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Don’t axe Neighbours – it would be a genuine loss to the TV landscape

Amid the gloom of Thatcherite Britain, Neighbours was pure escapism when it launched in the Eighties – and has continued to provide comfort and community to millions, writes Michael Hogan

<p>The original cast of ‘Neighbours’, which is being dropped in the UK after 36 years </p>

The original cast of ‘Neighbours’, which is being dropped in the UK after 36 years

Neighbours, as the title song reminds us, should be there for one another. Sadly, the residents of Ramsay Street won’t be there for us much longer. After several days of rumbling tabloid rumours, it’s been officially confirmed that iconic soap Neighbours will end on Channel 5 this summer. It’s not a g’day and it’s definitely not fair dinkum.

Fans are reeling at news that the long-running Australian stalwart has been axed from the UK schedules. Production will be paused indefinitely while makers Fremantle search for a new broadcaster with whom to collaborate. Neighbours has been a fixture on British screens for 36 years – the first 22 of those on BBC One, followed by 14 at the heart of Channel 5’s daytime schedules. Strewth, mate. It’s the end of an Erinsborough era.

The sun-soaked drama about a fictional suburban Melbourne cul-de-sac launched here in October 1986, imported by controller Michael Grade to pad out BBC One’s new daytime roster. Against all odds, it swiftly became a pop-cultural phenomenon. Its perky storylines and wholesome cast proved irresistible to Brits raised on a diet of gritty, kitchen sink-style misery fests like Coronation Street and EastEnders.

Amid the gloom of Thatcherite Britain, Neighbours and its arch ITV rival Home & Away (now aired together by Channel 5 in a barbie-sparking double bill) provided a welcome burst of sunshine. They were escapist, exotic and aspirational. Neighbours was cannily scheduled too, airing at lunchtime (ideal as an undemanding, 22-minute sandwich accompaniment) and at 5.35pm, straight after the children’s programming to attract a teen audience home from school.

Fewer channels back then meant the show punched above its weight and influenced a generation – from its coverage of hard-hitting issues to speaking with an upward inflection at the end of sentences? It duly became a much bigger deal over here than it ever was Down Under, regularly watched by 16 million Brits – more than the entire population of Australia at the time.

When the cast were flown over to perform at the 1988 Royal Variety Performance, they were greeted with screaming hysteria like a boyband. Legend had it that Princess Diana was a fan and once asked the BBC for videotapes of two episodes she’d missed.

In November 1988, a peak of 19.6 million viewers tuned in, tissues at the ready, for the eagerly awaited wedding of schoolboy-next-door Scott Robinson and tomboy-ish car mechanic Charlene Mitchell. Played by Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue, the toothy golden couple had become firm tabloid favourites, with the public obsessing over whether they were dating off screen, too.

Both launched successful pop careers off the back of their soap fame. Much-loved Kylie is still going strong. Other Neighbours alumni to successfully pivot to pop include Natalie Imbruglia, Delta Goodrem and Holly Valance, along with a host of one-hit wonders. Craig McLachlan & Check 1-2, anyone?

Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue in ‘Neighbours’

It wasn’t just on Top Of The Pops where familiar Erinsborough faces began appearing. Ramsay Street’s manicured front lawns and backyard swimming pools became a breeding ground for Australian acting talent. The show launched the careers of Hollywood thesps including Guy Pearce (who played troubled teen Mike Young), Margot Robbie (kooky groupie Donna Freedman) and Liam Hemsworth (paraplegic Josh Taylor).

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Russell Crowe appeared in four episodes as a villainous ex-con called Kenny Larkin. Jesse Spencer, who played floppy-haired Billy Kennedy, went on to star in US medical drama House. Neighbours patriarch Alan Dale, aka Jim Robinson, ended up portraying elder statesmen in The OC, Ugly Betty, Lost and 24. All a long way from the Lassiters hotel complex (home of the legendary Waterhole pub).

Whereas British soaps are famed for their matriarchs, Neighbours was traditionally all about couples. As well as Scott ’n’ Charlene, there was Dee ’n’ Toadie, Des ’n’ Daphne, Drew ’n’ Libby, Beth ’n’ Brad, Madge ’n’ Harold and Dr Karl ’n’ Susan.

Depending on their vintage, devotees tend to have a storyline that still makes them mist over. Who can forget golden labrador Bouncer’s dream that he was marrying Rosie, the border collie who lived next door? Or Harold “Jellybelly” Bishop being swept out to sea, leaving just a poignant pair of glasses behind? Or amateur artist Helen Daniels painting an unflattering lock-necked portrait of battleaxe Mrs Mangel? Or Susan Kennedy slipping on spilt milk, hitting her head and becoming convinced she was 16 again? Or pregnant hunt saboteur Kerry Mangel being killed by a stray bullet while bravely trying to save some ducks?

The show has smartly played on viewers’ fond nostalgia by reintroducing old characters. In 2004, original cast member Stefan Dennis returned full-time as ruthless local businessman Paul Robinson – sort of the Ian Beale of Ramsay Street. Other comeback queens have included Melanie Pearson (complete with annoying laugh), back-from-the-dead Dee Bliss, the Alessi twins and “Plain Jane Superbrain” Harris.

Stefan Dennis as Paul Robinson – the Ian Beale of ’Neighbours’

To many of us, Neighbours might be a sort of retro throwback to ye olde days of lemon juice-lightened mullets and double denim. However, the soap still has a solid Brit following. It currently pulls in 1.5 million viewers across its two daily airings. That’s more than homegrown soaps Hollyoaks and Doctors.

The lunchtime edition performs particularly well, often notching Channel 5’s highest audience share of the day. This reflects the fact that many of its loyal fans are at home during the day: students, shift-workers, retirees, stay-at-home parents, the unemployed or house-bound. With daytime budgets being squeezed across the board, these viewers are poorly served elsewhere. They’ll miss the comfort and sense of community such a show provides.

Channel 5 makes a significant contribution to production costs and Neighbours has become reliant on its funding. Now the channel’s highly rated director of programming Ben Frow has decided to spend his budget on homegrown drama instead. Unless another broadcaster comes forward with a bid – ITV2, BBC Three or UKTV feel like the best fit – Neighbours looks doomed to join Family Affairs, Crossroads and Eldorado up in soap heaven.

As it stands, Channel 5’s final episode will air in August. Home broadcaster Network Ten says it’s determined to keep the show on-air – but to do so, it desperately needs a new backer. Neighbours is now the longest-running drama series on Australian television and the seventh longest-running in the world. It would be a genuine loss to the TV landscape.

Fans have already started a #SaveNeighbours campaign on social media in a bid to build support. At the time of writing, a “Don’t axe Neighbours” petition had gathered 19,000 signatures. Yes, it needs good friends to save it now. What’s that you say, Bouncer? Somebody give Kylie a call? Good idea, boy. Pass the dog and bone…

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