Welcome to TV Land
Behind the plush offices and cutesy coffee shops of South Africa's favourite soapies lies an entirely different reality. Shanthini Naidoo ventures behind the illusion Pictures: Wesley Poon
The rooms have only three walls. Decadent-looking muffins are actually made of papier mâché. Pink fluffy slippers peek out from under an elegant dress. A dramatic fainting fit is followed by a mad dash for a tiny can of breath freshener.
Welcome to the strange world of TV Land, the suburb of soapies.
It is a weird and wonderful place, where bad guys always get their dues and good guys wear white hats. Inhabitants have perfect hair but imperfect lives - lives that fans have lapped up since the first sands ran through the hourglass.
Pre-1990, South Africans were subjected to a barrage of American soaps - Dallas, Loving, Santa Barbara, Twin Peaks and the immemorial Days of Our Lives.
Then came Egoli: Place of Gold, the flagship local production which ran for 4672 episodes until March 2010.Generations, whichaired two years after Egoli, has been running for 18 years and continues to defy critics with its ratings.
Half the television-watching nation tunes in, and if there's cricket or soccer on, the SABC makes a plan.
"We are miles ahead of the American soaps now," says soapie director, writer and actress Krijay Govender, who has worked on at least four local shows.
"South African soaps are fast-paced. Storylines develop over two weeks, unlike the Bold and the Beautiful [and other American soaps], where the same storyline is on for months. We ended up being more dramatic in our soaps, which is why they are so popular."
She believes local soaps are also less formulaic. "Our characters are more complex, we don't have the simple villain, super-bitch typecasts. Sometimes a villain is good or a good guy goes bad. The Americans still influence our soaps, but more their drama series than the tired soaps."
Our country grew up with its soapies. The first mixed-race on-screen kiss happened in 1999, the first same-sex kiss in 2001, both on Isidingo. These days soaps tackle issues such as eating disorders, HIV/Aids and Julius Malema.
"Locally, we are more careful with our stories, questioning them and their relevance. We are socially responsible; controversial but with reason. I'm hoping for comedy to be introduced soon. South Africans need escapism."
Those of us who watch a soap a day spend roughly 150 hours a year at cutesy 7de Laan, Isidingo's Horizon Deep or The Wild's Dinaledi game lodge. Visiting these fantasy lands offers a peek into the method behind the magic that keeps us glued.
SABC 2's feel-good, primarily Afrikaans, soap is set in the fictional 7de Laan in the suburb of Hillside, Joburg.
Hilda and Oubaas van Zyl, Oppiekoffie Coffee Shop manager Charmaine Beukes and her husband, Neville Meintjies, editor of the Hillside Times newspaper.
Searching for 7de Laan in Hillside, you might expect to spy checked tablecloths in Oppiekoffie, bright flower boxes, violin boeremusiek in the background.
In reality, you find yourself outside an office park in Fourways, complete with boom gate and cramped parking spots.
"It's not the most glamorous of settings, and we have outgrown the premises," says Liby Nel, the show's publicist.
No kidding. We walk past dustbins and under steel stairs decorated with garments on hangers. Sipping instant coffee in a polystyrene cup, I survey the decked common area, which is cramped with the smell of canteen food, people reading lines off scripts, smoking and milling.
Nel's office walls are lined with Huisgenoot posters of the stars' faces.
"This is the 13th series and the show has won three popular choice awards," she says.
The show is rumoured to score the highest advertising rates of any soap - R80000 per 30-second slot, owing to viewers' high LSM ratings, or spending power.
On the way to the wardrobe department, we spot the recognisable face and curly greying hair of Vinette Ebrahim, who plays Charmaine Beukes. She is singing and rehearsing lines for a scene about to be shot.
A giant steel container that houses the actors' clothing, shoes and accessories looks like several wardrobes have exploded inside it. But wardrobe mistress Hayley Carreira assures us there is order in this madness.
There are garish tasselled and ruffled ballgowns hanging from the roof. A box holds Hilda van Zyl's scarves, curled like colourful snakes. The character of birdlike Annelisa Weiland is seldom without a scarf knotted at her neck.
"A great deal of planning goes into their wardrobes, even the odd ones," says Carreira.
Actor Francois Lensley, who plays Marko Greyling, is rehearsing lines with a frown. The whimsical nature of the show does not mean the actors are all happy fairies.
"It is a little world that viewers escape to, but for me it is hard work," says Lensley. "This is quite a factory. We start at 7.30am and shoot more than a soap a day."
He says fans often confuse his character with who he actually is.
