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Donald Clarke: Without Neighbours, Hollywood would have a staffing crisis

All around Erinsborough, the lamps are going out. In our lifetimes, we will not see them lit again.

Okay, we’re a little early in paraphrasing Edward Grey’s famous First World War phrase. However, one of the most important pre-millennial pop-cultural institutions is avoiding the cliff. The long-running sun-bleached Australian soap opera Neighbours was canceled by British broadcaster Channel 5 last weekend, putting the show’s future in jeopardy.

The show’s producers, Fremantle, did not make the best of first impressions. “These talks are still going on. However, because there is currently no new broadcaster, production must come to a halt, effectively putting the show on hold,” they wrote in an email to cast and crew.

“RTÉ is currently in talks with Fremantle in relation to Neighbours,” a spokesperson for this country’s national broadcaster, which has carried the series since 2000, commented cautiously.

Those of us who caught it when shown only after the lunchtime news can call ourselves The Real Fans

Former BBC One controller Michael Grade, who knows a thing or two about Neighbours, was not ready to extinguish the lights just yet. “It’s got a ready-made audience,” he told BBC Radio 4. “It may not have the audience size that Channel 5 needs to keep the advertisers happy, but someone will pick it up.”

Regardless, this is a pivotal event in the strange saga. Neighbours, once a mid-Thatcher behemoth, is now panting for 21st-century breath. Neighbours was “primarily bankrolled by Channel 5” according to Variety last week.

The breezy, undemanding soap opera, set in an obscurely placed neighbourhood (later established as being within Melbourne), first aired in 1985 and was picked up by the BBC in the autumn of the following year. We may call ourselves The Real Fans because we caught it when it was only shown after the midday news. The remainder is little more than arrivistes.

It was not until his daughter told him she had got in trouble for watching telly during her school lunch break that Michael Grade realized he had slipped a potential sensation into a dead slot. “Ever the scheduler, I said: ‘What were you watching?’ She said a thing called Neighbours,” he told the Daily Mail last year. “Christ, I thought, we’ve got it in the wrong place. I rushed back to the office the next day. ‘We’ve gotta move Neighbours, to when the kids get home, at five o’clock!’ ”

Good looks

The rest is history that is hard to believe. The optimism, light humor, and blow-dried good looks of the youthful actors appealed to viewers in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Following Grade’s decision in 1988 to broadcast at teatime as well as during the day, the show’s popularity skyrocketed, finally reaching a hitherto unimaginable 21 million viewers in 1990. (The finale of Line of Duty, the UK’s most-watched show last year, drew almost 15 million viewers.)

Neighbors virtually single-handedly changed how people in this region of the world thought about Australia. Skippy the Bush Kangaroo was the most popular Australian television show at the time. Antipodeans were stereotyped as blunt-speaking rubes wearing hats adorned with dangling corks in popular culture. Neighbours, which began with a surprising lack of racial diversity, presented the Old World tidy, bland streets in peaceful metropolitan locales were, by the standards of gloomy soaps like the contemporaneous EastEnders, life progressed with only rare violent shocks.

Everyone wanted to emigrate to Australia all of a sudden. What’s to stop you? The country was still Stillorgan (or Surbiton) with milder weather and fewer bus strikes, according to Neighbours. Overall, it’s less stressful than relocating to a country like Belgium.

The music charts were taken up by Neighbours. Kylie Minogue, who was still forced to use a surname on occasion at the time, joined the show a year after it premiered and had dual careers as a soap star and a bubble-gum pop queen alongside fellow cast member Jason Donovan. The classic episode 523, in which the duo’s characters Charlene and Scott marry, was the third-most watched show in the UK in 1988.

Sexless sanguinity

When we look back at the specifics of that broadcast, we can see how much has changed. Episodes were televised in the UK months after they first aired in Australia until the soap was moved to Channel 5 in 2008. Almost a year after it aired in its native nation, fans on these islands gathered down to watch the wedding. In the age of widely shared video over broadband internet, such a lag would be unthinkable.

There has been a significant shift. Any current viewer aged enough to walk upright is unlikely to find the show’s constant, mainly sexless sanguinity appealing. Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s postmodern zombie feminism and Gossip Girl’s posh party porn appealed to successive generations. Consider any current hit show debuting with opening music as cheesy as Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent’s Neighbours theme song.

Russell Crowe, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, Liam Hemsworth, and Ben Mendelsohn all began there

One legacy, though, endures. Neighbours, like rival soaps like Home and Away, served as an unofficial drama school for the wave of Australian actors who swept Hollywood in the decades afterward. There’s where Russell Crowe, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, Liam Hemsworth, and Ben Mendelsohn all got their start. If it had never existed, the world would be a much worse place.


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