From Boy To Man: RIP Josh Willis

It’s surprising to realise that Josh Willis, played by Harley Bonner, has only been in Ramsay Street for just shy of three three years. He’s been involved in so many key storylines, since the Willis clan arrived, that you’d expect to be recalling at least a decade’s worth of memories. During the first day of what was arguably the most dramatic week in the history of Neighbours, viewers sobbed as Josh passed away, when his injuries, caused by the Lassiter’s hotel boiler explosion, were pronounced too severe for him to even be taken to hospital. I can’t promise that I’ve included every single Josh story in chronological order in this trip down memory lane, but let’s have a look at some of his most significant moments.

Josh arrived in Erinsborough a boy, but definitely left as a man, and a brave, heroic one at that. Many viewers remarked this week that they weren’t keen on Pool Boy when they first saw him on screen. Singularly focused on his goal of becoming a medal-winning swimmer at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, he soon found himself the centre of attention from the doe-eyed Amber Turner. Amber was set on making him her boyfriend. Josh’s twin sister Imogen, always one for plain speaking, warned Amber that swimming would always come first for Josh. Ever since the Willis family had recognised his talent at an early age, their home lives had been organised around Josh and his training. Brad had even given up teaching to become his son’s full time coach. All the focus on his swimming had led to Josh being rather self-absorbed and oblivious to the needs and feelings of others. It was this Josh that we first encountered.

I found myself getting continually angry at schoolboy Josh, for treating Amber so casually once they had started dating. He was extremely thoughtless, and at times, conceited. But let’s remember that he was only seventeen and if everyone is telling you that you will become a champion swimmer, it’s easy to let the adulation go to your head. Josh’s mother, Terese, tended to spoil him, which was a bone of contention with Imogen, who often felt pushed out. And with his handsome, chiselled face and athletic body, it wasn’t surprising that girls were clamouring for Josh. I always believed that there was a softer, as yet undiscovered, side to him, but this wasn’t evident before he had to learn a very hard lesson. He took up a stupid dare from friend and foe Mason Turner – the two were often in conflict with one another – and Josh’s big ego just couldn’t prevent him from trying prove a point. He paid a heavy price for his stupidity, with an accident and a career-threatening injury. And he was already losing his appeal for Amber, who was falling under the spell of recent Ramsay Street arrival, happy hippy Daniel Robinson. Unlike Josh, who was dismissive of Amber’s interest in a photography career, Daniel encouraged it. The two tried to deny their feelings, but couldn’t keep away from one another and they began an affair. But when the full impact of Josh’s accident became apparent, Amber, feeling guilty, dithered, and didn’t end things with Josh. Although it didn’t stop her seeing Daniel on the sly, either.

We saw Josh become addicted to strong painkillers whilst in rehabilitation, so desperate was he to make a full recovery and regain his chances of making it to Glasgow for the games. And we saw him hurt and humiliated on discovering Amber in a clinch with Daniel in the photography darkroom. I did feel a bit sorry for him. He had genuinely loved Amber all along, but hadn’t treated her properly. Now he had been dealt a double blow. He was never going to swim competitively again, and Amber loved Daniel. After the initial impact of this, Josh seemed to be moving on with his life, and he consoled himself with an older woman – Naomi – which made for some popular, comic scenes. He and Naomi kept their passionate encounters a secret, and that was initially part of the attraction for the pair. Naomi pressed the stop button in the Lassiter’s lift, giving them time to enjoy a little between-floors action. However, they hadn’t bargained for Naomi’s mum, Sheila, waiting to greet her ‘poor little daughter’ after they were ‘rescued’ and mistaking Naomi’s disheveled look for being panic-stricken rather than just having been pleasured by a young man with a hot bod.

