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After 30 years, can Neighbours and Australians become good friends?

For 30 years the families of Ramsay Street have been working out their problems before a devoted international audience. AAP Image/Ten

Tomorrow (March 18) marks the 30th anniversary of Neighbours – a pretty impressive feat for a soap that is so often derided or avoided in its country of origin. So what’s its secret?

First, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have been writing Neighbours on and off for 15 years. I began as a storyliner in 2000, became a script editor in 2002, left the show in 2004 to live in the UK and work on other soaps, taking both the ethos and the methodology of Neighbours to countries such as Croatia, Slovakia, and Poland – and then finally returned to Erinsborough where I now once more write and edit scripts.

I knew Neighbours was a cultural icon, but it wasn’t until I began writing the show and came into contact with the fans that I realised just how important this daily half hour about a suburban cul de sac is to peoples’ lives. I mentioned to a woman in England that I had storylined Madge’s death – she burst into tears and said: “Madge was like a grandmother to me.”

Where the fans live

The massive UK fan base, established when Neighbours was on the BBC in the 1980s and 1990s and screened twice a day, and managing to remain strong through the move to Channel 5 with it smaller audience reach (still screening twice a day), keeps the show going through the ups and downs of Australian audiences’ love/hate relationship with it. There’s a regular bus tour to “Ramsay Street” (actually Pin Oak Court in the eastern suburb of Vermont South) and a crowded and raucous fan night held every Monday at a pub in Melbourne’s St Kilda where some of the actors chat and take photos with the fans. Most of the accents are English.

All aboard the Neighbours tour bus. Simon Tunbridge/Flickr

Why don’t we Australians love our Neighbours? Perhaps it’s a victim of tall poppy syndrome, with Australians compelled to turn their backs on our greatest cultural export – though I defy you to find an Australian who hasn’t seen Scott and Charlene’s wedding, Bouncer’s dream or Madge’s death.

Or perhaps it is that we don’t want to watch a reflection of ourselves and our lives – it’s just not exciting enough, not different enough, or perhaps not realistic enough. Neighbours is the boring suburbia we are trying to escape, but for UK and other overseas audiences it’s a peaceful, privileged life where you can spend half the day in the pub and still pay the mortgage and not be a drunk.

Happy days for Scott and Charlene. AAP Image/Ten

One of the reasons for Neighbours’ popularity in the UK and elsewhere – it has been sold to 50 countries – is undoubtedly the vision it creates of a sunnier life elsewhere, where good neighbours become good friends, no-one is lonely, and everyone’s life has drama, laughter, and love.

But not too much drama.

Neighbours’ stories tend to work through issues to regain a state of balance and happiness. In some cases this takes years.

Popular heritage characters Susan and Karl have been on the show since 1994. They have raised children, split up, divorced, and remarried several times. Together again, they exemplify true love: facing challenges but always together in the end. The show has heart; it’s one of the mantras for the writers.

I remember working with a producer whose story vision was that there was never a Neighbours’ problem so big that it couldn’t be solved over a cup of tea. As drama writers we railed against him, but in hindsight perhaps he was right.

It’s one of the shows enduring story features and best loved qualities: that things do have a tendency to turn out okay. Except, that is, for the characters who have been killed off over the years – though they have lovely funerals where lots of people cry. Even in death, good neighbours are good friends.

Bouncer’s dream.

Real life stories

Many people have said to me that they grew up watching Neighbours, and now that they have children themselves, watching the show together every day is a bond. And a way of bringing up sometimes difficult issues with children and teenagers.

The fans on Ramsay Street. Thomas Riggs/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Although Neighbours has a G rating, the writers regularly approach contentious topics and give the characters real relatable crises to face.

Over the years I’ve been involved in writing stories about surrogacy, drug addiction, sexuality, and of course infidelity, crime and illnesses galore.

Neighbours may not always explore the darkest possibilities of these issues, but the writers research extensively and put consideration into how to tell these stories responsibly and dramatically. A key factor is always telling stories emotionally and within character. I think this is one of the things that makes the show endure: a loyalty to character, plus a sense of hope.

Thirty years on Ramsay Street

The concept of Neighbours was created in a different time historically and culturally. In 1985 Reg Watson came up with a humble television show about families living on a street. It was commissioned by Channel 7, dropped after a year, and then picked up by Channel 10, which could not have imagined the success ahead.

Craig McLachlan and Kylie Minogue at Neighbours’ most famous wedding. AAP Image/Ten

The golden age that defines the show was definitely the late ‘80s period of Scott and Charlene and the wedding that lives on in popular cultural memory. I have written a few Neighbours weddings and always been contacted by fans who want to use the vows for their own weddings. It’s not the writing that’s so special – it’s the aura of Neighbours and the desire to be connected to the happiness of family and friends in Erinsborough.

Family is definitely one of the keys of the concept’s success. Whenever the balance of characters shifts too far from family groups, towards share houses or singletons, ratings drop, fans complain. There is definitely a yearning to see families living together, working through their issues and coming out the other end still together.

In some ways, Neighbours is a victim of its own success. It is unable to change drastically because the fans love it the way it is. If it is accused of being naïve, unrealistic, and out of touch, let’s not forget that it is a television show from another time, another century.

Clearly, its enduring popularity and 30-year anniversary are evidence that it’s in touch with many people daily. And it seems that what Neighbours gives – family, hope, endurance – is what many people still want to see.

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