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What made Neighbours so special? Let the superfans explain

As Neighbours ends after 37 years, our expert panel of a screenwriter, a soap specialist and a superfan explain why it will be so missed.

Neighbours ends this week. But it is going out in some style. The return of beloved characters from across its 37 years has made this saddest of occasions a true celebration of Australia’s greatest soap opera.

As well as being a sunny, entertaining, occasionally surreal and superbly written and acted serial drama, Neighbours was also a real star-making factory. Guy Pearce, Kylie Minogue, Margot Robbie and Jason Donovan are just some of the acting/singing superstars from the show’s illustrious past to return to Ramsay Street, while fans have also been celebrating a triumphantly trouble-making Erinsborough comeback for the legendary Izzy Hoyland, played by Natalie Bassingthwaighte.

Ahead of Friday’s triple-bill finale on Channel 5, we assembled a panel of Neighbours experts to talk about why the show matters, what it means to them, and the wider cultural importance of Neighbours.

Step forward screenwriter and producer Sarah Dollard, who began her career on Neighbours (and even wrote the audition script for Margot Robbie), before going on to write for Being Human, Doctor Who and Bridgerton; Steven Murphy – soap expert who edited Inside Soap magazine in Australia and then, for two decades, in the UK; and Geraldine Smith – a long-term superfan and contributor to the NeighBuzz Council online forum who also co-founded Girls Rock London.

What for you was the secret of Neighbours’ success?

Sarah Dollard: I think 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. 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.

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Steven Murphy: I think it’s the way it can mix the most ridiculous – Bouncers dream anyone? – with great genuine drama and emotion. This is a show that a few years back had Toadie’s dead wife come back – well, except she was an evil twin impersonator who seduced him and fell pregnant. Pure and utter soap opera. Then only a few weeks ago it tore our heart out when newlywed teen Hendrix died just days after his wedding to Mackenzie.

Neighbours was also multi-generational in a way other shows weren’t. The teen and kid stories were were given equal prominence to the adult ones – this meant it appealed to the whole family. A nice teatime bit of family time.

TBI: Is there a storyline / character that to you epitomises what made Neighbours so special?

SD: Karl and Susan. In their almost thirty 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. 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. 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!

SM: The template was set a couple of years in. The Scott/Charlene teen lovers against the odds, the busybody Mrs Mangel, the Madge and Harold mum and dad, the tearaway teen made good, the Helen Daniel’s oracle, the geeky plain Jane/Joe who goes on to find themselves. And in a lot of ways, it never veered far from that.

So, it’s Scott and Charlene’s wedding I think, for the peak of the peak glory days. It’s like all of 80s Neighbours in one scene – cut to the congregation as Madge looks lovingly at Harold while Mrs Mangel also gazes longingly at Harold. There’s Jane as the bridesmaid, with Mike as Best Man. Jim Robinson looks on proudly whole Helen Daniels is glassy eyed.

Geraldine Smith: On the NeighBuzz podcast, they always talk about ceramic pigs. Which means the storylines that are a little bit stupid, a bit pantomime. Karl Kennedy had a storyline involving a ceramic pig once – it was a bit slapstick, very inconsequential. And there have been so many moments like that, especially between Karl and Susan Kennedy – these funny, silly storylines where he does something stupid, she rolls her eyes and it contrasts so well with the high drama in the show.  

But I also loved Sonya Rebecchi, who was Toadie’s third (I think) wife. The actors (Eve Morey and Ryan Moloney) had great on-screen chemistry, she was such a loved character, but got culled, I think, because they had to save some money a few years ago. She died of ovarian cancer and the way it was portrayed and acted was so beautiful and so devastating. The collective sadness within the fandom was really palpable.

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Why did the show catch on so well over here?

SM: I think a lot of it was that it seemed really glamorous in a time where things weren’t. The 80s now are seen as this day-glow era where everything was bright and jazzy, but actually it was all a bit grey and beige.

Early Neighbours is a bit beige in colour palette, but the overall tone of the show isn’t – it’s light and bright and there’s sunshine. These people have swimming pools in their gardens. The epitome of sheer luxury to a teenager in a council flat in Wakefield. The people certainly aren’t bad either. You look at the cast of EastEnders in the mid 80s they were a pretty grim bunch. Not so on Ramsay Street!

Neighbours also sold a kind of life that was on the way out in the UK at the time – popping in on your neighbours, a sense of community, an overall warmth – things it didn’t feel were present in the UK at the time.

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Neighbours was always such a breeding ground for talent, how did it feel to be learning your trade on the show?

