It’s a scientific fact: the words “Have you ever? Ever felt like this?” will send Australians of a certain age into paroxysms of nostalgia.
Based on Paul Jennings’ beloved short stories for kids, the after-school series Round the Twist carved out a special niche in the psyche of an entire generation of Australian viewers. (I once played the theme song mid DJ set and watched the dancefloor flood with bodies.)
Developed by the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF) under the guidance of Patricia Edgar, Jennings worked with the late director Esben Storm – who also moonlighted as principal Snapper – to create a children’s show of rare quality: hilarious, scary, heartfelt, uniquely Australian and decried more than once as being too rude for TV.
The show, which premiered in 1990, ran for four seasons – and picking a favourite episode has led to many a late-night party debate around a frosted glass backyard table setting: is it Without My Pants? Little Squirt? Spaghetti Pig-Out?
For many, it’s season two’s Nails, in which Linda Twist (Joelene Crnogorac) falls for Andrew (Eamonn Kelly), the new student with a secret. Directed by Storm, it’s 25 minutes of sweet teen romance that stands the test of time: a coming-of-age classic that blends trademark Round the Twist body horror with a first love storyline that was catnip for tweens and teens. Who needs Dolly’s Prince Of TV when you can find a hunky merman during auditions for the school play?
Strange things happen: the stories behind the show
I thought, ‘What if a boy’s nails started to spread up his arms and all over his body?'Paul Jennings
Paul Jennings (creator, writer): When I was writing the stories, I was a single father of four kids who lived in a house on the edge of a wild sea cliff. The Twist family was based on my own real-life family. The fact that we already had around 50 well-worked short stories to pick from [for the series] meant that we hit the ground running with the scripts.
Patricia Edgar (executive producer): Growing up was a core theme – and the agonies of first love, puberty and being different are themes throughout the series. Paul and Esben were both very different types but equally understanding of the world of young people.
Joelene Crnogorac (actor, Linda Twist): It was Paul Jennings’ genius. The DNA of the scripts and stories – whilst crazy and zany – were always authentic. You can’t fake that. Kids weren’t talked down to, topics weren’t dumbed down. The show lived within the endless potential of a child’s imagination, and as a result, spoke a language that kids understood.
‘I love Linda even more now’: the making of a feminist
Aimee Knight (screen critic): A lot of 1990s television featured young women leads [and] all existed along that spectrum of glossy “girl power” spirit that was very saleable in the 90s. Linda Twist stands out to me now because she wasn’t particularly aspirational. She didn’t have supernatural gifts. She was just an adolescent girl living in a country town with her embarrassing family, experiencing things that didn’t make sense.
Linda 2020 would be standing alongside climate change leaders and #MeToo activists, freeing her nipple ...Joelene Crnogorac
Paul Jennings: I was influenced by my own daughter Linda, who was accurately depicted in the scripts: a strong feminist, politically correct, funny, outgoing and capable of showing deep feelings honestly.
Joelene Crnogorac: I loved Linda then and I love her even more now. She is the female character I want my young son to see in the TV programs he watches today. She was such a fearless, strong girl who wasn’t held back or defined by her gender. Strong in her opinions, her actions and her emotions, with an empathetic and compassionate core … Linda 2020 would be standing alongside climate change leaders and #MeToo activists while freeing her nipple on a solo mission to create life for humankind on Mars.
‘We were against the clock’: building the perfect (mer)man…
Paul Jennings: The original idea for the short story for Nails came to me when I looked at my hand and thought, “What if a boy’s nails started to spread up his arms and all over his body?” Then I thought, “They would look like fish scales ... ”
Nik Dorning (prosthetic makeup): I worked on two seasons of Round the Twist, coming in and out to work on the makeup effects as needed. In the second season we were just against the clock in every way. I was influenced at the time by both the transformations on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and also some of the other early Rick Baker and Rob Bottin stuff. Not that I would say we got anything like the effects they did, but what can you do when you have a half hour to apply a masterpiece? [laughs]
Aimee Knight: I do remember being stunned by the shot in which – spoiler alert! – Andrew’s rainbow mermaid mum comes to collect him for his new life under the sea. I thought she looked so exotic, just relaxing on this craggy breakwater with all those seagulls flapping around her. Then Andrew gives Linda that very saucy 90s YA kiss.
‘I was pooping my pants about the onscreen kiss!’
Joelene Crnogorac: At the time I had no appreciation for the tonal crafting of that episode. I was pooping my pants in anticipation about having to do an onscreen kiss! I was 13 and had no experience with romance or intimacy myself, and was riddled with anxiety about portraying that on screen. So perhaps in that sense it all worked and came together in the telling of Linda’s story, as it was a first for both [me and the audience].
Kids and teenagers feel love as strongly as adults and this should be respected.Paul Jennings
Paul Jennings: One of my three daughters told me it was time for her to get a bra; I had to ask a friend to take her. I inserted that little dilemma into Nails. I wanted to treat young love seriously. Kids and teenagers feel love as strongly as adults and this should be respected.
Patricia Edgar: Nails is a very moving story about first love and letting go. I didn’t realise it would have the impact it did at the time. I thought it very affecting, but the whole show was an experiment and I could not have known how effective it would be … It was a gamble.
Will we ever, ever feel like this again?
Paul Jennings: Even as I was writing the scripts they were starting to reference the past and my own childhood, rather than what actually existed in the real world at the time. I can look back on a childhood of exploring drains, building underground huts, leaving home early and returning after dark having been off catching yabbies or fishing at the beach miles from home. The world is more dangerous now but I do feel it is a little sad that adventure is disappearing.
Aimee Knight: The show’s legacy is that it trusted young people could process the kind of existentialism and uncertainty from which kids are usually shielded. Hopefully that made some of us feel a bit braver, more capable, less afraid of the unknown and the “other”.
Patricia Edgar: Round the Twist did transform kids TV and redefined what a children’s program should be. Programs today are made by committees; every contributor to the budget – government funders, distributors, program buyers – all think they can have a say and most productions are compromised by market demands, if they start with a good idea in the first place. Round the Twist was developed over more than a year with draft after draft being written before I attempted to find funding.
Paul Jennings: By the time we were shooting I had remarried and now was father to six kids and was writing 12 hours a day. Much as I would love the fun of it all, I could never work like that again. I would be happy to talk with the ACTF about reusing the original story lines or making my more recent short stories available if they were interested in new material. Or should Round the Twist just be left as it was? What do you think?