It might be difficult to believe now, but Neighbours was once a very real ratings threat. This sunny Aussie soap, which is about to air its final episode, once commanded audiences of millions in the UK, regularly overtaking the viewing figures of EastEnders and Coronation Street in the race to become Britain’s favourite soap. Although its Australian viewers quickly outgrew its charms, British audiences kept returning to Ramsay Street for their weekday dose of vitamin D and melodrama.
Centring on the families living on a cul-de-sac in suburban Melbourne, Neighbours has – in typical soap fashion – seen a disproportionate share of feuds, love affairs, crime and explosions. Created by former Crossroads producer-director Reg Watson, the soap was initially broadcast in Australia in 1985 before being sold to more than 60 countries. It landed on British screens on 27 October 1986, with a BBC press release describing it as “a venture away from the traditional bought-in ‘soap’ format. It is down-to-earth, centres on ordinary families, with a particular emphasis on young people and the problems they face.”
Press cuttings held at the BFI National Archive reveal that the initial press reception of the show was largely unfavourable. It was said to be “comically awful” or “corny”, and described as a show in which “nothing ever happens”. Some likened this narrative slowness to radio’s The Archers or Watson’s previous hit, Crossroads.
The growing popularity of Neighbours reached its pinnacle in 1988, when 19.6 million viewers tuned in to watch the famous wedding of favourites Scott and Charlene (Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue). Yet column inches were still devoted to the allegedly unexplainable phenomenon of its appeal and the BBC’s decision to broadcast it – the argument being that it had neither the grit and gravitas of EastEnders and Coronation Street nor the glamour of Dallas.
That it was shown twice every weekday was particularly outrageous. The derision called into question the tastes of the British public, suggesting daytime television audiences were helpless addicts of inferior TV. By extension, this also insulted its primary audience – those at home during the day or children watching after school. The timing of the soap’s afternoon broadcast secured its place as a homework distraction for thousands still sitting on the sofa in their school uniforms.
Yet its popularity with school-aged audiences often caused concern for parents, teachers and MPs. The BFI archives hold records of complaints made to the Broadcasting Standards Council, including objections about the show’s bad language or its portrayals of teen romance and crime. This seemingly lightweight soap apparently had the capacity to corrupt children in the gravest ways, exposing them to adult themes, dulling their senses and even changing the way they speak.
The soap further embedded itself in teen fan culture through memorabilia, music and fashion. Its star-led publicity meant regular cast visits to the UK, much to the delight of young fans, many of whom would follow the careers of leaving cast members as they moved on to other ventures in music, film and theatre. The list of big names who got their start on Ramsay Street is long.
Neighbours always walked a tightrope between breezy fantasy and serious issue-led stories, with storylines covering everything from long lost Robinsons and dog daydreams to cybercrime and trans rights. Recent years have seen drastic moves to better represent its audiences with more diverse characters.
But what sets Neighbours apart from its British counterparts is that it has always maintained a sense of fun. Whether it’s playing Kylie songs during the show’s first gay wedding or paying tribute to EastEnders’ 30th anniversary, Neighbours loves giving a knowing nod to its fan base. Even in the face of its imminent cancellation we’ve seen the appearance of a character trying to save his favourite soap, ‘One Way Street’, from being axed. ‘One Way Street’ was one of the original titles optioned for Neighbours.
Building on audience nostalgia has also seen the recent return of 1980s and 90s characters. Audiences waited 16 long years to learn the fate of Toadie’s beloved missing wife, Dee Bliss. Spoiler: it involved an evil twin.
With guest appearances by British personalities, scenes filmed in the UK and British funding of the show through Channel 5, it’s evident that Neighbours’ relationship with the UK has been reciprocal. The daily repeat of episodes has meant that the show features highly in the off-air recordings maintained by the BFI National Archive. Thousands of broadcasts have been captured over the programme’s tenure on BBC One and later on Channel 5, a true testament to the stature of the series in the history of British television. It captured the British imagination, even inspiring a surprisingly moving recreation of Scott and Charlene’s wedding on reality show Don’t Tell the Bride.
I’ve watched Neighbours on and off since the late 90s. The show’s sense of fun and narrative unpredictability provided the background noise to my school and university days. Its warmth and memorable characters have always drawn me back. Who hasn’t wanted to go for a milkshake at Harold’s with a side order of gentle advice, or have a teacher as understanding as Mrs Kennedy? There’s the Rebecchi clan and their amphibian nicknames, frenemies Harold and Lou, and the ultimate 90s couple, Billy and Anne. An honourable mention, too, to resident baddie Paul Robinson, a man whose long list of crimes is just surpassed by his list of long-lost children.
Without the existence of Neighbours there would be gaps in our shared social history. For many, the show has been much more than a lunchtime or teatime slice of escapist comfort. It may not have been perfect, but it was never boring.
As UK audiences prepare to take their last trip to Erinsborough on 29 July, fans will be hoping Neighbours gets a last-minute reprieve, in a dramatic twist fitting of the show. We shall hold our collective breath. After all, if Dee Bliss can come back after 16 years…