Then there was gnome-gate. Or, maybe that should be Noames-gate. Viewers will long-remember Naomi desperately pushing Josh’s head under the water in the hot tub as she attempted to have a mundane conversation with Sheila, who had turned up unexpectedly. (They never seem to learn not to take such risks in Ramsay Street!) Who can forget Josh’s dash for home when he was inevitably discovered, and the horrific look when he encountered his sister en-route, whilst wearing, well, nothing. Sheila’s gnome came to the rescue of Josh’s modesty, and this scene was reminiscent of the Henry Ramsay-style naked runs of early Erinsborough comedy. Given that they are a couple in real life, Harley and Ariel Kaplin (Imogen) must have found it a hilarious scene to film! Another favourite moment of mine was when Imogen’s bra had gone missing, in the midst of Bossy the dog’s underwear-stealing phase, and she asked her brother if he’d seen it. Josh, deadpan, declared that, yes, he had borrowed Imogen’s bra, leaving the viewers chuckling.

Josh’s alcohol intolerance, and the awful night when he floored Chris Pappas with a coward punch, were two issues that the writers clearly wanted to highlight. Both were handled very well. Despite the awfulness of the coward punch, I felt empathy for Josh. Naomi had ended their fling, and he was hurt and feeling sorry for himself. Amber was by now happy with Daniel. Josh knew he shouldn’t have drunk alcohol, his intolerance having already been discovered. But he was at an all-time low. No career, no girlfriend, totally directionless. He was immediately horrified when he realised it must have been him who had caused Chris’s life-changing injuries, not Chris’s boyfriend Nate who was a suspect, and so he turned himself in to the police. One bad decision when under the influence of drink, and Josh was looking at a potential jail term. He was so remorseful that it made me want to cry for him. His beautiful blue eyes, once indicative of an air of arrogance, conveyed genuine sadness. After Chris had pulled through, Josh began to try everything he could to make it up to him. Chris wasn’t ready to forget, initially rejecting Josh’s help. Eventually, the pair reached a level of understanding and closure before Chris departed for New York, but the friendship was never the same again.

Relieved to have avoided a jail sentence, Josh’s personality shifted, as he accepted his community payback order. He became a better son, a better brother, and a better friend, throughout the dramas he encountered, including the breakup of his parent’s marriage. However, despite having accepted that Amber was marrying Daniel, he felt compelled to comfort her, on her wedding day, in the Lassiter’s wedding suite, when she believed she’d been jilted. Thus, another setback for his character: Viewers didn’t much enjoy discovering that the supposedly reformed Josh’s ‘comforting’ meant the pair had slept together. Of course, this being soap-land, Amber and Daniel reunited once she discovered that he hadn’t run off with best friend Imogen after all. They had simply been trapped down that notorious well. Neither did viewers much care for the look on Josh’s face when paternity tests revealed Amber’s baby to have been conceived during Josh’s ‘comforting’ of her. Josh looked smug, but on reflection, can you blame him? Of course, he and Amber had behaved inappropriately, and it wasn’t nice to think that he had taken advantage of her distraught state of mind. But beneath this, we could sense that Josh was still in love with his ex. And he was only human.

The lead-up to the birth of the baby was fraught with worry. We learned that the unborn child had CDH, a life-threatening condition. The Turner and Willis clans, already in the throes of conflict, were torn further apart by differing opinions on the best options for treatment. The infant could have a pioneering operation, in vitro, but performed in America, at huge expense. Josh was keen to support Amber’s choice to go ahead, desperately trying to find ways of raising funds. Again, he risked jail, as he got involved in selling illegal peptides. Silly boy, we shouted at the TV. Thankfully he avoided prosecution, and although he didn’t like Imogen’s interference at the time, or the fact that Amber blew the whistle on his whole mess, he would be thankful for it afterwards.

Daniel, unlike Josh, didn’t want Amber going to America. Eventually, relations became so strained that he could take no more and he and Amber ended their relationship. Cue Josh getting the wrong idea, believing he could win Amber back. Again, we became frustrated with Josh when he began posting under the guise of being another mum, on the CDH support-group site which Amber had joined. She had banned him from accompanying her to antenatal classes but Josh wanted to find a way to be involved in the baby’s welfare. We wanted to stop him making such a fool of himself; it was obvious that once Amber found out, she wasn’t even going to think about getting back together with him.

