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Neighbours is an institution: don’t write it off yet

So it looks as if Neighbours might finally bite the dust. That great Australian soap focused on the people of Ramsay Street, an attractive but recognisable suburban bit of Melbourne, looks as if it’s lost its UK backer, Channel 5, and the Ten Network here is unwilling to carry the show by itself. Does this matter and does it represent a loss or is it just a good-riddance-to-bad-rubbish situation?

It matters because Neighbours has become synonymous with a lot of people’s hopes of growing up and settling down, providing high-brow entertainment to generations of Australians. It’s reasonable that Rob Mills, a former cast member, would seek assistance from Scott Morrison. Whether or not the Prime Minister should do so, it would be a better look than bungled religious discrimination measures, charges that his political opponents are soft on China, or obviously opportunistic schemes to hasten the deportation of non-citizens who have committed minor offenses. The sunnier side of Morrison would have found Neighbours’ hopes and tranquilities appealing: wedding bells for Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan, the sadness of poor old Harold adrift at sea with only his glasses as proof of his existence.

Neighbours is an Australian institution, and now that we appear to be on the verge of losing it, it’s worth emphasizing how important it was. After all, this was the show that brought the Russell Crowes and Guy Pearces to the public, as well as those slow and personal assessments of Kylie and Jason, Delta Goodrem, and Natalie Bassingthwaighte.

It was there that we first saw Crowe, as well as Pearce, albeit fleetingly and growlingly. Nothing could be further from their typical occupations, but it provided them with a foundation that was both cohesive and dramatic, as well as completely professional. Margot Robbie, Natalie Imbruglia, Brooke Satchwell, and Craig McLachlan are among the cast members.

Of course, an intricately ongoing and involving TV soap is not art, but it is craft and without a high level of craft – of precisely the kind Neighbours has exemplified since its inception in 1985 – no art is going to be possible anyway.

The best grounding an actor can have is the kind of self-confidence that comes with being able to act in a popular and fascinating piece of storytelling in which the lives of intimately known individuals overlap and intertwine. For example, Jesse Spencer moved from Neighbours to starring in Swimming Up Stream alongside Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis. And Neighbours served as a vital warm-up for his time in House.

When we think back on some of the high points of Australian television – Tangle with Ben Mendelsohn in the first series, Tony Ayres’ adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, the television adaptation of The Devil’s Playground – the success of shows like Neighbours and Home And Away stands in the background.

Following Covid, Australian acting and drama are under jeopardy. There have been some brilliant lights on the streamers recently. The Newsreader, starring Anna Torv and Sam Reid, and starring Marg Downey, was a hit that perfectly encapsulated the 1980s. Love Me, starring Hugo Weaving and Bojana Novakovic, took the plot of a soap opera and transformed it into a work of art.

Spare a thought for the mighty reign of Neighbours, which in its unassuming way helped to make it all possible. Whether you were enthralled by Sigrid Thornton in SeaChange or adored the down and dirty grit of Underbelly with Kat Stewart as Roberta Williams, spare a thought for the mighty reign of Neighbours, which helped to make it all possible in its unassuming way.

For better or worse, we have a middle-of-the-road culture. When it comes to a longstanding cultural venture such as Neighbours, you have to think of the sheer professionalism of people such as Kate Kendall – sometime Stingers star and one of the best Beatrices I’ve ever seen in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing – first starring in, then directing and finally producing Neighbours, day after day, week after week, and bringing to the screen a show that is literate, engaging and believable. Let’s try to keep it alive and if we can’t let’s honour its demise.

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