In Australia, Neighbours’ final episode premiered tonight. The show made its final appearance with a 90-minute special, which will run in the UK tomorrow, after almost four decades. We look back on the show, the ups and downs, the real-life dramas, and finally, what the people in the know think made it a global institution.
Although the name Reg Watson may not mean anything to some people, it is one of the most popular.
Reg is the person who came up with the concept for Neighbours, Australia’s longest-running serial drama.
And what a comparatively straightforward idea that was.
It wasn’t, though, his first. Reg submitted a concept to a UK network for a soap set in the Midlands while he was working there in the 1960s. The series, now known as Crossroads, premiered in 1964 after a protracted pre-production period. Reg directed the show for the first ten years.
Reg moved back to his native country in 1973 and was hired as the Head of Drama at Grundy’s, one of the two main television drama production companies (the other being Crawford’s, a direct competitor).
The Young Doctors, The Restless Years, Prisoner, and Sons and Daughters, to name a few, were among the television soap operas that Watson produced over the following 10 years in Australia.
A concept he dubbed “living together” emerged amid these. It seemed straightforward: two families on a cul-de-sac, each with a unique makeup, faced challenges in everyday scenarios that we all encounter. It was a multigenerational show where both teenagers and adults could speak honestly about their issues in order to find a solution. In 1982, Reg presented the idea to Nine, who rejected it. The show was ordered by Seven two years later.
To get the show ready for air, everyone pitched in. The casting process was almost over when producer John Holmes and casting director Jan Russ realised they had made a serious mistake.
The first cast member for patriarch Jim Robinson didn’t gel with the other actors. Reg received a call and was asked to cancel Alan Dale’s contract for another of his television programmes, Possession. He gave in.
On March 18, 1985, the Melbourne-based programme began airing. Seven decided to kill the show after it failed to connect with Sydney viewers. On November 8th, 1985, the original “final episode,” Episode 170, premiered.
Neighbours was taken up by a competing network in an Australian television first as Grundy’s struggled to find another home for the series.
Jan Russ recalled the incident to TV Tonight. “I remember we were in my office with John Holmes and I believe the associate producer, waiting for that phone call to see if someone had picked us up,” she said.
“A bottle of champagne was consumed. When John picked up the phone, he responded, “Yes, yes, all right. Channel 10 has taken notice of us. Launch the bubbly. There it was!
Unfortunately, returning to production wasn’t as simple a process as starting over. The sets had to be rebuilt from scratch because they had been burned down and damaged.
The team, lead by John Holmes, was able to restart production in the Nunawading facilities that had previously been home to several series by pure willpower and tenacity. The series was promoted by a team under the direction of Brian Walsh, who is currently Head of Drama at Foxtel, in an effort to prevent a repeat of its Seven demise.
The emergence of characters like Madge (Anne Charleston), Zoe (Ally Fowler), and of course Charlene allowed Reg Watson to quickly revise scripts and create fresh plots that would elevate the show to new heights.
Nobody was certain of what the future would bring when Charlene was cast. Kylie Minogue, though, has always had a certain something. The power couple took over the globe and were the ‘it’ couple when the show started to take off when they were paired with Jason Donovan, who was added to the cast when Darius Perkins was unable to continue as Scott Robinson.
Neighbours became well-known all around the world, but nowhere more so than in the UK. Twice daily, the international series had unheard-of levels of fandom among not just the general public. The Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, and her granddaughter-in-law Princess Diana are rumoured to have recorded the show every day so they wouldn’t miss one instalment. Even Diana’s favourite character was Paul Robinson.
The most well-known episode in the series is Episode 523.
The 22 minutes of television that premiered in Australia on July 1, 1987, have a Wikipedia page dedicated to them, which can be found by performing a simple Google search using only the episode number. The programme, which was seen by two million people in Australia and a startling 20 million people in the UK, included Scott and Charlene’s wedding. The ceremony was accompanied with Angry Anderson’s now-famous love song “Suddenly,” which is why many people still adore this episode.
Ray Kolle managed the whole writing department in the 1980s and 1990s. The series endured some of its most prolific stories during his period. Who could ever forget the story of Paul and Gail, followed by Paul and the Alessi twins, the arrival of the Willis family, and of course, Bouncer’s terrible dream.
The latter is what happens when TV execs issue commands, as anyone on the show would say. In fact, Peter Pinne once said to The Perfect Blend that Jason Daniel, the narrative editor, would never forgive him for forcing the team to do the scenario. It is still one of the most well-known moments today despite being despised by the cast of the series at the time.
1992, nevertheless, might be remembered as a terrible year for Neighbours, much like the royal family that adored it. The first blow occurred when Ray made the decision to depart to launch Shortland Street with Jason Daniel, his co-executive from the soap opera.
After that, the show was paired against its longtime adversary Home and Away. Since its reintroduction to television in 1986, Neighbours had broadcast at 7 p.m., but Seven made a bold move by moving its flagship drama to the same time slot, even though it had previously aired at 6:30 p.m.
Although Ten gave up after a valiant fight, the drama was relocated to 6:30 p.m., where it has remained for the past 30 years.
When Reg Grundy made the decision to sell his now-global production company for $279 million, a significant change occurred. The company was acquired by Pearson Television, which changed its name to Fremantle Media in 2001, leaving just the serial drama Neighbours as the sole survivor.
Even though the production firm was in capable hands, Neighbours was in a terrible situation. Home and Away had received a boost, had been made more mature, and was performing well for Seven after a period of instability and being close to cancellation. Sadly, it seems that everyone had almost given up on Neighbours. The stories they were telling back then, according to storyliner Ben Michael, were quite hit or miss.
