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How Neighbours changed the world

As the show comes to an end we look back on the soap that breezed onto our daytime screens, drawing us into an exotic world of Aussie slang and eternal sunshine – and changing the face of British television forever.

The end credits are finally set to roll on Neighbours. One of the all-time great soap operas will broadcast no more, with the final episodes of the Australian series airing on July 29 on Channel 5. Big names from its 36-year history are returning to Ramsay Street to give Neighbours the stellar send-off it deserves. 

Veterans from episode one, Peter O’Brien (Shane Ramsay) and Paul Keane (Des Clarke), have reprised their roles. Daniel MacPherson (Joel Samuels), Benjamin McNair (Malcolm Kennedy), Melissa Bell (Lucy Robinson), and the brilliant Natalie Bassingthwaighte (Izzy Hoyland) are also back to bid farewell. 

But the biggest news is global pop icon Kylie Minogue returning to Ramsay Street for the final episode. Seeing Kylie in a denim jumpsuit not unlike Charlene Mitchell’s 1980s overalls, alongside fellow antipodean music sensation Jason Donovan – reprising his role as Scott Robinson, will provoke a Proustian rush in any former fan or long-term follower of the show.  

Donovan and Minogue as Scott and Charlene on the set of the Neighbours finale. Image: Channel 5

With acting superstars Guy Pearce and Margot Robbie also back as Mike Young and Donna Freedman, we are witnessing a communal display of unity and respect for a show that launched a thousand careers. But Neighbours did not just give us the future star of Memento  and LA Confidential, and the Especially For You, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head and Too Many Broken Hearts hitmakers – it also offered Russell Crowe, brothers Liam, Luke and Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth, Ben Mendelsohn and Natalie Imbruglia key early roles. More than this, Neighbours changed the face of television as we know it. 

Neighbours arrived on UK screens on October 27, 1986 – the same day as the deregulation of financial markets nicknamed The Big Bang was implemented by Margaret Thatcher’s government. One of these events began the slow but inevitable journey towards a global financial crisis, the other created a big bang among viewers half a world away from its location in Melbourne. 

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For the first 15 months Neighbours went out on BBC1 every weekday lunchtime followed by a repeat the next morning. But once it found its 5.35pm peak slot on January 4, 1988 – ex-BBC controller Michael Grade credited his daughter with persuading him to make the switch – Neighbours hit the big time. By February, 13 million of us were tuning in to each episode, a number boosted by hardcore fans who watched both showings at lunchtime then after school. 

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Neighbours offered a bold, exciting, upbeat and youthful view of the world. It was for us kids. There was a brightness around the Erinsborough cul-de-sac where so much of the action took place. The eternal sunshine was in stark contrast to the grey days of Thatcherism and a world away from British soap operas of the time. EastEnders – still in its infancy and the most popular British TV soap of the day – offered gritty social realism, with Nick Cotton’s heroin addiction, Dirty Den’s affair with schoolgirl Michelle Fowler, and Arthur Fowler’s Christmas Club money theft and subsequent breakdown.

Coronation Street was still dominated by brilliant older characters, while Brookside was popular but again focused on adult themes – with the sexual assault of Sheila Grant one of the central storylines.

There were tough themes in Neighbours too, but these were carefully pitched to avoid turning off younger viewers – who revelled in what appeared, on the surface at least, to be the carefree joy of the lives depicted on screen. 

It seemed really glamorous in a time when things weren’t

Steven Murphy, former editor of Inside Soap

“It seemed really glamorous in a time when things weren’t,” says soap expert and former Inside Soap editor Steven Murphy. “These people have swimming pools in their gardens. The epitome of luxury to a teenager in a council flat in Wakefield.” 

No one watching in 1987 (or was it just me?) is likely to have forgotten Scott and Mike being tricked into going skinny dipping in the sea by Charlene and Kelly – who promptly ran off with their clothes, leaving two of the show’s top pin-ups conveniently naked for most of an episode.  

