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'I was caught in an inferno' stefan dennis the big interview.

Byline: stefan dennis

LIFE came horrifyingly close to imitating art for Neighbours actor Stefan Dennis when his family home was threatened by bush fires.

Only months earlier, viewers had seen residents of Ramsay Street trying to escape a deliberately lit bushfire.

Stefan, his wife Gail and their three children were forced to evacuate their Melbourne home.

He shivers as he remembers the inferno of earlier this year which killed almost 200 people as it swept through the state of Victoria.

"We were probably a good 50 or 60km from where the devastation hit and that sounds a long way," he says.

"But it was a firestorm, traveling at 120km an hour.

"It was literally wiping everything out in its path. It is no wonder people just had no warning and couldn't do anything.

"We were evacuated three times in two weeks. The wind changed direction, fortunately for us, but not for the people who were in the path of it."

Stefan helped to raise pounds 16,000 for the fire victims doing a pub gig with Alan Fletcher, who plays Dr Karl Kennedy.

Back with the on-screen drama in Neighbours, Paul Robinson has been on the run, accused of run-ninover and killing his newlydiscovered sister Jill.

This week he tells his girlfriend Rebecca he's leaving the country. But at the last minute he can't bring himself to board the plane and decides to turn himself in.

Rebecca tries to prove that Jill's daughter Sophie was a witness to the hit-and-run accident, but Paul refuses to pressure the girl into testifying as she's been through too much.

As he's arrested, will he make the ultimate sacrifice - or will Sophie come forward to prove his innocence? This glimpse into Paul's good side backs up Stefan's insistence that he's not a complete villain, just misunderstood.

"I'd describe him as a bad boy with a conscience," he says.

Stefan first joined Neighbours in 1985, leaving in 1992 because he feared he was going stale.

"I was literally walking through it," he said. "I thought 'this is not good for acting, this doesn't keep me fresh at all, time to move on'."

He lived in the UK for more than a decade, working in TV and theatre, but came back to Ramsay Street with a bang in 2004, burning down Lassiter's Hotel.

It was only meant to be a guest appearance, but he proved such a hit his contract has continued to be extended.

"Fifteen years ago I'd have said Paul was a millstone round my neck. The role opened a lot of doors but also closes them.

"But I have learnt to be happy with my lot. I'm leading a pretty good life, even if i am playing the same character year in year out. Right at the moment the character is damned interesting."

Paul has been put through the wars by the soap's writers who have had him shot at, strangled, kidnapped, thrown off a cliff, survive a plane crash, have his leg amputated and suffer a brain tumour.

Stefan says he is happy to accept whatever outrageous plots the scriptwriters can come up with.

"We hook up with the main sto-rylinerevery six weeks or two months so we have a good idea of what's coming, but every now and then they throw a curly one at me.

"The concrete cancer one was the one that got me, when it was eating away at the foundatiions of Lassiter's hotel. It was going to cost $100,000 and the story was this was going to ruin Paul. I was thinking 'this is a guy who has multi-millions and you're saying $100,000 is going to knock him over?' But they say do it and I do."

Neighbours allows Stefan time off to return to the UK stage for pantomime. This year he's in the Midlands, playing Dandini in Cinderella at Wolverhampton's Grand Theatre.

It was on stage in Southampton that he met his wife Gail, who's Scottish. They now have two boys, Cameron and Declan, and daughter Darcy. Growing up, Stefan spent five years working in kitchens as an apprentice chef.

"It is gruelling job. People get the wrong idea because of all the celebrity chef business, but it has tremendous pressure."

He is a huge admirer of Jamie Oliver. "I nearly genuflected in front of him when I met him. I think what he did for school children in the UK was phenomenal."

But when it comes to Gordon Ramsay he is of a similar mind to the rest of Australia, after the chef made insulting remarks about an Aussie TV host.

"On the one hand I have great respect for him, on the other hand I think he is a knob."

fact file

NAME: Stefan Dennis AGE: 50 CV: Paul's TV roles include Prisoner: Cell Block H, Dream Team, Casualty and The Bill, while he also toured the UK in the musical Blood Brothers. FANCY THAT: Stefan once chopped the top of his finger off while working as a chef.


Stefan at the scene of the crime in Neighbours and (above) as Dandini in panto.
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Aug 9, 2009
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