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Comment > Leave The Past Alone? by Alice

It goes without saying that, at twenty years old, Neighbours has a great number of loyal fans who have enjoyed it for many years. Young people such as myself have grown up with the soap, and indeed everyone who has stuck with it for any decent length of time will have an excess of happy and unhappy memories. Popular and personal favourites, legends even, have come and gone, and there are few things more rewarding for a dedicated fan than being reminded of those former residents in the dialogue of an episode. Not only does it reward us as viewers; it also adds a touch of realism. In the past two years we have been treated to more of this than we could ever have imagined. But even in this case, can you have too much of a good thing?

Let’s first remind ourselves why we were grateful for it in the first place… During the mid to late nineties, the drafting in of a wealth of new characters such as the Kennedy family, who had no connections with any of the street’s already established residents, moved the soap on considerably from its roots. By the end of the decade, Harold Bishop was the only character that remained from the so-called Golden Era, discounting Lou Carpenter who had made a brief appearance in 1989 (1988 in Australia). By this time, viewers were rarely reminded of past characters. Busy with new foster children, Harold and Madge had rarely talked about relatives that the viewers had got to know so well in the past. In 2001, the decision to show Madge’s funeral on screen (repeated recently on UK Gold) caused something of a disappointment for many longer term viewers, as it meant the glaring absence from the service of any of her close family, such as daughter Charlene. Harold’s family were even less acknowledged as the years drew on, as his son David and late daughter Kerry were never mentioned. Another sadly forgotten character was Ramsay Street’s most beloved matriarch, Helen Daniels, while the departure of the Martin family in 2000 (1999) had seen the end of the Robinson dynasty as new blood, the Scullys, replaced them. Although Neighbours was still producing good storylines and memorable characters, some viewers were beginning to feel it had forgotten about its past.

To the delight of many of us, everything seemed to change from 2003. As well as being tantalised by returning visits from many of the street’s more recent departees, such as Malcolm Kennedy and Darren Stark, we witnessed several connections to the more distant past suddenly being brought to the fore. Harold Bishop was given an instant family reunion when his granddaughter Sky appeared unexpectedly, followed soon after by David Bishop and his wife Liljana and daughter Serena. Of these characters, David and Sky were already familiar to older viewers, the former even played by the original actor, Kevin Harrington, who had appeared as Harold’s son for a few episodes in 1989 (1988). During Sky’s first week we were treated to almost daily mentions of characters such as Joe Mangel, her adoptive father, whose name had also been completely forgotten since the early nineties despite the huge impact he had had during his time on the soap. More delving into the past was to follow with the discovery under the Kennedy floorboards of a note that former resident Daphne Clarke had left for her son Jamie. And in 2004-5, spoiler-friendly fans heard the unprecedented news about the upcoming 20th Anniversary celebrations. The return of Stefan Dennis as Paul Robinson was only the beginning - and what a beginning that was! – as the list of returnees grew bigger and better than anyone had expected. Not only did we get 26 former Ramsay Street residents contributing to a fictional documentary in the key episode, but we also saw six more, excluding the now permanent Paul, returning to the street itself. Suddenly there seemed to be no limits to the rediscovery of the past, and watching Neighbours became more rewarding for some fans than it had been for years.

However, although the Anniversary Week was loved by almost everyone, it does seem that the overall efforts of nostalgia appear to have left a bad taste in the mouths of some dedicated fans in recent months. Why would this be happening, when it was looked upon so favourably to begin with? It has to be said that as far as some of those special reminders or revivals of the past were concerned, devoted fans did pay something of a price. Another look at the events of 2003 produces a slightly different picture. For example, the brief return of young Jamie Clarke was bittersweet. Although we were indeed treated to mentions of Daphne and Des (and also the Willis family to boot, when Susan spoke of contacting them about the note) we were also delivered an unexpected and rather shocking update on Jamie’s father. It turned out that the Des we knew and loved had gone into rehab after suffering from depression, leaving Jamie in care. Although Des had suffered his fair share of trauma during his time in Ramsay Street in the 1980s, it was something of a blow to find out that his apparent happy ending had not lasted, and almost impossible to imagine him having failed as a father.

