Television |

Neighbours and Me

Neighbours (2020). Image supplied by 10 Peach, Australian TV listings.

When Australia’s longest running television drama first aired in 1985, the theme song warbled out from Victorian suburbia:

Neighbours, Everybody needs good neighbours

Just a friendly wave each morning helps to make a better day

Somehow, even after having endured each variation of that song throughout the years, the opening chords never fail to draw my gaze to the show.

We’re just about the same age, Neighbours and I, and living with anxiety in a rapidly changing world, I’m grateful for the familiarity and predictability the series provides—a safe place to turn for a little comfort and respite.

Sure, it’s a sometimes thing, I’m not the best at keeping in touch, but a part of me lives in Erinsborough and I make sure to check in from time to time. Enough to keep me grounded. 

Serial producer Reg Watson created Neighbours off the back of his success with Prisoner and Sons and Daughters. The new storyline would revolve around the lives of three families in a cul-de-sac. Viewers in Melbourne tuned in, but there was no audience in Sydney so after a few months Seven dropped it and Ten picked it up. A few adjustments were made. Some emphasis was taken off the older residents and instead focused in on the appeal of the teenage characters. Momentum gathered. 

When Scott and Charlene (Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue) married in 1987, 2 million Australians tuned in. Kylie quickly recorded Locomotion and her stardom soared accordingly. From teenage mechanic in Erinsborough to real life Princess of Pop. When the wedding episode aired in the United Kingdom in 1988, closer to 20 million people tuned in. 

I don’t remember Scott and Charlene, I mean apart from having seen them in flashbacks and highlight reels. I do remember the to-and-fro between Beth and Brad, which puts my entry to Ramsay St somewhere around 1993. I remember when the Kennedys moved into number 28 and connecting with them from the get-go. If they resembled my own family, then perhaps I saw myself in Billy (Jesse Spencer).

While the teenage characters have almost always benefited from far more interesting storylines than those of their parents, Susan remains my favourite Ramsay St resident. Compassionate and kind as they come, she became one of the maternal figures from TV that I’d look up to, alongside the likes of Sally Field or Sissy Spacek. I’m not sure I’d continue to go back and look in if Susan wasn’t there.

Obviously, there are issues with diversity and representation. With mainstream media networks in this country, there always are. Melbourne is vastly multicultural and it rains a lot, neither of these two facts have been realistically addressed or correctly portrayed throughout Neighbours’ thirty-five year tenure. Arguably, they’re a lot better than their rivals at Home & Away, but then meeting that criteria alone is not setting the bar very high.

A couple of times through the 1990s and 2000s (often when they were criticised for being too White) Neighbours would introduce a “culturally diverse” family into their world, but it never happened organically. Being invariably shrouded by poor scriptwriting and awkward stereotyping, they never lasted long. A memorable failure in this regard was the ill-fated Lim family who briefly lived at number 22. Certain neighbours were unhappy about the Chinese arrivals and objected to their children playing together. When a neighbourhood dog went missing, the Lims were accused of eating it.

Neighbours has been making a more meaningful effort in recent years to better reflect its time and place. Three years ago, Toadie’s brother, Pufferfish, turned up with his family who are Indian-Australian, and they seem to have been written in as well as any other family on the street. Moreover, his daughter Yashvi is the strongest character they’ve had in ages.

Last year saw the inclusion of Mackenzie, Erinsborough’s first transgender character played by Georgie Stone—a notable advocate for gender diverse youth. She’s also a really strong character whose popularity with viewers ensured that hers would not be a fleeting or token presence.

When long term residents David and Aaron tied the knot in 2018, they became the first gay couple to legally marry in Australian TV history. LGBTQ+ rights activist Magda Szubanski played the celebrant. Theirs isn’t the only same-sex relationship in town either and there’s been a lesbian wedding since.

At a glance, Neighbours almost seems to be approaching a point where they’re able to write in characters who aren’t solely defined or stereotyped by whichever diverse group they represent or identify with. This air of inclusivity they seem to have been nurturing allows for better written and more realistic storylines to engage with. 

Do they get it right? Probably not. But from my perspective, it seems like Neighbours is learning how to better present a range of relevant issues and diverse characters, more naturally and respectfully.

I feel like Erinsborough High (2019), the short lived spin-off series, worked really well and they should look to pick that up again at some point. Its primary focus was on the kids and the school, kind of how Heartbreak High (1994-1999) used to be, and the storylines centred on bullying, anxiety, sexuality, and all that high school stuff that makes for good conversation and social awareness.

I came across another soapie called Love Patrol (2007-2016) once and watched a few seasons of that. It was the first ever locally-produced TV show made in Vanuatu and the storylines centred around issues like HIV and STIs, unemployment and police brutality, which were relevant to the audience. Apart from being a great soap and really popular with a host of Pacific Island communities, it vastly improved the education around health promotion and disease prevention by destigmatising some important issues.

The reality is that in Australia Neighbours’ popularity has been declining ever since Scott and Charlene’s wedding. During the 1990s, sometimes a million people would tune in for an episode. In the 2000s there might have been half a million viewers on a good day. Recently, the numbers have been idling around 130,000.

Last year after a long hiatus, I tuned in to find out what was going on. I’d caught wind that Dee would be returning—despite having died on her wedding day back in 2003. It was clear, however, that a satisfactory explanation for this anomaly was to be teased out slowly and at the time I wasn’t wholly ready to recommit. Before long I heard rumblings of even bigger events on the horizon. Rob Mills’ character (Finn), who prior to developing amnesia had been particularly homicidal, was out to kill again. I went in to have a look, with a thought to Susan’s well-being.

A while back during a period of depression in which I lay in bed for a week, I decided to pick a random point in the Neighbours timeline and lock into it. I started from Stingray’s death in 2007 (episode 5174). Suddenly, there I was again—there with Karl and Susan when they remarried (on location in London) and then found out that Izzy was pregnant with Karl’s baby, there when Pepper was taken hostage and Frazer was hit by a horse, and when Carmella developed a drug habit and Toadie proposed to Steph. I was there when Sky went to jail for murder.

It may sound like a bleak trip, but I was grateful for the company, and for bearing witness to their relatable shortcomings and mediocre acting performances. After about 150 episodes I rang the doctor, filled a prescription and went to see my psychologist.

I would extol the virtues of Neighbours, if indeed I knew what they were. However, my relationship with the show, though long and complex, remains superficial and neither here nor there for the most part. It’s kind of like how you have that friend you’ve known for ages, but you still don’t really know what you have in common. Or maybe it’s like that friend with whom you don’t talk for years at a time, but when you do again, you can pick it right up without dropping the tune.

The point is, I know I could listen to a great album, or open a timeless book, or at least find a better program to watch. Sometimes you want an alternate reality to indulge in or escape to because it’s fantastic and idyllic. Sometimes you want something abstract or challenging, and sometimes the specific respite you crave calls for something dull and flawed and easy to recognise.

Sometimes checking in on Erinsborough is kind of like a phone call home.