|Scans above from the Neighbours DVD thanks to gladannie|
The SMH 3/15/05
Neighbours - 20th Birthday
Axed and ridiculed in its first year, Neighbours has gone on to become a national institution. Michael Idato celebrates its 20th birthday.
Launched by the Seven Network on March 18, 1985, Neighbours struggled for four months before a quiet, ignominious cancellation. In an extraordinary move, Channel Ten bought the show, relaunching it to an indifferent audience and sceptical critics.
But not only did Neighbours survive to tell the tale, this week it celebrates its 20th year on air.
"Everything has to line up in the universe to get any TV show made, let alone be successful," says executive producer Ric Pellizzeri. "For that to happen twice, it is just extraordinary and when you're fighting those odds it shouldn't surprise us that it's still here 20 years later."
At 4675 episodes (the 4676th airs tonight), it has become the longest-running primetime soap in Australia, and the second-longest running in the world, behind Britain's Coronation Street. It has been sold to 57 countries and while America has proven a nut too tough to crack, the show's success in Britain is dizzying.
The story really begins not in 1985, but five years earlier when Seven commissioned two drama pilots. The first, A Special Place, told the story of an elderly woman who looked after street kids. The second, People Like Us, was about five families living on the one street. Neither materialised, but the second concept simmered on the backburner and resurfaced several years later.
Conceived by Reg Watson, it was titled Neighbours and set in Erinsborough - a fictional leafy outer-Melbourne suburb. Pin Oak Court in Melbourne's Vermont South was chosen for the exteriors and rechristened Ramsay Street. Although no one knew it at the time, a TV hit was born.
The original characters included plumber Max Ramsay (Francis Bell), after whose family the street was named, his migrant wife Maria (Dasha Blahova) and their sons Shane (Peter O'Brien) and Danny (David Clencie). Widower Jim Robinson (Alan Dale) lived next door with his kids, Paul (Stefan Dennis), Julie (Vikki Blanche), Scott (Darius Perkins) and Lucy (Kylie Flinker), and mother-in-law Helen Daniels (Anne Haddy).
Neighbours drew immediate comparison to Coronation Street, though in style and tone it borrowed more from Britain's Brookside and America's Knots Landing, both set in cul-de-sacs.
The latter was the blueprint for a genre of suburban soaps that became immensely popular in the late 1980s.
After four months, and cripplingly low ratings in Sydney, Neighbours was cancelled and the sun set on Ramsay Street. The production company Grundy Television, however, had discreetly pitched the series to other networks, and Ten, keen to groom a prime-time drama hit, decided better the devil it knew.
Neighbours was repackaged (and, in the case of Darius Perkins, who was replaced with Jason Donovan as Scott Robinson, recast) and the production moved to new digs at Ten's Melbourne studios in Nunawading. The race was on to turn Neighbours from ugly duckling into glittering swan.
The show debuted on Ten in January 1986. By April, a tomboy called Charlene (Kylie Minogue) had moved into the neighbourhood. Her first encounter with Scott - she punched him in the face after mistaking him for a robber - gave no hint that they would become one of Australian television's iconic romances, on and off screen.
The show's salvation was a marketing blitz on a scale previously unseen in Australia. Ten's director of publicity, Brian Walsh, one of the best publicity stuntmen in Australia, toured the cast in the shopping centres of every capital city, generating unprecedented frenzy on radio and in afternoon newspapers. Neighbours mania was born.
Linda Walker, working on Neighbours in 1986 as a production assistant (she is now the line producer, in charge of the day-to-day production), got her first inkling of the show's popularity when normally subdued location shoots started attracting crowds. Within months hundreds had turned to thousands and she witnessed the kind of scenes normally associated with bands like the Beatles.
"You can't believe the number of people who would surround buses and trucks," she says.
"We were trying to get work done with all these screaming kids."
Stefan Dennis (who has just returned as Paul Robinson after an absence of 12 years) says he was mystified by the show's sudden success. "It was one of those things that happened to come out of the bag, whether it was the right place at the right time or the right smiling faces, who knows?"
The show's success in Britain, however, is easier to explain. Dennis believes that Neighbours, like Home and Away, offered its British audience a brighter, more colourful alternative to the traditionally grim situations of their soap opera staples, Coronation Street and EastEnders. "They are quite dour, heavy and suppressed shows, whereas Neighbours was more uplifting," he says.
Neighbours' portrayal of an affluent white-bread suburban utopia doesn't sit well with everyone. "You would struggle to find an Australian suburb that is like Neighbours these days," says Andrew Mercado, author of Super Aussie Soaps. "We live in a multicultural society, and our soaps don't really reflect that." The show's one flirtation with multiculturalism, the Lim family, was not a great success. The Hong Kong migrants were in and out of the show within six weeks.
Overall, however, the success of the series over two decades speaks for itself. After Donovan and Minogue left the series to pursue pop careers in Britain, Guy Pearce, Craig McLachlan, Natalie Imbruglia, Daniel MacPherson, Holly Valance and Delta Goodrem followed - though the series never quite returned to those early heights.
The Nunawading site where Neighbours has been filmed for 19 of its 20 years was sold to Global Television in 1994. Neighbours is still filmed there, though the studio's heart beats a little more slowly.
"It's a bit of a ghost town compared to what it was in 1985," says Dennis, sitting in the canteen, which is connected by a warren of corridors to the cavernous soundstages that once housed such iconic TV series as Carson's Law and Prisoner.
At 20, Neighbours is showing its age but there's no suggestion its days are numbered. Its national audience hugs the 1 million mark, a respectable audience for an early evening drama, although less than the current darling, Seven's Home and Away.
