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Comment > Love Thy Neighbour: Janelle Timmins by Ryan

She began life as a big-mouthed tactless bogan who could offend half the street with a single comment. Less than three years later, she was one of Neighbours’ most popular characters, her axing disappointing fans and cast members alike. Join us as we say farewell to the indomitable Janelle Timmins…

Some Neighbours characters simply arrive out of the blue. Others are causally mentioned in the script before conveniently appearing a couple of episodes later. Then there are the select few that we regularly hear about in advance; characters us viewers feel we know before they even appear. Stingray, Toadie and Angie had all warned us about Janelle; so like the Bogeyman, the Creature from the Deep and Hilary Robinson before her, she remained an unseen yet horrifying proposition. But despite these warnings, nothing could really have prepared Ramsay Street, or Neighbours viewers, for the day hurricane Janelle blew into town.

Neighbours had never seen a character like Janelle, or indeed characters like the rest of the Timmins family, before. Yes, the show had introduced a decidedly ‘working class’ family before in the Scullys, but Janelle didn’t fit this mould – for a start she did very little working, and seemed to have even less class. In her earliest scenes Janelle was busy cooking up a compo scam, complete with comedy neck-brace, and this was typical of her love for get rich quick schemes. But while Janelle was, to paraphrase her own mother-in-law, appalling in many ways, she also had a certain car crash quality to her; as much as we knew we should turn away, we couldn’t help looking.

When introducing Janelle as a permanent character, the scriptwriters had one fairly major obstacle to overcome: her abilities, or lack of, as a mother. Neighbours had done bad mothers before, but the likes of Barbara Young and Genevieve Murdoch had been used as antagonist figures, a contrast to the warm and loving world of Ramsay Street – for a bad mother to make her home there seemed unthinkable. Turning the woman who had happily let her so-called ‘favourite’ son live with strangers for the past year into a mum worthy of Neighbours was going to be a challenge to say the least. It is a credit not only to the show’s writers, but also the talents of Nell Feeney, that Janelle became a success so quickly. In her first few weeks on the show, viewers saw that this was not a ‘bad’ mother, but a woman who’d had it tough, and whose children had sometimes suffered because of it. Janelle’s pre-Erinsborough life had consisted of trying to raise six kids in a caravan with no money and, for most of the time, no husband. Was it any wonder she didn’t always get it right? As the months went on, Janelle was reinvented as a battler who stood by her kids through the (many) hard times, offering staunch loyalty in the face of adversity, and advice that, while usually wildly inappropriate, came straight from a loving heart. Not a bad mum then; just not superhuman.

From her very first appearance, Nell Feeney’s comic talent was obvious, and as such many of Janelle’s earliest storylines were comedy-based. Her surprisingly successful novel The Bogan’s Tipped Hair, complete with thinly-veiled caricatures of her neighbours, was a particularly rich source of humour. Her battles with other Ramsay Street residents, not to mention sister-in-law Angie, soon became the stuff of legend. There was also something quintessentially Australian about Janelle, right down to her name, and of course her favourite term of endearment, ‘my second favourite neighbour’; an obvious homage to another monstrous Aussie comic creation, Kim Craig. In an action-packed era of Neighbours, Janelle’s unique brand of humour often provided a welcome contrast to explosions, high-speed car crashes and reigns of terror.

The assertion that Janelle was a great comic character is difficult to dispute. However, the best soap characters are equally watchable in comic and dramatic scenes. Could the scriptwriters, and Nell Feeney, pull off both with Janelle? The first test came with the plane crash storyline, with Janelle initially thinking her son Dylan had perished. The signs were good, but the nature of the storyline meant Harold and Paul were the characters at the forefront; the confusion over Dylan’s ‘death’ became something of an aside. It wasn’t until Janelle discovered her youngest daughter Bree wasn’t actually her daughter at all that she was bang at the centre of the drama, and the storyline didn’t begin particularly promisingly. This was a woman who came out fighting when things went wrong; Janelle weeping and wailing simply didn’t convince. Then out of the blue came a small but pivotal scene; a scene that was ostensibly nothing to do with the switched at birth plot, but still managed to turn it around. When Lyn and Steph fell out over Charlie’s baptism, it was Janelle who stormed in and angrily reminded Steph how lucky she was to have a loving mother. Nell Feeney played the scene perfectly, and the mix of grief and anger seemed far more appropriate for the character. From then on the plot came to life, and any doubts that Janelle could ‘do drama’ were dispelled.

Having lost her daughter in a sense, Janelle gained another when she discovered the truth about Bree’s new friend, Anne Baxter. Having struggled to like Anne, and furious at her recent treatment of Bree, Janelle was suddenly faced with the ultimate in conflicting emotions. Whereas the over-emotional performances at the start of the storyline had fallen flat, there was something refreshingly understated about the moment when Janelle accepted Anne as her flesh and blood. The hardest of hearts couldn’t fail to melt at the sight of Janelle stroking her blind child’s face, and for a moment there was genuine hope that the two could build a genuine relationship. Sadly this was snatched away soon after, but far worse was to come for Janelle a few months later when she once again lost a child – this time for good. When Stingray suddenly and tragically died, viewers shared Janelle’s grief and her anger at the senselessness of it all. Her reaction of literal disbelief was cleverly scripted to reference the confusion over Dylan’s fate in the plane crash; only the sight of her beloved Scotty in the mortuary could convince her it was real. This scene was specifically requested by Nell Feeney, a sign of her great devotion to the character of Janelle.

Despite so much trauma, Janelle never lost her sense of humour, and it seems fitting that she was one of the few characters to get that rarest of soap events: a happy ending. Janelle’s mismatched, yet somehow perfect relationship with Allan Steiger provided some hilarious moments, and if we had to lose the character, what better way than to see her leave happily married? The pair’s final episode was both uplifting and moving – and who better to sum up the three years that preceded it than Janelle herself:

‘I just want to finish by saying, you know, this is just a bunch of houses side by side but it's more than that. It's really special and it's you guys that make it special and, gosh, I'm gonna miss it.’

And gosh, won’t we miss her.