"People think you are their best friend because they interact with you every day, but you don't know them at all. And they don't want to accept you as you are. Villains get the worst of it. Wilna Snyman once got smacked with a handbag, for no reason, while shopping."
Finally on set, I am still half-expecting a sunny Alice-in-Wonderland world, bluebirds chirping. Actually, it is cold and dark, the lights focused on one set, Charmaine's kitchen. Ebrahim seems nervous until she is in shooting mode. She says her lines and rushes off to "work", breathing a heavy sigh of relief after she is out of the "front door".
Her door leads onto a set of another house, which is opposite the boutique, a central set of the show and across from Oppiekoffie. It feels wrong geographically, but then the little world created in these boxes is a feat of optical illusion. The suburb is contained in about 1200 square metres.
In Charmaine's kitchen the cupboards open, but there is no water in the taps. The food is real.
Hennie Jacobs, who plays Diederik Greyling, has been snacking on oats and toast through several takes. "I was hungry this morning but usually I pretend to eat - we do it quite a few times over," he says.
At the coffee shop, where much of the show is set, the muffins look sinful but are papier mâché painted to look deliciously chocolate. Newspapers are copies of The Times and Fourways Review, with a front page of the show's Hillside Times pasted over. The menus are gibberish and everything costs R12.
I am surprised to find Pierre van Pletzen, who plays Oubaas van Zyl, behind the giant cameras. Far from his bumbling character, he directs firmly from behind specs and a script.
"Stop net gou, jy's te ver. We need a reaction from you there," he instructs Hildegardt Whites.
The young actress, who plays Bonita Meintjies, is nervous and asks her towering "father" Neville, played by Zane Meas, for help.
"Zane, it's nerve-wracking," she says with her head in her hands as they go over the lines again.
Van Pletzen says it is not difficult to switch between acting and directing: "I've been doing this for so long. Not only for the 11 years I've been at 7de Laan but also for stage work prior to that. Even so, you have to have hare op jou tande [hair on your teeth] as we say in Afrikaans. It's not easy juggling both without giving up a little bit of quality somewhere. You have to guard against that or you will be pelted with stones," he jokes.
There is a vast chasm between quiet, laid- back Hillside and the set, he adds.
"On television at home it is a nice, sweet, friendly soap with more humour in it than you normally have in soaps. On set it is work, work, work! We're shooting at a fast and furious pace. Everybody is product- and quality-minded, but not too serious. We laugh a lot and enjoy each other - cast and crew alike."
SABC 1's most popular soap is set in the advertising and entertainment industries in Joburg.
The wealthy Moroka family and their various friends and rivals.
Generations fans would be devastated by their stars' dreary home at the SABC. The public broadcaster is a relic of apartheid, devoid of personality.
The parking area is inaccessible, the intercom has been slashed and there is no guard to be found. Reception is prison-strict and you must declare everything except your disdain.
It is amazing that its most successful and profitable show is produced here, in its bowels. The hallways are lonely, long and plastic-tiled in sickly green, reminiscent of schools or state hospitals. The stars' dressing rooms are little cubicles, furnished with outdated couches.
Natalie Lundon, the wardrobe coordinator, says creative energy needs are somehow harnessed. "It is difficult to be in a passage with no windows, nothing aesthetically pleasing. But creativity, at the end of the day, is in your soul."
The clothing is fabulous, though. They manufacture and design a lot in-house to lower costs. There are storyboards for each character: urban afro for Winnie Modise's character Khethiwe Buthelezi, over-the-top bling for Sophie Harrington's iconic character, Queen Moroka.
"We don't have a huge budget, but we know how to make do by highlighting key areas. We study the actors' body movements, so if her hands are always in shot, we use big rings and bracelets," says Lundon.
I'm interested to meet the make-up artist.
Nonhlanhla Nombewu is like a regal shebeen queen with a dramatic weave and long, black-tipped false nails. "My weapons, I can't work without these," she says holding up her hands.
The make-up is top of the range. Everyone has their own colour-coded brushes, lined up in front of mirrors surrounded by lights to mimic the set lighting.
"I've been here 16 of the 18 years the show's been on. The actors know how to take care of themselves, not to party too much or sleep with make-up on," she says.
On set, we are at a restaurant. What viewers don't see on television is that the grand piano is slightly chipped, the doorway draped in cheap fabric. But those flaws don't extend to the talent.
Sibusiso Dlomo, played by Menzi Ngubane, is having a nostalgic discussion with a young girl. Ngubane delivers his lines easily, without over acting, asking for prompts in between, cursing when he confuses a single word in a line.
The extras arrive and are seated, miming orders to waiters. It is not bad acting for amateurs, especially if they are able to stifle their laughter.
