Next week, Channel Five will broadcast the final episodes of the Australian soap opera, Neighbours. As a regular viewer for the last thirty-seven years (apart from a brief period in my late twenties when I didn’t have a television) it’s been one of my most enduring relationships, so perhaps it will be therapeutic to jot down a few words about its passing.

I chanced upon the first episode one lunchtime in 1986. This was in the days before everybody had a video recorder. With a small part in the West-End musical Mutiny! I was onstage six nights a week. So if I wanted to watch a soap, Neighbours was practically my only option.

The production values might not have been terribly high to start with, but Erinsborough (an anagram of Neighbours by the way), the sun-soaked Melbourne suburb where the programme is set, was a delightful contrast to Thatcher’s Britain. And what’s not to like about a cast of beautiful people who never have to wear a raincoat? As I became better acquainted with the ‘rules’ of the show, it became easy to identify which actors were ‘good looking enough to become regulars’. Of course, quirky was fine for comedy characters, like Harold Bishop. And also small children, who would quickly be replaced by a more pulchritudinous version when they hit puberty.

Talking of the rules, the strict morality that has always underpinned Neighbours is a principal feature of the show. All misdemeanours, no matter how trivial, will be exposed. If you don’t do your homework, lie about the cat’s whereabouts or murder someone and leave them in a shallow grave, you will eventually get your comeuppance. The one exception to this rule is businessman, serial philanderer, unconvicted murderer and general bad-boy, Paul Robinson who – unless the final denouement sees him carted off to prison forever – always appears to get away with it.

Another law of Neighbours is that regular characters mustn’t change. On first arrival in Ramsey Street, they will invariably present with their most undesirable features to the fore (e.g., Joe Mangel and Roxy).  But the more we learn of their backstory and the more they are exposed to the ameliorating qualities of characters like Karl and Susan Kennedy, the more loveable they become. The other circumstance under which a temporary character change is permissible, is to fit the plot. For instance, just recently, Harlow Robinson was diagnosed with an serious case of ‘compassion fatigue,’ which explained an uncharacteristic bout of nastiness that left her alienated enough from her friends to fall prey to a cult. Indeed, after a bout of selective amnesia, the psychopath Finn Kelly spent virtually a whole season as a charming teenager before reverting to his ‘true’ evil self.

I’m happy to say that over the years, particularly more recently, Neighbours has presented itself as a bastion of tolerance. And although some of the characters appear to be way more open-minded than the rest of their behaviours would lead us to expect, this can only be a good thing. We’ve seen lesbian kisses, gay marriages, Pride celebrations and a sympathetically portrayed trans woman (played by a trans actor) in a leading role. So, I was very sad to hear several ex-Neighbours actors complaining about on-set racism and I hope that measures were taken to address this. I’ve never been to Australia, but I have the feeling that when it comes to racial diversity, Neighbours isn’t a particularly accurate reflection of life in most Melbourne suburbs.

I started watching as single man, and ended up with a wonderfully Neighbours-tolerant wife, two children in their twenties, eight published works of fiction (and at least eight more of the other variety) and an ageing cat. The routine hasn’t changed much for the last twenty years: we’ll watch a recording of the show at round about 6.30 at the same time as we eat our tea. (For about a decade, this was proceeded by an episode of The Simpsons, the first 10 seasons of which are, in my opinion, one of the greatest late 20th century artworks – but that’s another story). I’ve introduced many of Jon and Clare’s friends to the show. Several of them have even expressed a polite interest; I don’t believe I’ve ever made a convert.

Neighbours isn’t great art. But it’s a lot better than many of its casual critics would have you believe. There remains a snobbery about soap actors that I’ve never fully understood. Whilst some of the acting has been of the wooden variety (and anyone who saw my Mr Quaddy in a 1997 episode of The Bill will know that I’m an expert on this) there have been some genuinely fine performances that would have held their own in any arena. Several cast members have gone on to ‘bigger’ things. But when it comes to naming the best actor ever to grace Ramsey Street, I don’t have to think twice. Whether dying of cancer, selling a pot plant or just talking ‘Neighbours bollocks’, Eve Morey as Sonya always lit up the screen.

As for storylines, the ‘big’ ones can sometimes be fairly diverting (The Finn Kelly saga, Harold’s disappearance, the return of Dee etc) but it’s the quiet funny moments where the characters behave as we expect them to that I really enjoy; Karl’s latest money-making scam or fitness craze, Susan raising a weary eyebrow, Mrs Mangel being judgmental, some Toadie banter at a barbecue.

I’ve also come to enjoy the wonderfully unlikely things that can only happen in a soap. The headteacher who comes round to your house to give you your exam results, the doctor who’s always there when they admit you to hospital and turns out to be an expert in every area of medicine, the policeman who gets to interview his next-door neighbour when they’re up on a murder charge, not to mention the fact that when a beloved family member leaves Ramsey Street, no one ever mentions them again. Unless of course they’re returning, when their name will suddenly be dropped into the conversation about six episodes before they arrive.

That having been said, I think I’ve learned more about plotting from Neighbours than any writing manual. It’s incredibly difficult to keep the ball rolling like that and the story-liners and writers have done an amazing job. As I started saying to my children in about 2007, ‘the skill is not getting the couples together, it’s keeping them apart.’

Yes, it’s true. I could probably go on writing about this forever. But it’s only a vain attempt to stop myself thinking about the inevitable. Next week Neighbours is ending and I don’t think it’s ever coming back. I spend far too much time on Twitter, but I have no doubt that if it vanished overnight, I’d be at least 10% happier. Perhaps it’s an addiction too, but I’m equally sure that when Neighbours vanishes from our screens it will be more like a mini bereavement.

Published by packhamsimon

I write books.

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