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Comment > 29 Not Out! by Si Hunt

So, Neighbours is 29 years young. Good innings eh? Well, yes from the point of view that many of us have feared the worst many times over the years (when it moved to Channel 5, that time they announced they weren't going to do much location filming any more) only for the show to subsequently grow even stronger. But these days 29 years also doesn't seem like that much time at all. Coronation Street and Doctor Who are both over 50 years old, and both seem eternally young and familiar. Even rotten old EastEnders is also gearing up for its three decade milestone (I expect they will celebrate with a live episode and someone getting murdered). Maybe it's because, conversely, although everything always changes in Ramsay Street - people arrive, move on and have failed singing careers like you or I have hot dinners - the general feel of the show has always felt re-assuringly the same. But does Neighbours have a formula, an ethos, a successful pattern? What makes it what it is?

Certain things always remain the same. There have always been beautiful eloping teenagers on Ramsay Street. There has usually been a nosy busy-body neighbour raising an eyebrow over perceived outlandish behaviour. There has always been a handsome young man or two sending the young women of Ramsay Street's hearts into palpatations. And there will probably always be Paul Robinson, manipulating the board rooms and offices of Lassiter's to cause some disruption for the local residents. These are storyline constants, the sort that you grow to recognise and even anticipate if, like me, you are a long-term viewer. Recently, as young Josh Willis struggled to recover from a sports injury, he was eyed up by a beefy stranger doing bench presses behind him. The camera seemed to be loving this vacuous hunk, as it kept darting back to him as if to nod and wink at us. "Look!" it seemed to be saying, "He's got some significance!". Immediately our Neighbours Historian Gene kicked in.

"Now," my other half suddenly declared, "he's either going to be a miracle trainer who will have Josh back in the pool inside a week, or he's going to give him drugs." Needless to say, by the end of the episode one of his prognosis' had turned out to be correct. Because we both remembered the same storyline coming round a few years back - Heaven knows who with. Declan maybe? It doesn't matter. The point is, these things come round every now and then. We've recently been catching up on our "Neighbours - From The Beginning" DVDs and guess what? There is a storyline about a young Ramsay Street diver training for a national competition who has his career ended by a reckless accident. Even if you don't remember back that far, the idea of a blonde, good looking Neighbours guy and lots of scenes of him diving into the swimming pool is probably familiar to nineties fans of Jesse Spencer.

This is not really a criticism. Thirty years is a long time, and themes and storylines are bound to re-occur. We mustn't forget that they don't make Neighbours every week for people who spend their Saturday mornings re-watching the episodes from 1986, and nor should they. There are only so many storylines to go round, unless they start getting outlandish and having aliens land on the street to abduct people (although this might explain why Billy and Anne never visit). Actually, this sort of thing happened about six or even years ago - remember when a plane crashed and wiped out the entirety of Harold Bishop's immediate family? Or when Paul got a brain tumour and developed a multiple personality who they ACTUALLY CAST AS A REAL CHARACTER (best storyline ever, by the way). A while later, the show's producers announced that they would be ditching these kind of 'sensationalist' storylines and returning to more "family orientated" fare. So it seems like even those behind Neighbours are watchful that it has a very defined spirit, and of when they have occasionally lost sight of it.

So what exactly is this elusive spirit, the heart of the show?... well, the storylines are certainly at the centre of the series but they are the limbs really, the things that drive one episode into the next. The characters are its soul, certainly, although in truth there are only about twelve different ones and these changes names every couple of years (shoot me, but it's true, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with it - every generation has its Scott and Charlene, whether they be called Todd and Phoebe or Josh and Amber or Rachel and Ty, God help us). But what's the heart? Well arguably it's family. Like the TARDIS in Doctor Who, the concept of family has always been the single constant in Neighbours, the one thing that runs through the show and binds it together. Neighbours has never quite felt the same unless there are a few Ramsays or Robinsons on the Street, or preferably both. The show started with two or three big families, that was the whole idea. And whenever a fresh outlook has been needed down the years, a car has pulled up with a new family inside, bound for one of the empty houses. One of our favourite scenes is the departure of the Martin family. They all bundle into a car, it drives off with them waving, there are but a few seconds where the camera lingers on the empty junction at the end of Ramsay Street... and then another car turns into the street from the opposite direction, followed by a removal van and a load of bickering Scullies. There, encapsulated brilliantly in one long shot, is the essence of Neighbours.

There was a time not so long ago when someone observed that it was difficult to introduce a family into a soap opera in one go in this way. That you really needed to introduce a few characters at a time so we could get to know them, and then have estranged relatives turn up gradually (Hurry up and cast Piper Willis please, we get the point). However, that person was wrong. To do this you lose the togetherness of a family, and they become less a functioning unit and more a bundle of bolt-on parts. Remember the revolving door policy of the old Willis family? There is nothing more exciting than a new family arriving on Ramsay Street, complaining, arguing, laughing. We look forward to getting to know them, finding out their secrets, the relationships between them and finding out that our first impressions were wrong, or right. A few will always fall by the way of course, but if you cast well enough then you're bound to end up with three or four all-time great characters.

And that's why a new family is the ideal way that Neighbours could celebrate its three decade milestone next year. Yes, we have the relatively new Willis and Turner clans still, but in twelve months time people will have moved on and we will probably have exhaused all the 'will they/won't they' antics between the various kids. Let's have a new Robinson or Ramsay offshoot, and let's have a car pull up, full of new faces so we can get to know a brand new family all over again. That, after all, was how it all started.