The key to its ongoing success, says actress Jackie Woodburne, who plays teacher Susan Kennedy, is tapping the show's, and the audience's, strong sense of community. "It's a soap opera, so every story is a heightened story, but at the heart of it are people who genuinely care about each other," she says.
Pellizzeri agrees. "It is the need to belong, to be a part of a community, the need to know you have neighbours, friends, and acquaintances who will support you," he says.
Ten has signed the series for at least three more years, and Pellizzeri promises a year of onscreen fireworks, including a major storyline in June to mark the anniversary featuring the return of several iconic characters.
"Neighbours is a relevant contemporary show," says Pellizzeri. "It's still telling stories that are relevant to you and me, to people in this country and the way they live their lives."
Neighbours airs on Ten, weekdays at 6.30pm.
Alan Dale (Jim Robinson, 1985-93) The patriarch of the Robinson family, Jim died of a heart attack in March 1994. Dale moved to Los Angeles in 2000. Guest roles in ER, The Practice, CSI: Miami and 24 led to a starring role in The O.C.
Peter O'Brien (Shane Ramsay, 1985-87) The swimming champion son of Max and Maria Ramsay, whose love for Daphne (Elaine Smith) was thwarted when she left him for Des (Paul Keane). O'Brien's post-Neighbours career has included roles in Queer as Folk, The Bill and White Collar Blue.
Jason Donovan (Scott Robinson, 1986-89) Jim's son, who worked as a journalist with the Erinsborough News, married Charlene (Kylie Minogue) and moved to Brisbane. Donovan briefly became a pop star. He recently starred in the ABC's MDA.
Kylie Minogue (Charlene Mitchell, 1986-88) The tomboy daughter of Madge Mitchell (Anne Charleston), Charlene worked as a mechanic and, after marrying Scott, had a son, Daniel. Since leaving Neighbours, she has become one of the most successful recording artists in Australia and Britain.
Guy Pearce (Mike Young, 1986-89) Likeable teacher Mike fell in love with girl next door Jane Harris (Annie Jones) before leaving for Perth to care for his sick mother. Pearce is now an accomplished film actor. His credits include The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, L.A. Confidential, Memento and The Time Machine.
Russell Crowe (Kenny Larkin, 1987) In Erinsborough for only four episodes, Kenny was a small-time crook and pal to Henry Mitchell (Craig McLachlan). Crowe has since become an international star in films such as Romper Stomper, L.A. Confidential, Gladiator and Master and Commander. (image thanks to Max Crowe)
Craig McLachlan (Henry Mitchell, 1987-89) Charlene's brother married Bronwyn Davies (Rachel Friend) and moved to New Zealand to be a disc jockey. After a brief pop career, McLachlan has worked extensively in television with roles in Heroes' Mountain and Through My Eyes.
Rachel Friend (Bronwyn Davies, 1988-90) Bronwyn left school to complete a child-care course, married Henry Mitchell and moved to New Zealand. Friend quit acting and has worked as a reporter and producer on A Current Affair and Celebrity Overhaul. She married cricketer Stuart MacGill in 2000.
Natalie Imbruglia (Beth Brennan, 1991-93, 1994) A once-troubled girl who made good, got a job as a builder, married local lad Brad (Scott Michaelson) and moved to Western Australia. Imbruglia has become a successful pop star in Australia and Britain.
Kimberley Davies (Annalise Hartman, 1993-96) After being jilted at the altar by seminary-bound Mark Gottlieb (Bruce Samazan), Annalise headed to Britain and into the arms of Sam Kratz (Richard Grieve). Davies now lives in the US but may soon be returning to Australia and Neighbours. Her TV credits include Pacific Palisades and guest roles in Friends and Spin City.
Jesse Spencer (Billy Kennedy, 1994-2000) Karl and Susan Kennedy's son fell in love with Anne Wilkinson (Brooke Satchwell) and moved to the country. Spencer is now based in Los Angeles and his credits include the Swiss Family Robinson remake Stranded and a new drama series, House M.D.
Alex Dimitriades (Steve George, 1996) A womanising real estate agent with an eye for Danni Stark (Eliza Szonert), last seen in the clutches of his angry wife. Dimitriades became a star after 1993's The Heartbreak Kid and 1995's Blue Murder and went on to appear in the ABC's Wildside, the movies Head On and Ghost Ship and Channel Nine's ill-fated Young Lions.
Radha Mitchell (Catherine O'Brien, 1996-97) An idealistic student who worked at the coffee shop but chased true love Mal (Benjamin McNair) to Britain. Mitchell has lived in Los Angeles since 1997 and her film credits include Kick, Phone Booth, Visitors and Finding Neverland.
Daniel MacPherson (Joel Samuels, 1998-2002) After romancing everyone from Anne Wilkinson and Sally Upton to Natalie Rigby and Felicity Scully, Joel finished his marine biology course and headed to Queensland. MacPherson left Neighbours for a role on The Bill. He now hosts The X Factor.
Holly Valance (Felicity Scully, 1999-2002) Joe and Lyn Scully's daughter became a scarlet woman after her affair with sister Steph's fiance, Marc. After leaving Neighbours, Valance pursued a pop career. In 2003, she was sued by her former manager (and fellow Neighbours alumnus), Scott Michaelson.
Delta Goodrem (Nina Tucker, 2002-03, 2004, 2005)
The quintessential girl next door, caught between Taj (Jaime Robbie Reyne) and Jack (Jay Bunyan), Nina headed to India to spend time with her father. Goodrem has become a successful pop star.