In many ways, the mid 1980s was when Britain, and to a lesser extent the world, put Australia on the map.
Think Mel Gibson and Crocodile Dundee.
Think of The Dame Edna Experience, which took a cross-dressing cult figure and beamed her into homes up and down the land in a prime-time Saturday evening slot.
Think also of the great he-devil Rupert Murdoch consolidating his media empire with Sky Channel. Yes, the future satellite behemoth which launched in Swindon, of all places, by none other than Kate Bush, who has just turned 64, coincidentally.
But in one very mullet-heavy way, they all pale in significance to that watershed moment when Brits first met a group of suburban neighbours living in Ramsay Street, a quiet cul-de-sac in the fictional Melbourne suburb of Erinsborough — neighbours anagrammatised, like you didn’t know.
We were well acquainted with Aussie soaps in the Pafford household, or at least my mother was: The Sullivans, The Young Doctors, Sons And Daughters, A Country Practice, Prisoner: Cell Block H, blah blah blah. Despite them employing people to sing their theme tunes, she watched them all. But mainly because all except the rough-as-fuck jailbird escapades of Prisoner were usually broadcast on weekdays around three or half-past three in the afternoon on ITV — the mid-afternoon slot generally reserved for housewives and the unemployed.
I was rather less keen but somehow I became hooked on one of them after coming home early from college one day and asking what Mum was watching. “Oh, it’s called Sons And Daughters, and the main character beat Joan Collins to be voted telly’s number one superbitch.”
Indeed, ’S&D’ had been a blatant cop of Dynasty, just without the lavish budgets, or camp humour. Or even any humour of any description. Though it would have been pretty painful viewing without the magnetic screen presence of the actress in that lead role, the brilliant Rowena Wallace aka Pat the Rat.
Almost all of the above were created and produced by the Reg Grundy Organisation so it was not uncommon to see the core cast list flit between soaps willy-nilly. Wallace, for instance, appeared in both Neighbours and Home And Away after Sons And Daughters was cancelled in 1987.
But by then little commanded student eyeballs more than Neighbours. When Grundy’s latest creation first aired in the UK on October 27, 1986 — a full eighteen months behind domestic broadcasts — I was in my second month of my second year of college studies at Bletchley Park. And as quick as flash, its popularity spread like outback wildfire among the chattering classes of the educational establishment. Indeed, after a hard day’s college, making sure we were plonked in front of the TV ready for 5.35pm every weekday was pretty much non-negotiable.
Listen, it was undemanding frothy fare that you only wasted 20 minutes of your life watching it. Fair dinkum, cobber.
At its height, the viewing figures reached almost 20 million – levels now all but reserved for over-excitable World Cup finals and dreary royal weddings — but truth be told, by 1988, when Kylie said to Jason ‘let‘s exploit our on screen relationship’ for all its worth by making lowest common denominator music with Hi-NRG hacks Stock Aitken and Waterman I’d already gone off the programme, and much hyped guest spot from the likes of Julian Clary and the Pet Shop Boys’ Chris Lowe hardly had me rushing for the remote again.
As camply entertaining as Madge and Harold were, or as brilliantly infuriating that busybody bitch troll Mrs Mangel was, the contrarian in me had a dewy-eyed nostalgia for the grittier original Seven Network cast that hooked me into the programme in the first place — including the original Scott Robinson to boot, played by the late Darius Perkins, and Danny and Shane Ramsay.
I guess I liked it better when it was a large cult rather than mass marketing ubiquitousness, but then that’s me all over, and I detested Angry Anderson’s theme song for Scott and Charlene’s big day almost as much as Kylie and Jason’s empty poundshop pop.
Other than a brief flirtation with Home And Away in the early 1990s (sinfully, I even had my father record episodes for me on crappy old VHS while I was backpacking round Europe for a couple of months) I haven’t been a regular watcher of any Aussie drama for thirty years.
Having said that, I’m sure when it came to emigrate in 2014 they all impacted the subconscious somehow, along with the first Antipodean programme I remember catching on Saturday mornings as a kid (Skippy) as well as the first time I saw the magnificent sunburned beauty of Australia in pop videos (Men At Work’s Down Under, and nipping on their coat-tails, swiftly followed by David Bowie’s Let’s Dance).
