highlighting the transformation being plotted for the soap. And with Rohan Dickson (M-Net’s The Wild and SABC3’s High Rollers) as the new head writer, change is imminent.
Just a quick background on Dickson – he has been freelancing since 2012. In-between his sterling TV credits, he stole away to lend his creative talent to two feature films.
Of coming on board the soap, he says: “I was a co-head writer at High Rollers and worked on Isibaya for a few months as a writer. It was near the end of the year when they (Isidingo) got a hold of me and we started talking. They told me where the show is at and where they want it to be.
“My approach has been to see how much I could affect the show in a positive sense. I haven’t really spent a lot of time in the past (as in the soap’s history). My job was to come on board and see if I can turn around the content. That involves a lot of things, a lot of departments and variables. The show was at a challenging place when I arrived. I worked hard to turn it around and make sure the content is back to its strength that it used to have before all of this happened.”
Dickson says he has steered clear of all the criticism heaved at Isidingo.
He explains: “This year has been about looking at a positive approach, things that have worked and to bring in some fresh ideas. And so far, so good. Of the material I have been involved with, it will only appear on screen from April 9. We don’t know how the audience is going to respond. We have certainly thrown the kitchen sink at it. We have come up with materials and stories that are very exciting.”
Of course, research was crucial to his plans to create a new era for the soap and Dickson trawled through the episode archives that shaped Isidingo.
He points out: “I have watched Barker Haines, the storyline that got him into the soap. I basically dipped into the archives looking at the iconic stories that worked to get a sense of why this show was so successful.
“I remember working on other shows and paying my dues when Isidingo was the benchmark. It had the best creative people working on it. It was basically drawing on the spirit of that storytelling and bringing some new stuff. We don’t want to just go backwards.
“I have spent a lot of time speaking to the production people, the actors and directors. Then I needed to build the writing department – to a degree – from scratch. The idea was to build it around the vision of the show. We have done that now.
“I’m quite confident they (the stories) are going to make a good impression. I have looked at Barker and tried to reinvigorate what made a character like that so exciting and potent. We will be showing different components (to him): a ruthless ambition and a vulnerability. We are looking at things that have been diluted of late. The Matabanes are going through a transition with Lerato and Sechaba becoming very popular.
“We are bringing in a new family at the beginning of May. They will represent the working class. One of the things Isidingo has gone away from, in terms of its identity, is the working class realities of life and their struggles. That was strong in the past through the Matabanes before they were upgraded to middle class.”
He notes that the small-town mining community of Horizon Deep will be more prominent.
He says the new family partly comprises a man from the Eastern Cape who is promised a job on the mine. When that doesn’t materialise, he ends up in the Sibeko household – working as the help.
Touching on the viewers’ disdain for Michaella Russell, who took over Jay Anstey’s role as Charlie Holmes, Dickson defends: “The audience didn’t respond positively to her in the beginning for reasons that are understandable – another actress played the role. Plans are to look at it in a very positive way. The new actress is doing a really good job, not necessarily on broadcast now. The stories we are throwing at her are very challenging and dramatic. We are not holding back. They are hard-hitting, edgy, possibly controversial. Our strategy is to bring her to the forefront. We understand the reservations, but want viewers to root for this character and support this actress. She has been doing an excellent job in not letting the criticism affect her and in bringing the character to life and delivering the most authentic performance.”
Shedding light on Vusi Kunene’s exit, he enlightens: “We are going to be focusing more on Lincoln Sibeko, the brother, as the head of the family. Jefferson was the younger brother. We still have Katlego and Nikiwe. We have found a way of bringing some other characters into the family dynamic through a steamy affair that happens. That forces the family into a crisis.”
He continues: “The tone of the show is shifting. It is not a total change as it needs to have that level of recognition and familiarity. But we are shifting into something authentic, real and honest. We want to deliver a more diverse and realistic sense of the world.
“We have the police world through Eddie and Priya. That comes far more to the surface. The mining community we want to explore. To a degree, we have a hospital and medical site. The new working class family will have a lower LSM home. We want to show more of the mine and shebeen.”
As for where this leaves Georgie and Slu, he reveals: “Part of this new era is to bring those two back into our world and show the audience the underworld is alive and well.”
For those feeling the void left by Len Cooper, the new head writer has a bad boy (in the criminal not skirt-chasing sense, though) on the cards from the beginning of next month. He also hinted at the demise of one of the major characters in the soap.
“The death is going to have a major impact on the whole world and reshuffles the deck and sets the stage for new stuff. We are focusing on romance, sexiness, relationships and the underworld, the very dramatic and criminal side to Horizon’s drama.
“Viewers are going to see robust stories. This show has been through a rocky time, but it will get back on track,” he offers.
Although it remains to be seen if the resurrection of Isidingo will be accompanied by fresh music and an opening sequence, there is no mistaking the change in the air.
Looks like the wheels are steadier and with Dickson steering things – the Horizon is definitely looking brighter as the plot thickens!
• Isidingo is on SABC3 at 7.30pm on weekdays.