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Comment > Love Thy Neighbour: Harold Bishop (1987-1991) by Ryan

He joined Neighbours for an initial six weeks – 21 years on, Ian Smith is finally saying goodbye. Join us as we bid a fond farewell to Ian and his much-loved alter ego; the one, the only, Harold Bishop.

Back in 1987, Neighbours was a show that, after an incredibly shaky start, was getting well and truly into its stride. The teen dream pairing of Scott and Charlene was given much of the credit for this, but the older generation, such as Charlene’s mum Madge Mitchell, were also proving extremely popular with viewers. After the brief return of her errant husband Fred and a disastrous romance with Ray Murphy, it was time for feisty Madge to get a new love interest. However, anyone expecting another Fred was in for a big shock.

When Charlene heard Madge’s childhood sweetheart, Harold Bishop, was on his way to Erinsborough, she decided to give her mum’s love life a helping hand. But when Harold arrived, it seemed as if the well-meaning mechanic had made a terrible mistake. Harold was pompous, buttoned-up, and seemingly the opposite of what someone like Madge would want in a man. Yet after one disastrous dinner, the spark between the two was re-ignited, and viewers somehow knew they were meant to be together.

While Ian Smith ostensibly only joined Neighbours for six weeks, it should be remembered that this was in the era when the show’s astute creator, Reg Watson, was still in control. The man with a string of TV hits behind him must surely have seen the potential of Madge and Harold’s chalk and cheese pairing from day one; after all, Watson was already familiar with Smith’s work both as an actor and a writer from their time together on Prisoner. It was hard to imagine that Watson saw Harold as anything other than a permanent fixture on Ramsay Street, and sure enough, within weeks he’d taken lodgings at No.32 with Madge’s arch enemy, Mrs Mangel. Upstanding churchgoer Harold was just the sort of gentleman Nell thought belonged on Ramsay Street, and it was clear that in an otherwise hard heart there was a soft spot for him. This coupled with the ongoing feud between Madge and Mrs Mangel made for some hilarious scenes during Harold’s first year on the show, with Ian Smith forming superb partnerships with both Anne Charleston and Vivean Grey.

From his very first episode, Harold’s potential as a classic comedy character was obvious, and this was due in no small part to Ian Smith himself. In an interview with Perfect Blend, long-time scriptwriter Ray Kolle recalled, ‘I remember that when we first started writing Harold we deliberately made his dialogue very pompous, using long, involved sentences and always taking the longest way to say the shortest thing. Ian Smith approached me and suggested that we just give Harold normal dialogue and that we let him add the pomposity in his performance. He pointed out that if it was both in the writing and the performance it became too much. He was perfectly right and we pulled back in the dialogue and let the actor do his job.’ Not many actors could gain that level of trust so early on – but how it has paid off over the past 21 years.

Like many great soap couples, Harold and Madge took their time to get to the altar; but the rocky road was great fun for viewers. Despite his pomposity and tendency to be judgemental at times, Harold was established as a hugely popular character by the time of the wedding. The wedding itself was full of brilliant comic touches – the arrival of Harold’s ‘mini-me’ son David and Mrs Mangel’s deliberately bad turn on the church organ spring to mind – but overall, it was hugely touching. By the time it screened in the UK in 1989, Neighbours was at the height of its powers, and while it was Scott and Charlene who grabbed the headlines, there was something very special about the Bishops too. Older viewers could relate to their experiences; the loneliness of widowhood, the pain of a spouse’s infidelity; and take heart in the belief that love could be even better second time round. As great an actor as Ian Smith is, it’s impossible to pay tribute to him, and Harold, without mentioning his superb on-screen partnership with Anne Charleston. Over the next three years the two would feature in some of the silliest, but still funniest, storylines in the show. Who can forget Harold’s mistaken belief that he was the heir to the fictional Scottish Earldom of Doom, complete with a dream sequence featuring the Robinsons as peasants?

Harold was always a character who worked well in comedy storylines, and Ian Smith was clearly comfortable in this role too. Anne Charleston famously claimed that she and ‘Smithy’ told the rest of the cast ‘we don’t care what the rest of you are doing – we’re doing a sitcom’. But as brilliantly as Harold and humour went together, it became apparent as years went on that both the character and the actor behind him were equally capable of carrying off dramatic storylines. This was never clearer than when Kerry – the daughter Harold had only been reconciled with for two years after a long estrangement – was tragically killed in a shooting accident. There was no weeping and wailing from Harold, who threw himself into supporting Kerry’s husband Joe, her daughter Sky and her stepson Toby. But anyone who assumed Harold was coping was ignoring the depth of the character. Over the coming months, the true impact of Kerry’s death became clearer, with Ian Smith’s brilliantly understated performance proving far more effective than a few weeks of OTT dramatics.

In an age when Harold is seen as the breakout character of Neighbours, it seems almost unbelievable that he was once considered dispensable – but in 1991, producers decided he was just that. As former Production Executive Peter Pinne told Perfect Blend, ‘We had run out of stories for Madge and Harold and we had to get rid of one of the characters. We thought we could get more mileage out of Madge solo so we decided to have Harold disappear’. On a trip around Australia, Harold was swept off a cliff and, after an unsuccessful search, presumed dead. With Neighbours no longer the worldwide phenomenon it had been in the days of Kylie and Jason, this shock axing was yet another sign of the end of an era. Just over a year later Anne Charleston decided to quit the show, and with Madge off in Queensland, Harold became just another former character, destined to be forgotten. But not all soap viewers, or soap producers, have short memories…

Click here for part two of our Love Thy Neighbour tribute to Harold, as we look at one of the most remarkable comebacks in soap history.