The TV soap opera that actually did make a group of smalltown Australian families seem like “neighbours who became good friends,” to misquote the lyrics to that enduring Tony Hatch theme song, is set to have its final credits roll for UK viewers on July 29 after nearly four decades of unlikely melodrama. The effect of the show will endure even if memories of the cul-de-sac at the centre of the action fade.
The fictional town of Erinsborough, created and filmed by Grundy Television at Pin Oak Court outside of Melbourne, was the kind of setting that viewers in gloomy Britain might have wanted to live in. It was warm and welcoming and much more approachable than the backdrop of many American soap operas. It didn’t seem impossible to find a place at a table in the Lassiters Complex’s pub, the Waterhole. The fictitious neighbourhood thus became a new ideal, the centre of carefree, English-speaking fun in the sun, and it quickly updated the pre-war image of a backward Australia shown in another well-known, long-running drama series by Reg Grundy, The Sullivans.
The dated, rife with class world of British daytime soaps, typified by ITV’s Crossroads or The Cedar Tree, took a little “king hit” from Neighbours’ surprising attraction to younger viewers. However, on the good side, it provided Phil Redmond the drive he required to finally convince Channel 4 to produce Hollyoaks. Why do we simply have to have the Australian stuff? Redmond, the creator of Grange Hill and Brookside, had questioned in 1995 in response to the success of the programme and its rival, Home and Away.
When Neighbours debuted in Britain in 1986 in five weekly instalments, it completely changed the country’s daytime television habits. Coronation Street, EastEnders, and Emmerdale had been broadcasting to their loyal followers just twice a week until the Australian show shown how moreish a regular drama might be. But all three British soap operas had a third weekly episode by little more than ten years.
Replay episodes were similarly highly received, and on the advice of the channel’s then-school-age daughter, Michael Grade, the BBC One morning repeat of Neighbours’ previous lunchtime show was moved to the early evening. By 1990, the total audience had reached its peak of more than 21 million. Neighbours moved to Channel 5 in 2008 after nearly 22 years of delighting BBC audiences because its producer, Fremantle Media, had wanted too much money to renew the agreement.
The types of tales that carried the actors through relationships, breakups, and bereavements had no boundaries in terms of credibility. Harold Bishop spent five years at sea after being washed away, only to come back with amnesia—a condition that Susan Kennedy caught after slipping on some milk—on the episode. Numerous catastrophes occurred, including emergency tracheotomies, an explosion at a wedding, the Erinsborough tornado of 2014, the fire at Lassiters (which the evil Paul Robinson started), and, of course, the infamous dream scene in which Bouncer, Joe Mangel’s dog, fantasises about falling asleep, marrying Rosie, the black-and-white collie next door, and having puppies.
New talent pool
The list of celebrities that survived Neighbours is astonishing. Russell Crowe made an early cameo as bad kid Kenny Larkin before winning an Oscar for Gladiator, while Margot Robbie received one of her first roles as a schoolgirl Donna on the show for a few seasons. Both actors are highly paid, Oscar-nominated professionals in Hollywood. Up until 1989, Guy Pearce played the happy Mike Young on the show. He later made an appearance in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which brought him attention from the Hollywood elite and led to him landing the lead role in Christopher Nolan’s Memento. More recently, Guy Pearce courted Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown.
The faces of Peter O’Brien, who played Shane Ramsay in the acclaimed British medical drama Cardiac Arrest before transitioning to the part of Scissors Smedley, and Alan Dale, who played Jim Robinson, are also still recognisable. Since then, Dale has been in a number of movies and television shows, including Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Lost.
Each of the daily humorous performances by Ian Smith as Harold Bishop, Mark Little as Joe Mangel, and later Ryan Moloney as the disturbed class clown, Toadfish Rebecchi, has contributed to the lasting impression that Australia has on the world as compared to Dame Edna Everage or Crocodile Dundee. Bishop, who served as the show’s unofficial spokesperson for a while, returns for the finale along with Little, who went on to perform stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe, take Chris Evans’ place on The Big Breakfast, and play in the West End of London. However, “Toadie” is still a recurring character on the programme, and his fourth set of wedding vows will now help Neighbours officially end. With Melanie Pearson, who is portrayed by Lucinda Cowen, he finally hopes to find happiness.
The most memorable aspect of the show for British viewers was Kylie Minogue’s perky, tiny performance as mechanic Charlene Mitchell. Following chart success alongside her on-screen spouse Scott Robinson, the actor and singer Jason Donovan, Stock Aitken and Waterman reimagined her as a pop star, with a string of British top songs.
After having an affair with INXS singer Michael Hutchence, she quickly acquired notoriety as a disco queen before evolving into a dependable stadium crowd-pleaser on a global scale. Following closely behind Kylie was Holly Valance, who played Felicity Scully in Neighbours, Natalie Imbruglia, who played Beth Brennan in Neighbours and had a success with the song Torn.
But there were also some terrible songs, such eerie tunes by the actor Stefan Dennis, aka Paul Robinson, and by Craig McLachlan, better known as crazy brother Henry of Charlene.
Even if the 1988 marriage of Charlene and Scott, which was viewed by just under 20 million people in Britain, still dominates the Neighbours wedding album, the nuptials of characters David and Aaron in 2018 were just as significant for homosexual audiences. The programme didn’t have a reputation for challenging social norms, but in recent years, it has made up for it by hosting the first-ever same-sex wedding on Australian TV. Mackenzie Hargreaves, the show’s first trans character, debuted three years ago. Her gender confirmation surgery and evolving sexual orientation have been the subject of stories. The decision to treat her like any other adolescent for the majority of the play, though, may have had the greatest impact.
Early episodes eventually dislodged the tropes set by Waltzing Matilda songs and produced a new Aussie vernacular, most of which was adopted by the show’s teenage and student followers. This gave British viewers a long-overdue update on Australian lingo. So “dossers” changed to “bludgers,” “dobbers” changed to “snitches,” and “a row” became a “blue.” When referring to a pick-up truck as “a ute,” which is short for “utility,” or when determining that “thongs” actually meant flip-flops, more clarification was required. Every aspect of life in Ramsay Street was shortened: weekends were frequently spent seeing your “rellies,” donning your “cozzies” and “sunnies,” and going to the beach to swim in the “arvo” while being cautious of the “mozzies” on the way home. The term “university,” or “univ,” is now so commonly abbreviated to “uni” in Britain that its etymological origins in Neighbours have largely been forgotten.
Both the casual, open-plan kitchen-based living of many of the home sets and the show’s aesthetic, which featured bright, vivid colours, ripped vest tops, board shorts, and Charlene’s totemic tomboy dungarees, had an immediate impact on youth looks in Britain.
There were enthusiastic imitators of Charlene’s curls, Scott, Shane, and Henry’s early mullets. After several high-profile guests appeared on the programme, including Pet Shop Boys member Chris Lowe, Spice Girl Emma Bunton, Michael Parkinson, Russell Brand, Lily Allen, Matt Lucas, and David Walliams, it became more difficult to sort out this muddle of kitsch and cool.
Neighbours will air its final episode on July 29 at 9 p.m. on Channel 5.