AAfter almost four decades of unlikely melodrama, the final credits are to roll for UK viewers on 29 July on the TV soap opera that really 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 tune. Memories of the cul-de-sac at the center of the action may fade but the impact of the show will live on.
Erinsborough, a place dreamed up and filmed by Grundy Television at Pin Oak Court near Melbourne, was the sort of environment that audiences in gray Britain could aspire to live in: it was warm and friendly, and much more accessible than the setting of many American soaps. A seat at a table in the Waterhole, the bar at the Lassiters Complex, did not appear out of reach. So the fictional suburb became a new ideal, the home of relaxed, English-speaking fun in the sun, and it also rapidly updated the wartime image of a backward Australia portrayed in another of Reg Grundy’s popular, long-running drama series, The Sullivans.
The creaky, class-ridden world of British daytime soaps, epitomized by ITV’s Cedar Tree or cross roadstook a bit of a “king hit” from neighbors‘unexpected youthful appeal. On the plus side, though, it gave Phil Redmond the momentum he needed to finally persuade Channel 4 to make Hollyoaks. Prompted by the success of the show and of its rival, Home and Awayin 1995 Redmond, creator of Grange Hill and Brooksidehad asked: “Why do we just have to have the Australian stuff?”
The blanket presence of neighbors on British screens when it arrived in 1986, in five weekly installations, shook up the nation’s daytime viewing habits. Up until the Australian show proved how moreish a regular drama can be, Coronation Street, EastEnders and Emmerdale had been going out to their devoted audiences just twice a week. But in little more than a decade, all three British soaps had introduced a third weekly episode.
Repeat episodes also went down well, with BBC One moving its morning repeat of neighbours’ previous lunchtime show to the early evening, on the advice of the school-age daughter of the then controller of the channel, Michael Grade. The combined audience peaked at more than 21 million by 1990. After nearly 22 years of entertaining BBC viewers, neighbors switched to Channel 5 in 2008 because its producer, Fremantle Media, had demanded too much money to renew the deal.
Credibility was no limit on the kind of storylines that propelled the cast through love affairs, break-ups and bereavements. Harold Bishop was swept out to sea for five years, only to return with amnesia, a contagious condition on the show which also infected Susan Kennedy after she slipped on some milk. There were disasters aplenty, including emergency tracheotomies, an explosion at a wedding, the Erinsborough tornado of 2014, the fire at Lassiters (the villainous Paul Robinson was to blame) and, of course, a notorious dream sequence in which Bouncer, Joe Mangel’s dog , falls asleep and fantasizes about marrying Rosie, the black-and-white collie next door, and raising puppies.
Fresh talent pool
The list of stars who stepped out of neighbors unscathed is impressive. The highly paid, Oscar-nominated Hollywood actor Margot Robbie got one of her first jobs from Ella playing schoolgirl Donna on the show for a few seasons, while Russell Crowe made an early appearance as bad boy Kenny Larkin before getting an Oscar for Gladiator. Guy Pearce was the smiley Mike Young on the show until 1989, turning up eventually in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Deserta role which won him Hollywood attention and led to the main part in Christopher Nolan’s mementobefore more recently wooing Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown.
The faces of Peter O’Brien, who played Shane Ramsay and then took on the role of Scissors Smedley in the admired British hospital drama Cardiac Arrest, and of Alan Dale, who played Jim Robinson, are also still familiar. Dale has since featured in the TV show lostand the films Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The daily comic turns put in by Ian Smith as Harold Bishop, Mark Little as Joe Mangel, and then later by Ryan Moloney as the troubled class clown, Toadfish Rebecchi, have each left a stamp on Australia’s international image that is at least as lasting as that of Dame Edna Everage or Crocodile Dundee. Bishop became the unofficial ambassador of the show for a while and is back for the finale, alongside Little, who later took his standup shows to the Edinburgh fringe, replaced Chris Evans on TV in The Big Breakfast and performed in London’s West End. “Toadie”, however, is still a mainstay of the show and his fourth set of marriage vows will now help neighbors bow out for good. He finally looks to find happiness with Melanie Pearson, played by Lucinda Cowen.
For British audiences, the show’s biggest impact came in the bubbly, diminutive form of Kylie Minogue, who played mechanic Charlene Mitchell in the show. After chart success next to her screen by her husband Scott Robinson, the actor and singer Jason Donovan, she was re-imagined as a pop star by Stock Aitken and Waterman, with a string of British chart hits.
She then gained sudden street cred as a disco queen after an affair with Michael Hutchence of INXS, before she eventually becoming a perennial international stadium crowd-pleaser. Hot on Kylie’s heels was Natalie Imbruglia, Beth Brennan in neighborswho had a hit with the song Torn, and then came Holly Valance, who played Felicity Scully.
But there were bad songs, too, including unsettling tracks from actor Stefan Dennis, aka Paul Robinson, and from Craig McLachlan, better known as Charlene’s wacky brother Henry.
the neighbors wedding album might still be dominated by souvenir images of the union of Charlene and Scott in 1988, watched in Britain by a little under 20 million, but the wedding of characters David and Aaron in 2018 marked just as big a moment for gay audiences. The show did not have a reputation for pushing societal boundaries but has made up for it in recent years by staging Australian TV’s first ever same-sex wedding. Three years ago, the show also introduced its first trans character, Mackenzie Hargreaves. Storylines have followed her gender confirmation surgery and changing sexual identity. Perhaps most influential, however, was her decision to treat her like any other teenager in the show for most of the time.
Early episodes gave British viewers a long-overdue update on Australian slang, finally dislodging the cliches established by Waltzing Matilda lyrics and establishing a new Aussie lexicon, much of which came to be adopted by the shows teenage and student fans. So “dossers” became “bludgers”, snitches became “dobbers”, and a row became a “blue”. More explanation was needed when it came to calling a pick-up truck “a ute”, short for “utility”, or for gauging that “thongs” really meant flip-flops. Everything in Ramsay Street was abbreviated: often a weekend involved visiting your “rellies” or putting on your “cozzies” and “sunnies” to go to the beach for a swim in the “arvo”, but being careful of the “mozzies” on the route back home. The shortening of “university” or “univ”, to “uni” has now become so widespread in Britain that its etymological roots in neighbors have been largely forgotten.
The show’s aesthetic, including its bright, primary colours, ripped vest tops, board shorts and Charlene’s totemic tomboy dungarees, had an immediate effect on youth looks in Britain, as did the easy, open-plan kitchen-based living of many of the domestic sets.
Charlene’s curls and Scott, Shane and Henry’s early mullet haircuts also had their ardent copyists. This mix of kitsch and cool became harder to untangle after a series of celebrity guest appearances on the show, including from Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys, Spice Girl Emma Bunton, Michael Parkinson, Russell Brand, Lily Allen, Matt Lucas and David Walliams .