I first saw Neighbours in the early 1990s, a few years after Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan were on the show. After my first year at university, I started watching over the summer since my friends were always talking about it and I wanted to know what they were talking about. I started watching Home and Away as well. When school started again and I had less free time, I stopped watching Home and Away and only watched Neighbours.
I’ve been watching it for about 30 years and haven’t missed an episode. It hasn’t always been great, and there have been times when it looked to be going in the wrong direction. It would, however, always bounce back. The phrase “finding the ideal blend” appears in the theme song, and this is the key. Whereas Home and Away is known for its constant melodrama, Neighbours has always combined severe melodrama with normal drama and doses of blatant farce.
Even excessive melodrama has a ludicrous, high-camp quality to it. I’m thinking of a plot from a few years ago about a science teacher named Finn Kelly who tries to poison an entire school by injecting poison into the ventilation system. (I believe the attack was motivated by his frustration at not being able to acquire the position of deputy principal at Erinsborough High.)
Then we find out that Kelly’s insanity was caused by his time as a hostage in Colombia. He keeps attempting to murder people until Susan Kennedy, the principal of the school where he worked, pushes him off a cliff. He survives, but with amnesia, the most common of soap-opera diseases. Susan chooses to let him move in and live with her because she feels bad about almost murdering him.
Kelly unleashed a massacre including arson, an abandoned mine, a crossbow, a snake, a giant boulder, and an exploding wedding cake in a five-night special two years ago (to honor the show’s 35th anniversary). (To Kelly’s credit, the cake explosion did manage to kill off Denise van Outen’s annoying character.)
As with any soap opera, part of the allure of Neighbours is its consistency: an episode every day, five days a week. When I worked late hours at newspapers for many years, watching the day’s episode was the last thing I did before going to bed.
My Polish wife, Magda, who I married in 2014, would criticize my frivolous TV watching. She was a fan of intense, subtitled European cinema and thought my obsession with Neighbours was a little silly.
Our son was born in 2015, and nothing can fully prepare a new parent for the shock of that change from childless tranquility and liberty to having a little baby demanding constant care.
It felt like the day we returned from Holles Street with our new baby would be a pleasant occasion, but it wasn’t. Magda seemed to be engaged in a way that I couldn’t understand. It was, in retrospect, the first indicator of postpartum depression. She was also constantly terrified that anything would go wrong and our baby would become ill.
We lived in a one-bed apartment for the first few months, with me returning home late at night and attempting to sleep on the sitting room floor so as not to disturb their sleep. The infant wailed a great deal. I recall one bitterly cold winter day when he sobbed for the whole of the day and Magda would to allow me to take him out for a stroll because it was too cold. I recall her wailing in desperation at his refusal to compromise.
Magda took a year off from work, which did not go as planned. She became increasingly enraged. In hindsight, it’s clear that she was depressed. But at the time, I assumed that was just her regular reaction to the stress.
During these months, she would occasionally join me in watching Neighbours. She started watching it even when I wasn’t around, and she’d text me at work to say that the previous day’s episode was particularly fantastic. She started talking about the stories with me, loving the dramatization, hilarity, and simplicity. It’s also shot in near-permanent Australian sunlight, which makes it appear exquisite in a bleak Irish winter.
Magda would watch Neighbours every afternoon with our son while I was at work. One day she texted me a sound file in which I could hear the closing credits playing while our one-year-old repeatedly shouted “Neighbours! Neighbours!”
Magda was a garda, so she understood how the Erinsborough Police Department and its chief detective, Mark Brennan, worked. Brennan was known for his unwavering commitment to the rule of law (he chose to arrest his bride moments before their wedding ceremony because he suspected she had been involved in handling stolen goods).
When Levi, the current cop character, casually told a woman he had only just met about his possibly criminal behavior in achieving a couple of arrests, I thought of Magdaa. Even after we were married, if I raised a question about garda bending or breaking the rules, Magda would cut me off with the phrase, “That would be an operational concern.”
Her despair grew quite severe. She slept less and less, and her sadness and hopelessness overtook her. She informed me that the 20 minutes she spent every day watching Neighbours was the only time she felt happy.
There is no happy conclusion to this story. Magda spent two months at the St John of God’s hospital in Stillorgan, Co Dublin, failing to respond to a variety of treatments before ultimately finding an opportunity to commit suicide in December 2017, just weeks after our son’s second birthday and a week after her own 37th birthday.
Every day, I continue to watch Neighbours. I always watch it with our son, who doesn’t comprehend much but enjoys it immensely. It was especially comforting in the months following Magda’s death, when I was lost in a fog of grief and bewilderment.
I think of Magda every time I watch Neighbours. Sonya Rebecchi, one of the main characters, died of cancer in the arms of her husband, Toadie, in an episode a few years ago. It was excruciatingly uncomfortable.
It’s difficult to imagine a world without Neighbours, without that daily dose of Melbourne sunshine, after nearly 30 years. As a show that is known for characters coming back from the grave, I’m hopeful that this is simply another cliffhanger, and that Neighbours will also come back to life in an unbelievable twist.
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