“At its best, Neighbours found the perfect blend (sorry) between juicy, addictive soap storytelling, and the warmth and comfort of ordinary people just getting through the day, loving each other and having a laugh,” says Sarah Dollard, a screenwriter and producer who recently worked on both Doctor Who and Bridgerton and began her career on Neighbours. “The show takes its characters seriously but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I think that lightness has always been what set it apart.” 

Scott and Charlene were the golden couple – but also the boy and girl next door
Photo: Mike Forster/Daily Mail/Shutterstock

This was the era of golden couples – Scott and Charlene were, literally, the boy and girl next door – with a hint of Romeo and Juliet (the Robinsons and Mitchells had history) and a classic introduction in which she punched him. Their wedding lit up the winter of 1988 as 19.6 million British viewers tuned in for the schmaltzy ceremony, soundtracked by Angry Anderson’s Suddenly.  

“Scott and Charlene’s wedding was the peak of the peak glory days,” says Murphy. “It’s like all of 1980s Neighbours in one scene.”  

Ian Smith (aka Harold Bishop) had no doubts that Minogue was going to be a star. “I started in 1959 as a professional. I had seen a lot of people working, but you knew what was going to happen to Kylie,” he says.

“Seasoned old actors would stand and watch her. My god, you knew Kylie was going to be a huge star. She was fabulous, there was just something special about her that you couldn’t quite put your finger on.” 

Mike (Guy Pearce) and Jane (aka Plain Jane Super Brain, played by Annie Jones, who returned to the show in 2018 and then again from 2020) were Scott and Charlene’s besties – two squares who were, gasp, secretly attractive. There was Mrs Mangel (Vivean Gray) and Bouncer (Bouncer), the dog whose dream sequence has become the stuff of legends. Madge and Harold Bishop and Lou Carpenter remained stuck in an eternal love triangle, while Des and Daphne Clarke were early favourites before tragedy struck.

Paul Robinson, the conniving tycoon played by Stefan Dennis, had one of the most interesting love lives – featuring a soap trope in which he married his PA Gail for business reasons before falling in love for real, then a complex marriage to Christina Alessi (and brief dalliance with her twin sister Caroline) and three subsequent wives. 

A cast of familiar faces reunite
Photo: Channel 5

For Dollard, super-couple Karl and Susan Kennedy epitomise what made Neighbours so great.

“In their almost 30 years on the show they’ve been through every kind of drama and melodrama imaginable, but they are endlessly warm and relatable, and never very far away from a joke,” she says.

“For me that’s the secret sauce of Neighbours – that it can and will break your heart, but it rarely loses touch with its sense of fun,” she says. “And of course, Karl and Susan are magic because Jackie Woodburne and Alan Fletcher shine in any kind of story you throw at them, nimbly dancing between crisis and comedy, pathos and silliness, authenticity and camp. And that’s Neighbours in a nutshell!” 

Neighbours performed a clever balancing act. Alongside the teenage kicks and young love stories were heartache and pain, and occasional big issues. Crusty hunt-saboteur Kerry Mangel was shot dead while protesting against blood sports in a key storyline in 1990. It was genuinely shocking, awareness raising, and brilliantly executed. Two years later, teenager Todd Landers was rushing to the hospital to try to persuade girlfriend Phoebe not to have an abortion but became the youngest character in the show to die after being struck by a van. Typically, the heartache was followed by a moment of surrealism. His ghost appeared to Phoebe, promising to always be there for her and their child. 

From Bouncer’s dream to Harold Bishop’s return from the dead, Susan Kennedy losing her memory and believing she was 16 again (shades of Twin Peaks’ Nadine Hurley) or Jim Robinson and Doug Willis accidentally taking magic mushrooms – there was always a playful, surreal edge to Neighbours. This was a show that could combine the deep character studies of Coronation Street with occasional detours into surreal storylines more at home on Sunset Beach

To be able to tell those Australian stories that a universal audience can relate to, I’ll be very sad to see that go

Jackie Woodburne (Susan Kennedy)

Neighbours always reminded us that this was just telly. It was entertainment. And however much we loved the characters, this was not quite the real world. Except when it was. Three decades on from Charlene and Scott’s wedding it was David and Aaron getting hitched – and this was important. And political. The first same-sex wedding on TV following legislation to enshrine marriage equality in law in Australia. 