"I am used to it, so I don't laugh," says regular extra, Pretty Tshabalala. "Sometimes I feel like saying something out loud. We all want to be recognised. But people do notice even if I am not speaking. At home everyone calls me an actor."
In TV Land everyone's a star.
M-Net's production is about the goings on at Dinaledi Lodge and a nearby village - and a poaching ring.
The wealthy Lebones, who own the game farm; farming family, the Van Reenens and the Tladis who run the lodge.
Pay channel equals big budget. And big means M-Net has bought an entire game farm as a set for their soap.
Several times a day, actors, crew and extras take a shuttle from Johannesburg to Heidelberg on the N3. After an hour the driver, Karwas, (seriously, it is TV Land) says: "Let's get dusty."
Sulamani Bush Lodge, aka the fictional Dinaledi Lodge, is off a dirt road, set in hills covered in purple flowers that are plentiful despite the Highveld's dry heat.
A props person is on the phone: "We need a handgun and cuffs for the poaching scene."
An enthusiastic young stuntman is thrilled. He is going to play a poacher today. He is chatty, but won't reveal what extras are paid. Salaries are a secret. Hearsay says they range from R30000 to R80000 a month for lead actors. Others claim guest stars, such as Bollywood wannabe Tarina Patel, are paid R20000 a day.
The stuntman is just starting out, and he's so eager that he would even work for free. He is in awe of the lead actors, Shona and Connie Ferguson.
"Shona is a great guy. Hey, he always has time to share advice and help the actors and extras out. Connie's more quiet, but so talented," he whistles in emphasis.
Publicist Burgert Muller says M-Net bought the farm from two brothers who "spruced it up for the World Cup but didn't make out". They took over the farm entirely, including a conservation plan to restore fauna and flora following some environmental squabbles.
We travel in a game-drive Jeep, bumping along an unpaved road.
"The rain causes havoc here, as do fires, but we write it into the storyline," he says, pointing out that the river we are crossing is about to flood. A large iguana is sunning itself lazily on the bank.
There are snakes here. Rinkhals. Night adders. Some live under the containers used as dressing rooms, Muller says. It's why director Govender wears gumboots to work.
"The crew bumps into them, but just moves them off the set. It is part of the conservation project."
We arrive at a curiously two-faced house. On the left side, the Van Reenens' house has a red stoep opening onto a woody, pretty kitchen. On the right is an ultra-modern mansion belonging to Connie's character, Marang Lebone.
On another set are the guest rooms, which is actually one room with interchangeable decor. Another room is the office of Shona's character, Itumeleng Tladi. On a dark wood desk sits a Richard Branson book and that must-have item, usually only an arm's length away from villains - a crystal decanter and glasses.
I smell the liquid. Tea.
"Whiskey is usually Coke with water added, or weak black tea," says Muller. No wonder the actors pull faces.
The reception area that looks so plush is cardboard and can be wheeled away.
"Viewers think there are rhinos and giraffe here, but there aren't, really. There is a leopard somewhere, but we use pre-shot cutaways slotted in between scenes that makes it all look real," says Muller.
It takes about 100 people to make sure the show runs smoothly. "There are always new sets, maintenance to be done, new fashions. These are rich people, so they need new stuff," he says.
"The crew jokes that we emptied Heidelberg. We bought every screw in the area, so they had to order more from Joburg," laughs Muller.
We drive back to set, where Connie is applying lip gloss from a little make-up bag. She sips water, laughs with the cast.
A booming voice says: "Prepare for my Earth-shattering performance." It is actor Nat Ramabulana, who moved from stage to screen. A clapper board snaps and it is as if the wind has changed. Assistant director Josh says: "Thula thula, quiet outside. Standby and ... action."
A mask slips over their faces. They are mourning, arguing over a coffin.
In a smart grey dress (and fluffy pink slippers invisible to the camera), Connie is formidable as the matriarch. She forgets a line and is reminded by a person somewhere behind the fireplace, then repeats it perfectly.
In TV Land, you can always rewind and start over.
It is e.tv's flagship soap, based at NZH publishing, which produces a newspaper, The Voice, and a celebrity magazine, Scandal.
Editor Daniel Nyathi, his protégée Donna Hardy, rival former editor Tino Martins and NZH company manager Morongwe Molefe.
The glam publishing world of this soap is actually at Sasani Studios, just off Louis Botha Avenue behind Balfour Park shopping mall.
At 10am, cast and crew have been on set for more than three hours.
The actors work hard, long hours. But they have to. It costs R15000 a minute to produce a show locally. They start at 6.45am, expecting to shoot about 17 scenes a day.
