> A Step Back In Time
by Si Hunt
Well, the party is over. Harold has driven off in his camper van, the
Erinsborough festival has wound down and the out-of-town visitors have all disappeared again. Marking Neighbours' 30th anniversary with a big festival was a neat way of contriving for lots of familiar faces to "pass through",
helping to celebrate the show's off-screen milestone with an on-screen event. Some returning characters were served better than others, some of course couldn't appear (no Billy and Anne, Paul and Tad or Rosemary Daniels, sadly)
simply because there was only so much air-time, but few avid watchers could complain about the treats that we've had served up over the past month on our favourite Ramsay Street based sitcom stroke soap.
It all began in earnest with the sudden arrival of Hilary Robinson. She wasn't an obvious choice of returning face until someone had the notion, from which point bringing her back seemed like the best idea ever. Anne Scott-Pendlebury perfectly
recreated her memorable fusspot of yesteryear, and Paul's double take as she stood archy and disapprovingly beside him at the community centre was worth watching the entire anniversary month for alone. Oddly, it transpired that Hilary had been
living a bus-ride away from Erinsborough all the time, which did beg the question why she was such an infrequent visitor - but maybe, being Hilary, all her calls asking to come and stay are ignored.
Other characters who made a sudden re-appearance were less memorable, and as the likes of Tom Ramsay and Guy Carpenter wandered onto set, 90% of the watching audience might well have been forgiven for giving a big cry of "Who?!?". Tom, a transparent
early replacement for Max Ramsay, did make us sadly lament that in another universe it could have well been the late, departed Francis Bell returning to Ramsay Street. As for poor Lucas and Vanessa, it was maybe too soon for them to come back, but if
I were the performers involved I would have politely turned down the opportunity, feeling I was worth more than twenty odd seconds on screen - not even enough time for Vanessa to knock out a cup cake for old time's sake.
Certainly the weirdest returnee of the batch was international singing sensation Nina Tucker. In the real
world, she is of course singer songwriter Delta Goodrem, whose hits Nina seems to inherit on screen. Despite living the life of a millionaire pop star, all Nina really wanted was to pop on a pinny and get back to scrubbing out Lassiter's' toilets -
something which might point to some kind of mental disorder or Britney-esque burnout. This storyline didn't seem to go anywhere or have a punchline, so presumably that was it - she whizzed round the bogs with her loo brush, served a couple of meals
to a few grumpy Australian businessmen and got it out of her system. On hearing about Amber Turner's life-changing heartbreak after being jilted at the altar, Nina failed to muster much sympathy.
"There is some good news... I'm writing songs again!" she told Susan and Lou - notably, nobody punched the air in delight. I'm sure that Goodrem's appearance was on the condition that the entirety of her new single was shoe-horned into the
anniversary week, as she was soon up on the Festival stage belting it out. Only problem was, it's a rather forlorn little number that wasn't really appropriate to the jolly celebration of Erinsborough that it needed to be. "I want to know when the
storm clouds will be over," she sang. It's a wonder the local residents didn't head straight towards Lassiter's bridge and throw themselves off it.
Interestingly handled was the amazing return of Madge Bishop. Now, characters come and go from soaps,
and even make fully-fledged returns when they have vanished, presumed dead. But it's a brave producer that sanctions the full return of a character who has clearly, visibly and memorably died in front of the viewers' eyes on screen. How on
Earth would they get away with it? Well, the answer is that they just did it. The decision was taken, initially at least, not to go down the obvious route of having Harold knocked out and dreaming, or of depicting Madge as a phantom stepping
out of the wall. She was, astoundingly, introduced as a normal character again, albeit one only Harold could see. She was even in the episode recaps, something I found strange and thought probably took non regular viewers by surprise. It was,
though, good to have her back and we found ourselves savouring every scene and relishing the denouement, just to see how it was explained. The moments when it didn't work came when one started to question the logistics of Madge's quite physical
return - in one scene the late Madge shared a cup of tea with Harold, leading us to wonder if the drinking vessel was supposed to be floating in the air. Quite eerie, however, was the subsequent long-shot of the cup resting on a chair, revealing the
whole scene to have been presumably in Harold's imagination. When Madge finally exited, fading away with a blown kiss as I knew she would, the explanation for her appearance was largely left up to the imagination of the audience, making her
storyline touching and quite sad, if perhaps lingering on slightly too long. She did, though, provide us with a classic cliffhanger as she first appeared in the campervan with a wry "Oh Harold, what have you done?!". It's up there
with the great absurd Neighbours moments.