He remembered, “There were tonnes of dumb ones I couldn’t believe we got away with, like Helen drinking “herbal tea from Northern New South Wales (hint hint)” for her glaucoma and doing finger painting with Julie (yes, this actually aired to air – and yes, the BBC slapped our asses for it.
Hardcore fans began referring to these tales as “1995 stories,” commemorating the year that a youthful writing team was abandoned in a candy store without adult supervision, lost all self-control, went insane, and nearly capsized a ship.
After all, the real world’s drama had taken over. There were other significant events that year besides the selling of the production house. A senior executive was led out of the Neighbours production headquarters in handcuffs after the police unexpectedly stormed the building one day. The executive left a young team without a leader after being accused of having sex with a juvenile.
Within two years of beginning, Scott Taylor was instructed to aim for the gold and given the series’ ropes. It was a wise choice to rehire Ray Kolle as a consultant, and the two were successful in raising the Neighbours ratings dramatically. So high that two years later, Scott was stolen by Home and Away.
In reality, the first significant “return from the dead” took place under Scott and Ray.
Harold Bishop (Ian Smith), who was washed off some rocks in 1992 and was thought to be dead, came back with no knowledge of what transpired.
Bringing him back attracted Anne Charleston, who had departed soon after Harold vanished. After the show had become “too young,” the two were able to create stories for all ages once they were back on screen with Karl (Alan Fletcher) and Susan (Jackie Woodburne).
One of the most iconic cliffhangers in the history of the programme was the 1997 season finale. It will go down in history as one of the most “edge of your seat” moments with a huge stunt in Ben’s (Brett Cousins) car crash while Philip (Ian Rawlings) proposes to Ruth (Ailsa Piper), intercut with the “will she, won’t she?” of Anne walking in on Billy (Jesse Spencer) kissing Caitlin (Emily Milburn), as well as Karl and Sarah (Nicola Charles) giving into temptation and sharing
After all, Susan’s discovery of Karl’s adultery through their son Billy was the impetus for the now-famous slap that took place six months later.
Karl and Susan had conflict in other instances as well. While Susan’s physical blow will live on in the minds of Neighbours fans everywhere, the on-the-street altercation that took place six years later stirs strong emotions. The tale of a lady who explodes on the street in front of another woman and the couple’s daughter Libby after learning that her husband is expecting a child with younger woman Izzy (Natalie Bassingthwaighte) will always make for gripping entertainment.
This scene, as well as the entire arc, was developed by the story-focused Ben Michael and his script-focused counterpart Luke Devenish. Ben and Luke actually came up with the ideas for Lou’s (Tom Oliver) mail-order bride, the aircraft crash that killed Harold’s entire family, Susan falling on milk and developing amnesia, Paul’s return to Erinsborough and destroying the Lassiters complex, as well as all of these plot points.
It split viewers and became known as the “Fun Bus” era to ardent fans, but with the ideal balance of light and shade, melodrama and kitchen sink, the era should be remembered fondly.
In 2007, the programme got a makeover that included high-definition filming and a revitalised sense of camaraderie and family.
The order to ground and recreate the show came from network executive Dan Bennett, who also brought on board the former Home and Away script producer.
The cast was increased, the production office was relocated to the series’ facilities in Nunawading, and the show did indeed return to its beginnings. The start of a new age was precipitated by a bus accident. It’s fair to say that what happened next was a figurative crash.
The show saw numerous highs and lows over the following six years, and many devoted viewers do not look fondly upon that time period. In actuality, the show’s major shift occurred in 2011. After 25 years on the main channel, the programme was moved to Network Ten’s new digital channel Eleven.
It had an impact on viewership since some fans who hadn’t switched from analogue to digital television couldn’t watch the show. Despite this change, it carried on for the following eleven years as the “little train that could.” As Neighbours faded into the background, it once more found itself in a precarious situation.
That is, until 2013, when Jason Herbison assumed control.
Jason joined as a story producer and had a nearly three-decade history with the programme. Nearly instantaneously, the story’s direction, pace, and structure changed. He made the transition appear very effortless. Characters were moved off the stage, dragging stories that had been rinse-and-repeat were dropped, and new characters (from the past) were introduced. The series reached a height not seen in nearly a decade within a few months.
Perhaps it has anything to do with Jason’s past. Jason watched the show religiously while he was a high school student, and in the 1990s, Ray Kolle received a number of letters. He would discover inner commentary about the series, both positive and negative, when he opened them.
In the early 1990s, Jason’s name gained notoriety inside the production team, and he was hired on as a storyliner. After two years, he departed, dabbled with other shows, and worked as a soap correspondent for TV Week in Australia and Inside Soap in the UK. However, Jason began working on Australian dramas in the middle of the 2000s, notably the Aus/UK co-production Out of the Blue. Jason seized the chance when the position at Neighbours opened up.
In less than a year, he passed the story producer duties to Stephen Vagg and assumed the position of Executive Producer, in which he oversees the entire series. Jason’s responsibilities included managing all aspect of the production, from narrative development through final editing.
The major events of the previous eight years—from “Dee’s” return and Sonya’s cancer to the marriage of Aaron (Matt Wilson) and David (Takaya Honda) and Fire Island—were all the result of his ingenuity. With a strong group of experts supporting him, Neighbours has been able to reach new heights, churning out “unmissable drama” while delicately addressing touchy subjects, and pioneering new territory for the LGBTQI+ community on the Australian television scene.
July 28, 2022. It is a day that will live on in history. Neighbours’ final episode aired tonight after 37 years, 8903 episodes, and more than 180,000 sequences.
There are tears and grief for many people all across the world. But if the series has taught us anything, it’s about hope—hope for the future, hope for loved ones and friends, hope for a fresh start. It persisted for a long time because of how straightforward the idea was and how true it was. The ideal mixture.