"Apart from shooting five days a week, they do publicity," says production coordinator Theresa Stoltz.
Floor-to-ceiling shelves hold thousands of postcard-size pictures of the actors, which they sign and hand out to fans at malls or on roadshows.
Theoretically, they could live here. There are showers, catered meals, a laundry. And there is plenty of clothing. "We do 100 changes a day, five each for 20 actors. We don't repeat any clothing for two weeks, so there is a lot. They will never share or swap clothes and we must try to be three months ahead of fashion."
The scene they are filming is in the apartment of Clint Brink's character, Tino Martins. Shakira Willemse, played by Dawn Matthews, stands by for her scene in a towelling gown.
Brink is rehearsing with Lorcia Cooper, who plays his wife, Erin Davids.
The actors' relationship is intriguing. He holds her gently, plays with her hair. They look like a comfortable, loving couple. Her eyes sparkle. This is the second set on which they have been married. The first was Backstage. "But they aren't involved in real life," says Stoltz.
Others say differently, but then again, this is TV Land.
This SABC 3 soap is set in Horizon Deep, a mining town, and at the ON!TV television channel in Joburg. The story follows vaguely from the popular soap opera during apartheid, The Villagers.
Arch rivals Barker Haines and Cherel de Villiers-Haines, the wealthy Sibekos, the local Matabane family and the young, funky employees of ON!TV.
We have to tread carefully on the Isidingo set. The cast and crew are still reeling from a gossip column which accused them of being dull, fat or too thin.
Keketso Semoko rushes past wheeling a trolley bag. In a fitted top and knee-length skirt, she looks less conservative and more youthful than her character, Ma Agnes. She heads to her dressing room, smiling, but says she isn't available to talk.
Letoya Mangezi, who plays songstress Ayanda Diale, looks trim after shedding her baby weight. She waves hello, but returns to furious chatting with someone.
Veteran actor Vusi Kunene, who plays businessman Jefferson Sibeko, smiles and walks away, his sleepy eyes a little narrower after noticing us. But Ashish Gangapersad (Prada Naicker), Maurice Paige (Calvin Xavier) and Sisa Hewana (S'khumbuzo Ace Nzimande) are jovial. Hewana seems to have lost weight, too.
"No, this is me," he says. "The camera makes us bigger. You should see Calvin, he's about this high," he laughs, his hand at his midriff.
Newly married Gangapersad is tall and not at all camp like his character, apart from his peacock-blue trousers and shirt.
Kim Engelbrecht follows behind the boys. "I know, the camera really does add kilos," she says. She is lithe and really beautiful with piercing green-brown eyes, less of a tomboy than her character, Lolly de Klerk.
They are friendly in each other's company, laughing more than actors on other sets.
"They have cliques, because not everyone is on set all at once," says media manager Bongi Potelwa. "The actors actually do not see each other if they aren't in the same storylines."
It looks a bit crazy suddenly. The four are rehearsing to themselves, using hand movements but no words. It looks slightly schizophrenic until shooting begins.
Between takes, Engelbrecht and Gangapersad run for breath spray, two squirts. "We're in each other's faces all the time," she shrugs nonchalantly.
In the next scene she has to faint and her husband, Frank Xavier, played by Kevin Smith, must catch her. Extras are sent off like ramp models past the visible window.
The director says: "Cut" and they come off set laughing. "Did you see how Kevin caught me?" Engelbrecht says, grabbing her bosom in giggles.
It is her 10th year on Isidingo.
"It is fun, every day. Otherwise I wouldn't have survived 10 years. We trust each other," she says, recalling a line she has been mixing up today. "They fix me, I do the same. We have each other's backs."
With new lines to learn every day, they would need the help. This show's storyline is a speeding bullet. In the office of Andrew Wilson, the head writer, a board is covered in squiggles tracking the storylines. There are months of forecasting, twists and turns for months of shooting.
"We brainstorm a year ahead. There is something new happening every day, big things each week. There are three stories on at once. A is the drama, B the emotional story and C is the comedy. It's nearly too much to remember. Thank goodness we have continuity people," he says.
Spoiler alert: watch out for a new, svelte villain of the Deep. Barker Haines returns to the show a shadow of his former self. Robert Whitehead's character has completed a major diet makeover, something to do with Chinese herbal teas, I'm told.
The chic outfits of Kimberly Haines, played by fiery-haired Marisa Drummond, and Odelle de Wet's character, white-trashy Farrow Bornman, are still here. Odd, seeing as the former fled the country and the latter was killed in a plane crash.
Then again, you never know.
This is TV Land.