Remember Carla? Shortland Street's first villain reflects on her murderous past

by Elisabeth Easther / 05 December, 2018
Elisabeth Easther as Carla, Shortland St's first killer, in hospital after a beating by her husband Bernie. She gets him in the end.

Elisabeth Easther as Carla, the soap’s first killer, in hospital after a beating by her husband Bernie. She gets him in the end. Photo/South Pacific Pictures

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With a new musical bringing our favourite soap to the stage, former Shortland Street actor Elisabeth Easther reflects on her murderous past. 

Unless you’ve been living off the grid for the past 26 years, you’ll know Shortland Street is New Zealand’s longest-running TV drama. Over the course of more than 6620 episodes set in the fictional suburb of Ferndale, there have been 53 deaths, 28 births, 47 weddings and eight major explosions.

Thanks to its enduring popularity, the soap has now been given a musical makeover, with source material taken from mid-90s episodes when ratings spiked like the pulse of a patient with tachycardia.

Considering the outlandish nature of some of those early storylines, it makes sense for that era to form the backbone of Shortland Street: The Musical. Songs like “Not in Guatemala Now” and “The Five Wives of Dr Warner” will surely set toes tapping with nostalgia. It’s disappointing we won’t also be hearing tunes with titles like “Get out of that Bed”, “She’s Your Sister” or “Please Tell Me That’s Not Your Penis”, but it’s impossible to stuff every classic moment into a single piece of theatre.

In spite of the show’s 7pm timeslot, grisly deaths have always found favour with viewers. To date, there have been a total of 30 murders committed by 22 killers – of which I was the first. It’s a dubious honour, but I’m confident it will be the focus of my obituary, even if I live to be 101 and find a cure for cancer.

In 1994, I was thrilled to be cast as nurse Carla because, back then, to be considered an actor in New Zealand you had to have made an appearance on Shortland Street. Seemingly sane in her opening scenes, Carla arrived at the clinic to take up a nursing position, but the look of horror on her sister Ellen’s face said it all: nurse Carla was not to be trusted. (Ellen Crozier was played by Robyn Malcolm, in her breakthrough role.)

Yet in spite of the scriptwriters’ villainous creation, I considered Carla to be misunderstood and tried to imagine reasons for her behaviour. I blamed family dynamics, because it was patently clear from the very start that Carla was the less-loved, less-successful Crozier sister. That had to hurt.

Watch a clip of Carla in Shortland St:

I’d just spent two years at Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School, and my only other acting gig had been playing Victoria the dinosaur on Australian children’s series Johnson and Friends. So Carla was a big step up and I was committed to milking every drop of drama from my time onscreen.

Over the course of two years, Carla Leach (née Crozier) stole her sister’s boyfriend, married him, lied to him about being pregnant, got beaten up by him for lying and then – spoiler alert – bludgeoned him to death in the aftermath of an earthquake. When Carla’s “Bernie-Bear” was knocked on the head by a falling pewter candlestick, she was delighted to see he’d been killed. But joy turned to rage when she saw Bernie stir, so Carla finished him off with the candlestick – just like a game of Cluedo.

Of course, there were extenuating circumstances. When Bernie (played by Timothy Bartlett) first came round, he groggily told Carla to “move your fat butt”. I’m not saying he deserved his fate, but fat shaming is never acceptable.

To avoid jail, the devious Carla tried to frame her new boyfriend and if it hadn’t been for that meddling nurse Tiffany Pratt (Alison James), she might have got away with murder. And I might still be on the show, instead of Carla being dispatched to a Hawke’s Bay asylum after trying to knock off Tiffany too.

Shortland St characters

From left, Kirsty Knight, played by Angela Dotchin; Carla, played by Easther; and Bernie Leach, played by Timothy Bartlett. Photo/South Pacific Pictures

This was a golden era for Shortland Street. In 1995, the programme declared financial independence from NZ on Air, and also drew its biggest audiences, with an average 660,000 viewers turning in each night.

Apparently, the episode that still holds the record for the show’s highest-ever ratings aired on 31 May 1995, when Carla spiked her sister’s pizza with cannabis – causing Ellen to fail a random drug test, which led to Carla taking over as head of nursing at the clinic while simultaneously blackmailing nurse Tiffany about her hepatitis C diagnosis. All in a day’s work.

Looking back, it’s hard to know exactly how Shortland Street changed my life. It’s sure to have closed as many doors as it opened. When cast in a nappy commercial in 2007, I promptly lost the role when one of the ad execs realised who I was and declared it unthinkable to have me play a mum after I’d played a murderer. (Happily, the creators of the Countdown commercials didn’t make that same connection, and I played the mother in their Coleman family ads for some years.)

But I’m proud to have had such a memorable role in a Kiwi TV phenomenon. I enjoyed being paid to dress up and be naughty, and I look forward to the day Carla returns to the clinic.

I imagine she’s been studying psychiatry while locked away and, once rehabilitated and released, I expect she’ll get a job at Shortland Street, because everyone deserves a second chance. Now, where did I put that candlestick?

Shortland Street: The Musical, directed by Simon Bennett with music composed by Guy Langsford, is on at Auckland’s Waterfront Theatre until 9 December, then will tour nationwide from next March. Sadly, Carla didn’t make the cut.

This article was first published in the November 2018 issue of North & South.

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