For Jackie Woodburne, who has played Susan Kennedy since 1994, this is key to the show’s success. “To be able to tell those Australian stories that a universal audience can relate to, I’ll be very sad to see that go,” she says. 

Ryan Moloney and Dan MacPherson also reprise their roles. Image: Channel 5

Geraldine Smith is a long-term Neighbours super-fan based in London – and part of the Neighbuzz Council online fan community. “I discovered an amazing community of people who watch Neighbours in the UK,” she says.

“We know it’s a slightly ridiculous thing… but a lot of us have watched it our whole lives. Ultimately, it is not very challenging TV to watch but that’s one of the massive appeals of it. It’s a really nice regular touchstone, something you engage with over the long term.”  

I’ve seen that character develop and grow over a course of four decades

Stefan Dennis (Paul Robinson)

Stefan Dennis was in the original cast and has appeared in more episodes than any other Neighbours actor. “I’ve actually seen that character develop and grow over a course of four decades,” he says. Fittingly, he will appear in the final scene of the final episode. It’s unlikely to rival the drama of his return in 2004, when, after an 11-year absence, he burned down Lassiters Hotel. But we can expect nostalgia, joy and a celebration. Neighbours is going out on a high.  

Need a reminder of how big the show was at its peak? How’s this: Ian Smith, who plays Harold Bishop, and is back aged 83 for one final hurrah, recalls a memorable encounter with a fan.  

“George Harrison, one of The Beatles, came up to me and asked for my autograph,” he says. “I just couldn’t believe it. There was me giving a Beatle an autograph! Well, that’s been my most favourite story for the rest of my life.” 

Soaps on the ropes

The days of 20 million people tuning in for key Neighbours moments like Scott and Charlene’s wedding are long gone. But the show’s core UK audience remained committed following its £300 million move from BBC One to Channel 5 in 2008. After the initial 10-year deal ran out, a shorter four-year extension was agreed, followed by a final one-year extension. So the writing has been on the Ramsay Street wall for some time. When Channel 5 pulled its funding, Fremantle – who produce Neighbours for Channel 10 in Australia – needed to find new financing. But this storyline had no happy ending.

So why did Channel 5 pull out? After all, acquiring Neighbours improved the channel’s audience share by 13 per cent within weeks, halting a worrying decline. Even before the final nostalgia rush of the last few weeks, around 1.2 million viewers a day have been watching Neighbours. For comparison, this is streets ahead of C4’s Hollyoaks.

Anne Haddy as Helen Daniels and Alan Dale as Jim Robinson on the Neighbours set. Image: Quentin Jones/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Neighbours appears to be a victim of the success of Channel 5’s recent homegrown content. With more focus on UK drama, like its new iteration of All Creatures Great and Small and documentaries like The Yorkshire Vet, Channel 5 has pivoted to creating and airing high-quality UK content. These shows have proved ratings and critical successes and are symbolic of the new direction of travel for Channel 5. Meanwhile, the audience for soaps is diminishing. Titans of the early evening schedule, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and EastEnders are struggling – with ratings plummeting to around five million, four million and three million respectively. Again, this is due to a change of focus  from both TV producers and viewers. Competition for these early evening slots, with The Repair Shop and others, offers high quality, entertaining alternatives to serial drama. Holby City has already closed its doors.

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And the impact of streaming giants cannot be overstated. When more of us are able to choose what to watch and when, big budget drama and documentaries that traditionally air at 9pm in the UK are available at any time. Why wait? And if we are not watching at the same time, this ends the joy of soaps being part of the national conversation. “Everyone’s talking about it” was a classic EastEnders tagline once. Not any more. Lunchtime shows have always aired daily, but primetime soaps overstretched – and too many episodes can lead to viewer fatigue. All this created a perfect storm for Neighbours. Changing viewer habits, a UK broadcaster changing its focus to homegrown productions and an Australian broadcaster unwilling to finance its most iconic series means the end of an era. But what a ride it’s been. 

Neighbours ends on Channel 5 with a 9pm double episode on July 29 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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