The least said about Rolf Harris the better, right?
The most striking thing when I arrived in Australia was how no one ever admitted to watching Neighbours or Home And Away, even though my last four years living Down Under were on Sydney’s Northern Beaches — Home And Away surf territory through and through.
One person even had the temerity to tell me blame the Brits for Kylie being famous at all. Well, he had a point.
Then again, both soaps are hardly representative of real life. If they were they would have been off air within weeks. They are totally fictional and highly dramatised to the nth degree, but you knew that.
Take it from me, you can take the image portrayed by them with a gigantic grain of salt. I mean, they are so embarrassingly white-bread that it took a good couple of decades before a black, Asian or gay character was introduced, and even then somewhat reluctantly.
So as it airs its last hurrah with a self-congratulatory love letter to its eighties past and the veritable return of a lot of familiar old faces, if I had to list a few reasons why Neighbours appealed to Brits, it would be as follows:
- Australia, in general, is a character in these shows – laid-back, nice weather, beautiful scenery, big houses — with laundry rooms! — leisure time, and so on.
- Lots of young, good-looking people. Never underestimate this as a selling point.
- Relatable – the adult characters are generally middle-class, working, regular people, not poor/disadvantaged (like many UK soaps) or obscenely rich (like most American serials)
- Comfortable domestic situations and (mostly) cohesive, safe family units (the Robinsons, the Mangels, the Ramsays, etc)
- Good drama interspersed with fun moments – serious, but not too serious (the poor Brits get enough of that at home with the dour, depressing likes of EastEnders and so on)
- Aspirational – a generation of Brits wanted to live in Australia after being brought up on Neighbours and Home And Away. Like me, for instance. Sort of.
Joanne, one of my oldest friends from both school and college and who I would sometimes watch Neighbours with, came to visit me when I was living in Melbourne in 2015. For old times’ sake we drove across the city to Pin Oak Court, the street in the Eastern suburb of Vermont South that was used for the show’s exteriors, i.e. the real life Ramsay Street.
The quiet cul-de-sac is located the middle of the Victorian capital’s vast rather flat suburbia. A cliché it may be but the street is a great deal smaller than it appeared on television, yet perhaps more attractive with plentiful lime trees and little details becoming apparent the closer you look. For example, who knew that the house numbers on the mail boxes are amended for the show by the production team by simply sticking on a 2 or a 3 in front of the real house number?
Anyway, just moments after Jo and I had infiltrated the joint, a minibus with a garish yellow Neighbours: The Official Ramsay Street Tour sign painted against a fairly conspicuous blue background pulled up, and out hopped about a dozen faithful fans of the show looking for a piece of Erinsborough excitement.
As we were ticking off all the selfies and felfies (footpic to the uninitiated) at each property, I noticed that the tour group had been furnished with a couple of Ramsay Street signs that they were gleefully sharing between them like a game of pass the parcel.
It opened up my eyes, because life is demanding without understanding, right?
I asked the tour organiser and driver of said minibus if I could borrow the sign for a minute for a requisite souvenir snap, and he informed me utterly officiously that “these people have paid money for this tour. It’s strictly for them.”
I did an about 360 turn and said “Fuck that” under my breath — but just loud enough that he and Jo could hear me — and promptly marched up to whoever was holding the sign.
“G’day. Do you mind if I borrow that sign for a minute after you? Like, quickly?”
At which point said sign was handed over, and I snatched a few illicit piccies as the big bad boss looked on furiously, steam almost emanating from his jug-eared head.
I handed it back smugly, and as Jo and I made for our rental car and a rendezvous with the Great Ocean Road, I glanced at him and said simply
“Everybody needs good neighbours. Perhaps no one ever told you that before?”
Strewth. If those daggers that spiked from his eyes were real I’d have been dead seven years ago now.
RIP Neighbours. You were rubbish, but you were attractive rubbish, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms.
Fair dinkum, cobber.