TELEVISION / Long Runners: No 14: Neighbours

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The Independent Culture
Age: In Australia, nearly nine - first broadcast 18 March 1985. In Britain, the show began 19 months later, on Monday 27 October 1986. This time difference has been very handy for tabloid showbiz editors: instead of having to employ on-set spies to sniff out future plot developments, they just ring up friends Down Under.

Time-lapse progress report: The Neighbours time-lapse diminishes by one month every year, because in Australia the show takes a one-month break for Christmas, but here it doesn't. All being well, storylines will synchronise some time in 2006.

Architect: Grundy TV's Reg Watson, who also gave the world Crossroads. The immortal theme tune was the work of fellow motel veteran Tony Hatch and his wife Jackie Trent. It came to them while ironing.

Early struggles: Neighbours didn't succeed from the off. It flopped on Oz's Channel 7, but Channel 10 was persuaded to pick it up, the BBC followed and the rest is history.

Frequency: Twice a day, five times a week. It was first shown at 9am, providing an early-rise incentive to many who would otherwise not have seen the start of the day. This community service function was relinquished in 1987 with the move to the current lunchtime and repeat late afternoon slots.

Formula: Ever-shifting tableau of moral and social complexities unfolds in leafy Ramsay Street, which is actually a cul-de-sac. The broader setting is the fictional Melbourne suburb of Erinsborough (as crossword fans will have realised, minus one 'o' and one 'r', this is an anagram). The early sub-text of family feuding between the Ramsays and the Robinsons has largely gone by the board. Recent storylines include indomitable matriarch Helen Daniels helping ex-lawyer Cameron write readers' letters for a sleazy magazine, and twisted teenager Michael trying to get his unsuspecting step-mother certified. Last year's most outrageous moment came courtesy of schoolgirl mother Phoebe. Her boyfriend Todd having been killed by an oncoming VW van as he rushed to stop her having an abortion, she fought for the right to have her baby on his tombstone.

Current status: Not as awesome as it was, but still formidable. In Australia, Neighbours still just about makes the Top 10. Here ratings have slipped from their 1990 peak of 21 million (earned not by one of the classic episodes - Jason and Kylie's wedding, Lucy's mystery blindness or the infamous mistaken identity gorilla-costume kidnap - but by a run-of-the-mill bungled warehouse robbery). However, they are still consistently in the high teens, and John Birt's back pocket is not exactly stuffed with potential replacement ratings toppers. Ominous mutterings about such an entertaining and popular programme having no place in the new model BBC seem to have died down in the wake of the Eldorado debacle.

Fatal attraction: A world turned upside down, where the children act like grown- ups and the adults need a good slap. Production values have risen since the early days - not all encounters outside Ramsay Street now take place in Lassiters' Restaurant, and it is no longer true to say that Erinsborough is a place where time may stand still but the walls never will - but there has been no corresponding loss of innocence.

Explain the doctrine of reverse transportation: It's one of imperialism's most piquant ironies. We peopled their island with convicts. A century and a bit later, their vengeance has been wrought on our show-business community, as crack squads of Neighbours and Home and Away alumni have colonised our pop, children's TV and panto communities.

Has this trend passed its peak? It would seem so. The inexplicable failure of Gillian and Gayle Blakeney, aka the almost identical Alessi twins, to make any real impact on our singles charts seemed to mark the end of reflex Neighbours-related pop supremacy. Madge and Harold's 'Old-Fashioned Christmas' was probably the beginning of the end.

What have been Neighbours' lasting contributions to our vocabulary? Dill, dag, dunny, cold one, rage, the olds.

The bottom line: is it any good? Like real life, Neighbours has its ups and downs. The void left by feisty head-teacher Dorothy Burke's departure has yet to be filled, and the show is currently suffering from a surfeit of ex-models, notably Kimberley Davies as Annalise 'I can get any man I want' Hartman; but it has bounced back before and will do so again, snatching catharsis from the jaws of banality.

(Photograph omitted)

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