SD: I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to have learned my trade on Neighbours, and from such a great bunch of people too. It was my first job in TV and I went in very green and clueless as a trainee storyliner. The story room at that time consisted of five or six writers locked in a little room together for five days a week, throwing around ideas and jokes and coming up with every moment in every scene of every episode of the show.

We started each Monday with clean whiteboards, and by end of day Friday we’d have a full week of episodes plotted out on the wall. You do that for fifty weeks of the year. It’s a lot of story, for a lot of characters, and you always have a tonne of practical restrictions to work around too, because Neighbours never had the luxury of a big budget. As a storyliner, if you weren’t regularly contributing ideas and good-naturedly adding to other people’s ideas, then you didn’t get to stay.

For the first few months, I remember my job was on the line at the end of every week because I wasn’t speaking up enough. But because I loved the show and idolised every other writer in that room with me, I learned fast and eventually found my voice. That training was an invaluable gift, and I went on to have the same learning curve as a writer, a script editor, and a story producer on the show. That’s why Neighbours has been such a successful breeding ground for talent in every department, including cast. Because even if you come in as a newbie, you’re surrounded by veterans who are absolute guns at what they do. And the machine of the show moves so quickly that, as long as your heart is in it, you get your 10,000 hours under your belt before you know it.

Tell us more about the UK fan community?

GS: I discovered an amazing community of people who watch Neighbours in the UK. We know it’s a slightly ridiculous thing – most people in my normal life don’t watch Neighbours and think it’s slightly eccentric of me to watch it – but a lot of us have watched it our whole lives.

It is a cool community. I really noticed how the community of fans mobilised in response to the inquiry about racism on the show, which was appalling and upsetting to learn about. We were really outraged and put pressure on the show to do something and not just brush it under the carpet.

So it’s not weird – we are people who enjoy the drama, the absurdity, who find real joy and humour in it. We laugh about it, but at the same time we love it and take it seriously.

Do you have a favourite moment from the show?

SD: As a writer, my favourite part of Neighbours isn’t very exciting at all. It’s Karl and Susan bickering. I haven’t written for the show since 2009 and sometimes out of nowhere I still hear their voices in my head, bantering away. They’ll always be welcome. As a fan of the show, it’s the big delicious soapie moments that stand out, like Paul Robinson’s spectacular return, waltzing in after an eleven-year absence to burn down Lassiters for the season finale. Legendary stuff. See also: everything Izzy Hoyland ever did. I still adore her.

SM: Try and find me a scene better acted than the one where Susan Kennedy finds out her hubby Karl kissed his secretary, Sarah Beaumont. It was only a kiss – nothing in soap terms – but it shattered this wife’s trust in her husband and her faith in that 20-year marriage. And it gives us one of soap’s most iconic slaps. Ouch! 

GS: My current favourite character is Chloe, who is this brilliant, fun, bisexual woman. She’s a very modern character, she’s sex positive, interesting and cool. That feels like an evolution for the show. In relation to sexuality, they have five queer characters on the show at the moment. A gay male couple and three queer women, and that’s pretty amazing. You might get on Netflix or something but it’s not normal in soaps. That has been so nice to see, as a gay person. It means that the characters can have rounded lives in and there’s the potential for them to have multiple interactions and storylines related to their sexuality.

Anything final words about Neighbours as it comes to an end and what it meant to you?

GS: I watched it from very early on in the 1980s, with a few gaps, right the way through. Neighbours has been a constant, really reassuring presence in my life. Ultimately, it is not very challenging TV to watch but that’s one like one of the massive appeals of it – it’s a really nice regular touchstone, something you engage with over the long term. You really get to know the characters and have attachments to them. And when you have a challenging job and busy life, it’s a really nice respite from that – for a few minutes I can just sit and watch it and forget everything else that’s going on.

I’m really genuinely sad. It would be like if The Archers ended, for a different demographic. A little constant is taken away from you. I’m really, really going to miss it. I can’t see anything else replacing it, because you can’t just replace 37 years of history with the characters and the place and the storylines.

SD: Only that I’m incredibly sad it’s over. As you might have noticed, I’m not yet ready to talk about the show in the past tense! I think it’s a huge loss, not just for viewers but for the TV industry in Australia. Home & Away is still going strong because it has always been valued and enthusiastically supported by its broadcaster, whereas Neighbours suffered death by a thousand cuts over many years. That makes me angry and probably always will, but my overwhelming feeling about Neighbours as it comes to an end is gratitude – for everything it taught me, for the life-long friends I made while working on it, and for all the joy it gave me as a viewer.

Neighbours ends Friday at 9pm on Channel 5

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