Elizabeth McRae’s delight at being played by her daughter Katherine in Shortland Street – The Musical

Katherine McRae is quizzing her mum Elizabeth on the iconic first line uttered on New Zealand's TV phenomenon Shortland Street.

"Is it 'Good morning, Shortland Street Accident and Emergency – can I help you?'," she asks, "Or just Shortland Street Accident and Emergency?"

"I'm not exactly sure, but it was a bit of a mouthful," says Elizabeth.

Katherine is getting some inside information on the soap opera's Marj Neilson (later Brasch) as she's playing the gossipy receptionist in Shortland Street – The Musical. And who better to ask than her mother, who portrayed Marj in the long-running programme.

"I was very happy when they asked me to play Marj," says Katherine (56). "I thought it was very funny and I couldn't resist the joke. It's a good joke, honouring her. It's very well done and is going to be a lot of fun."

"I'm glad they've included Marj – she would have liked that," says Elizabeth (82) of her character, who was killed off last year.

"And it is wonderful that they are doing a musical – it is a real tribute to Shortland Street and the fact that it has lasted so long."

Elizabeth as the indomitable Marj on the Shortland Street set.

When the show started in 1992, nobody expected it to be the incredible success it has been – or to still be going strong and inspiring a comedy musical 26 years later.

"We got a couple of miserable reviews and people said it wouldn't last," recalls Elizabeth, who'd had a long and varied career on stage and screen when she took on the role as busybody Marj. "Thankfully, they were wrong."

Eventually named as the show's most iconic character, Marj was initially very stern and "lemon-lipped", says Elizabeth. "Then the writers realised I could also play comedy and they started to lighten me up. It was fun doing some of the lines.

"She had some red-necked views about things like homosexuality and speaking Māori – she didn't want to answer the phone with kia ora. She said, 'I'm not Maori, why should I speak Māori?' But she was always able to change her mind after a time. That was her saving grace."

Playing Marj and being on TV screens around the country five nights a week, changed Elizabeth's life. To become so well known felt strange and even today, people still occasionally call her Marj.

"I wasn't interested in the being famous side of things – I was just happy to be working full-time as an actor, which was unusual then."

Three years full-time on Shortland Street was enough for Elizabeth, who quit to do other projects but did return for guest appearances four times, including scenes for the 25th anniversary last year when Marj died of a heart attack in her old stomping ground, the clinic's reception.

It was always easy to slip back into playing Marj, she says.

"I was comfortable in the role – there were probably aspects of me in her. She was political and so am I."

Katherine begs to differ.

"I think she was quite different to you," she tells her mum. "She was a lot more judgmental and she interfered in other people's business, which I don't think you do."

When it comes to Shortland Street, Katherine knows a lot about the characters and storylines, given that she has acted in it, been a writer and also directed episodes.

She first played Marj's long-lost daughter Jane in a short-lived stint in 1993.

"I was only in it for two weeks, then Marj had nothing to do with Jane after that, apart from occasionally talking to her on the phone."

Three years later she was back as a writer, which she did for two years. Then in 2006 she was cast as nurse Brenda Holloway, who was a regular character for 18 months, until she fell victim to the Ferndale Strangler.

No sooner had she filmed those chilling scenes than she was behind the camera, training as a director for South Pacific Pictures.

Shortland Street – The Musical runs from November 14 until December 9 at the ASB Waterfront Theatre in Auckland

Along with Go Girls and Nothing Trivial, Katherine also directed episodes of Shortland Street, including one involving Elizabeth when she returned for a guest appearance in 2012.

"She was very easy to work with," says Katherine. "She knows what she is doing and she slipped into being bossy Marj so easily."

Elizabeth will of course be in the audience when Shortland Street – The Musical opens this month. The show, which Katherine describes as a "warm-hearted parody" focuses on characters from the first three years, so along with Marj there are favourites such as Chris Warner, Hone Ropata, Carrie Burton, Nick Harrison, Kirsty Knight, Rachel McKenna, Jaki Manu, Lionel Skeggins and Alison Raynor.

"The fact there is now a musical does go to show how much Shortland Street is a part of our culture," says Elizabeth, adding that she still watches the programme. "I don't see it every night but I do watch when I can. I like to keep up with what is going on."

Shortland Street – The Musical runs from November 14 until December 9 at the ASB Waterfront Theatre in Auckland, then at theatres in Dunedin, Christchurch, Blenheim, New Plymouth, Wellington, Hamilton and Tauranga from March 7 next year. See shortlandstreetthemusical.co.nz

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