What was important about the Neighbours 30th anniversary overall was that the juggernaut of recent storylines
wasn't halted for a self-indulgent roll call of past characters. Central to the anniversary was Amber and Daniel's wedding - although they were no Kylie and Jason. Flouncy Amber promptly banned her best friend from her nupitals, simply
because she had (unacted upon!) feelings for the groom. Bit harsh I'd have thought - but by the time Amber had assumed that Daniel had run off with Imogen, foolishly not guessing the real reason for his absence (he fell down an abandoned well)
I was thinking she didn't really deserve a happy ending if her trust in him was that slight. It was nice that the clue for the well was provided by Tom Ramsay, and Paul's attempt to stop the wedding involved Des Clarke, probably the most "Wow!"
of the returning characters. No-one (not a single living human being) has seen Paul Keane since the eighties, so it was nothing short of incredible to see him back.
There was plenty else going on through all of this as well, as if the makers of the show were determined that it wouldn't either grow slack with the weight of the celebrations or drop down limply when they ended. So we had plenty of new excitement
to get our teeth into - first off, the poor Turners suffered in the wake of Matt's breakdown. Born of his pride and weird determination to be the own provider of his family's debt, the Turners hatched the most ill-advised financial plan since Robert
Maxwell dipped into his pension pot. Taking out a huge mortgage on a house that his family already owned, so that his kids could have a fortune in cash they didn't need, isn't the sort of thing they teach you at Economics school. Soon son Bailey
was back on the grog, Matt had started doing dodgy work for a local crook and, the sign that things had really gone awry, he then grew an edgy beard. Meanwhile at Erinsborough Hospital, we had the drama of nurse Georgia being nearly seduced by
wannabe Cancer Curer and slimy moral-free snake (I hate him but I feel guilty for doing so – it’s confusing!) Dr Nick, just for the hell of it. It's a shame that Georgia wasn't more wily about exposing Dr Nick's cruel bet to get her in the sack -
throwing coffee over him was probably a satisfying short-term win, but now he's rumbled she's clocked him, I fear she's given him time to plot a more devastating revenge on her. And so the drama continues...
All this meant the show was powering on and not sitting still in its Anniversary Month. And at the heart
of all the celebrations was a storyline which felt both new and old - and affected a character who is central to both Erinborough’s past and future. Harold's crisis over where his life is going, and how he can move forward and not live in
his own history, was played magnificently by Ian Smith. He was the Harold we all remembered; troubled, fussy, moralistic, but weighed down by the burden of questioning his future. We may have enjoyed seeing Madge sitting next to him, encouraging him
to go on what turned out to be a disastrous date with Sheila, but it represented Harold unable to focus on a new lady in his life when the world of his memories was so alluring. Finally, when his late wife appeared one final time as Harold left for a new
life with granddaughter Sky (one of the most faithful returning performances even if she was only seen on Skype), he intoned "You're not coming with me, are you?". Given Madge can presumably pop up anywhere, this can only be Harold deciding to leave the
memories of his wife in his heart and move on with the next chapter in his life. Bringing back a dead character could have been crass, but Neighbours successfully wove it into a beautiful conclusion to the story of perhaps its greatest-loved resident.
My one quibble is that the relentless drama meant that there was never a clear moment of celebration
in the anniversary week; no-one really paused to cut a cake or raise a glass. Even during the two special episodes (one for Australia, one, thoughtfully, for the UK) life and death situations drove the action on and there was barely a back-slap
or a moment of crescendo. But the month was so laced with treats for the fans, not to mention some obscure and delightful continuity nods if you listened closely. Did you catch the news of Kathy giving Charlene a browbeating at Brisbane
Airport after learning that Daniel had run off with Imogen? Or Naomi researching local history ("Nell Mangel was especially helpful")? Kisses to the past, while re-assuring us that the show's future is on fine form. Neighbours has genuinely never
been better than now, and perhaps that's the best anniversary present of all.