> Bye Bye BBC by
On Friday 8th February 2008 Neighbours had its final screening on the British Broadcasting Corporation. Having become one of the UK’s longest running TV programmes, after over 21 years on screen, the Australian soap’s departure will rank alongside the axing of Grandstand and Top Of The Pops as another end of an era for the BBC. Here's a look back at some of the highlights, and lowlights, from the 21-year relationship...
* The Beginning
Creator Reg Watson had always planned for Neighbours to be a co-BBC production right from the start. Unfortunately, in early 1985, the BBC hadn’t organised their impending new daytime schedule yet so Reg had to start without them in Australia. Eighteen months later, the BBC were ready for daytime TV and looking for an imported soap opera as a “cheap filler”. There were apparently six English language soaps to choose from. Five were American, all featuring super rich, glamorous stars, living in huge mansions; the sixth soap was Australian. It featured normal looking, suburban families, living in a nice middle class cul-de-sac. They even played cricket in the street. The BBC had an easy decision on their hands; Neighbours was clearly the only one of the soaps that the average Brit could relate too. It made it’s UK debut on 27th October 1986 and quickly became a big hit.
After building up a strong fan base over it’s first year on UK screens, the BBC came to realise that Neighbours was hugely popular with children; many of who were now skipping school to catch the daytime soap. Legend has it that BBC1’s controller Michael Grade was even pestered by his teenage daughter into adjusting the schedule so that Neighbours was repeated after school, at 5:35pm. Making its first late afternoon showing on 4th January 1988 Neighbours cemented its place in the daily lives of millions of British people and it’s remained a constant there for over twenty years.
* The Royal Variety Performance
With its new repeat screening time, Neighbours popularity went through the roof. Some weeks it was the highest rating programme on British TV and was reaching audiences bigger than the whole population of Australia. The BBC were keen to tap into the phenomenon and in August 1988 contacted Grundy with a plan to have the cast appear at The Royal Variety Performance. Despite a hackneyed script provided by BBC writers, the performance went down a storm with the audience in the theatre, and in homes across Britain. Prince Charles even commented afterwards that he would “make a point of watching” Neighbours.
As Neighbours matured during the 1990s, storylines occasionally tackled controversial subjects such as Glen and Lucy’s incestuous relationship, teenage sex for Billy and Melissa, and Danni’s pregnancy scare. Storylines such as this were deemed too steamy for a daytime show - and probably more importantly, a programme that was especially loved by children. As a result, large chunks were removed from the BBC screenings and episodes had to be merged to make up for the missing scenes. This was surely the channel’s worst crime against Neighbours. Fortunately these storylines were shown almost completely uncensored when repeated on UK Gold a few years later.
* UK Gold
The satellite channel devoted to archive programmes was launched as a joint venture between the BBC and Thames Television on 1st November 1992. Neighbours devotees have been given a second chance to watch the saga as it has been steadfastly repeated since the channel’s second day and, due to periods of showing two episodes a day, is now just a year behind current BBC episodes.
* The 1996 Revamp
In 1996 the corporation made possibly its best contribution to the soap when, due to poor ratings, bizarre storylines and a general lack of “family feel”, they requested that the show have an overhaul. And that included bringing back Madge and Harold Bishop. The new family-centric storylines and the return of the old favourites proved to be a huge success with viewers and Neighbours was able to move into a new era with its head held high - thanks largely to the BBC’s intervention.
Since the late 90’s the BBC have commissioned several spin-off programmes. The most successful were Good Neighbours which extensively examined fans opinions and gave an impressive selection of nostalgic clips, and the three series of Neighbours Revealed which have looked into all the behind the scenes details that make the show what it is.
* Closing the gap
As the years rolled by, the gap between the Australian and UK episodes was steadily shortened from it’s original 18 months until by 2000 the two countries were less than a month apart. This was due to the BBC’s fairly constant all year round screenings as apposed to Network Ten taking long breaks over the Christmas period. However, since 2000, Neighbours has often been taken off UK screens for sports events (Wimbledon especially), bank holidays and some of Christmas to prevent taking over the pace of Australia. The BBC should be commended for removing the disparity which in the early days caused unwanted long running “spoilers” for the UK where by an actor could be in Britain telling everyone they’ve left, and the viewers then having to wait over a year and a half for it to happen.
* Public awareness seasons
As part of the BBC’s public service remit, they often run public awareness seasons to help educate people about how to get help if they need it. As well as documentaries, the channel introduces story strands into their regular drama programmes to follow the particular theme. Despite the time difference, Neighbours has been used several times for just such seasons. In 2003 the Hitting Home season on domestic violence was tackled when Boyd’s friend Daniel had to stay with the Hoyland family to avoid his abusive father. 2004 saw Jamie Clarke return as part of Taking Care - highlighting issues to do with children in care homes. In recent years, Ned revealed he had difficulty with reading and writing, which naturally enough was part of the BBC’s RaW campaign to improve literacy skills. These storylines are obviously worthy causes and entirely relevant as soap storylines, but they would often seem clunky and bolted on; as though they’d been hurried in execution. The worst case would have to be Ned’s literacy story which coincidentally followed hot on the heels of Connor’s just a few years before hand and would probably not have happened if the BBC hadn’t insisted.
* BBC Website
Early this decade, the official BBC website provided a very good Neighbours section for its fans. It provided character biographies, an episode summaries archive, photos & screen caps, behind the scenes material, games, competitions and best of all, regular exclusive interviews with cast members. At the time, it put the official Neighbours site to shame. Sadly the BBC recently scaled down many of its websites and only the games and a link to the refurbished www.neighbours.com now remains; but it was fun while it lasted.
* Lack of promotion
Following the highs of the 1980s, Neighbours became a steady ratings performer in it’s daytime slots, and as such the BBC seemed to take it for granted; especially when it came to promotion. Although some adverts occasionally cropped up for big storylines over the years, Neighbours was largely allowed to plod along without any attempts to draw in new viewers. Despite major stories since, the last BBC adverts were for Toadie and Dee’s wedding in 2003.
* "House Sweep" end credits
Another fine contribution from “Auntie”, was the “house sweep” end credits which was only shown in the UK from early 2006 until late 2007. At a time when Neighbours “cartoon style” opening credits were proving controversial with many viewers, the simplicity of the live action camera pan around the cul-de-sac from the vantage point of a cherry picker crane, proved to be very popular with fans. Many even called it the best end credits sequence of the soap’s entire history - yet lucky Brits had it all to themselves, thanks to the Beeb.
* BBC3 Rumours
During 2006 rumours began to circulate that there were plans to show Neighbours on BBC3 as either an evening repeat or a “first view” option. Fans were pretty excited at the idea of Neighbours reaching new audiences by being shown later in the day, and talk of special documentaries exploring characters and families back stories sounded fascinating. Sadly it wasn’t to be. All the rumours went quiet when the BBC lost their contract to rival channel Five.
* The End
In 2007 the contract for Neighbours came up for auction with its sellers Fremantle asking three times what the BBC had previously been paying. Unfortunately the BBC felt they couldn’t justify paying out £300 million of licence payers money and had to give up on the 20 year old partnership. Rival TV channel Five snapped Neighbours up soon afterwards; outbidding even ITV. Although many fans are optimistic about Neighbours move to Five, due to the positive way it treats its imports; there can be few viewers who can deny that the BBC has provided a wonderful stable home for Neighbours and that Friday 8th February 2008 was a sad day. We at Neighbours: The Perfect Blend would like to take this opportunity to thank the BBC for its 21 year relationship with Neighbours.