It seemed that whenever Josh was back on the road towards mature, responsible behaviour, something else came along to stop him getting over the finishing line to adulthood. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with working as an exotic dancer to provide for your unborn child, but it was never going to be his forté. Aaron Brennan invested endless time in training Josh, so they could become a double act, only to be left high and dry by another of Josh’s muddles. Josh was feeling low again, upset that Amber wasn’t involving him enough in her pregnancy. His old fling, Naomi, was also low, having become engaged to Paul Robinson, more by accident than design. An evening together, with Naomi getting very drunk, ended in being a night of passion. As soon as Paul Robinson found out, you knew revenge would be round the corner. Despite Paul’s apparent acceptance of Josh’s apology, planted peptides in Josh’s rucksack, and the subsequent complex battle to prove his innocence, meant that his dance days were over. Although, being propositioned to be a male escort by lonely, middle-aged Sue Parker ought to have been enough to put him off pursuing that career!

But we warmed to Josh again with his latter storylines. Seeing him so keen to be a good dad but suffering from male postnatal depression/anxiety was sad to watch. Being a parent at any age is huge commitment, but a situation like Josh and Amber’s was especially frightening, given what they and the baby had been through. Amber almost gave birth, prematurely, in a burning building, but thankfully arrived at hospital in time for a C-section. The baby came through the vital operation successfully and Josh became involved in his daughter’s care, only to be rather cruelly admonished by Amber for falling asleep and rolling dangerously onto young Matilda. Poor Josh, we thought, he was trying to help by letting Amber get some sleep, and whilst falling asleep that way could have had tragic consequences, Amber went way over the top in her criticism of him. Josh became convinced that he wouldn’t be a good dad, and it took a lot of persuasion for him to accept that he just needed time to adjust to fatherhood.

Josh’s relationship with his pop, Doug, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, has been emotional to watch. Josh was tender, caring, and sensitive about his grandfather’s failing memory. He showed a great deal of maturity in making sure Doug didn’t feel stupid or patronised whenever he got confused. Although covering up for Pop’s car accident probably wasn’t the best idea he’s ever had, given that he was yet again risking a jail term for claiming responsibility! We were seeing the emergence of selfless Josh, who put others first. This he did right to the end.

Daniel Robinson, who has apparently morphed into a mini version of his uncle Paul, ruthless and career-driven, was pretty nasty to Josh shortly before the Lassiter’s explosion which ended Josh’s life. Whereas the younger Josh might have held a grudge, when he learnt, as he was laying under the fallen pillar, that Daniel could be saved if the pillar was lifted, he told Doctor Karl Kennedy that the rescuers should go ahead lift it. Daniel was by now the on-off boyfriend of Josh’s twin Imogen, and Josh knew his sister was in love. So, in a heartbreaking episode, we saw Josh saying goodby to his family who were told that he could not possibly survive. We saw a video call to Amber and Matilda, and Josh telling Amber that his daughter needed to know she was his last thought. The only one missing from this sad posse was poor Piper. Watching Brad breaking the news to Piper that she’d lost her big brother was heart-wrenching. Piper will no doubt be riddled with guilt that she was at a counselling session and so hadn’t responded to messages in time. That’s a pretty hard thing for a sixteen-year-old to deal with.

I will miss Josh more than I could ever have envisaged when he first strode in to Erinsborough as a cocky schoolboy. There were times when I wanted to slap him for his attitude and behaviour, as he went from swimmer to angry young man. But, bit by bit, he turned into one of the finest young men ever to grace Ramsay Street. I wish that his character had not met such a terrible end. I wanted to see him go to Perth and to hear news of him, Amber and Matilda, perhaps even that they became a proper family in the end. Now, there is a baby who will never know her daddy, who was born to a mother mourning the untimely loss of her own father. Tragedy repeating itself.

Harley, your pedigree inherited from your lovely mum Carla has stood you in good stead and you’ve established an acting career in your own right. It’s evident that she’s extremely proud of you, and rightly so. Good luck in your next venture, and thanks for bringing us Pool Boy, we’re all going to miss him. Josh may not have won a medal, but in our eyes, he’s Neighbours gold.

© Carol Ann Wood
April 2016


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