Jamie’s return had occurred hot on the heels of the reappearance of another of Ramsay Street’s former toddlers, Sky Mangel. And like Jamie, Sky also came bearing bad news for long time viewers when she and Harold discussed her stepfather, Joe. Like Des, Joe had experienced loss during his original stint but had left the soap a happy man with a great new life ahead for him and his children. But upon Sky’s return, suddenly we were expected to believe that Joe Mangel and Melanie Pearson’s marriage had ended ten years previously, and that Sky and her stepbrother Toby had been without a mother all this time. For fans such as myself, this was quite a kick in the teeth. At a mere nine years of age, I had been a huge supporter of Joe and Mel’s relationship. It remains my all time favourite love story on Neighbours to date, and the only consolation for me when the couple departed in 1992 (1991) had been the assumption that they would live happily ever after. What I found most disappointing about the divorce was the fact that it was nothing more than a plot device that had been devised in 2003 to give Sky some angst. To add insult to injury, the first mentions of Joe in over a decade weren’t presenting him in a particularly good light either. Apparently he didn’t seem too bothered by the fact that his daughter had run off to Erinsborough, and he had rarely talked to her about Kerry over the years. These being the messages we got from Sky’s talks with Harold and Harold’s discussions with Lou after phoning off-screen Joe. It was the perfect example of a past character being discredited for the sake of a current storyline, and as a massive Joe fan from way back when, I was not amused.

Similar albeit perhaps less severe examples of this can be found prior to 2003. In 2001, Lou discovered that he was not the real father of Louise, his late partner Cheryl’s daughter. Viewers were undoubtedly as shocked as he was. It became apparent that Lolly was the product of an affair five years previously between Cheryl and a man named John Allen, who appeared in these episodes to win custody of his daughter. To the more cynical viewer it was perhaps more a case of a biological father being written in to remove the kid and free Lou up for better storylines. There are ways to reconcile the situation in one’s mind… Cheryl had been unfaithful to Lou on another occasion, and it is notable that she insisted on the child being given her name rather than Lou’s after she gave birth. Nevertheless, it still seems unlikely that the writers had planned this all along, and it painted the deceased Cheryl in a very bad light. Indeed, the already known affair had taken place in severe circumstances (a hostage situation) which almost excused her actions, Lou had forgiven her for it, and they had moved on. This was quite different, but as ever, the audience had no option but to accept it.

It is even arguable that Sarah Beaumont, the character famous for nearly ending Karl and Susan’s marriage in 1998, was messed around with a few years after she left. Her own happy ending was quashed when Karl received a phone call out of the blue in 2003. Sarah asked him for a reference as her marriage was over and she was applying for a new job. Instead of her actual presence, we were given Sarah in the form of that “hilarious” chipmunk voice coming out of the receiver of Karl’s telephone (thank goodness they didn’t do this with Joe Mangel in 2003) and a pile of manure dumped at the Kennedys’ doorstep. Although she was never a perfect character and hardly a legend, I would still count this as an example of a past character being let down by not being there to defend themselves. The same happened with Joe Scully. Although the character’s exit in 2004 was unavoidable and required an immediate write-out, it was still frustrating to see the previously rock solid Scully marriage suddenly made weak by one character’s absence. Plus, Joe himself was dragged through the mud in the process, because we only saw one half of the storyline onscreen, and were forced to believe that he suddenly had little interest in saving his marriage or even seeing his new born son.

Fast forward to 2005, and as far as delving into the past is concerned, it seems the hot topic is whether or not the most talked about returnees, Paul Robinson and Joe Mangel, were done justice this year. Common complaints about Paul include the undermining of his past relationships and family ties within the street (let’s not forget that Harold is Paul’s brother’s wife’s mother’s husband after all!), and his changing stance from flawed character (80s/early 90s) to outright villain. Joe, meanwhile, has returned for a few months as something of a work-dodging bogan, when he was last seen as quite the labourer. It is at this point, however, that I launch into my defence.

Once Sky had dropped her 2003 bombshell and seemingly badmouthed her stepfather, Joe Mangel’s return was something we all needed to see happen. Well, at least I thought so. Seeing the character interacting with Sky on screen would in theory instantly cast aside any doubts as to Joe’s fathering abilities. I also couldn’t help thinking that, as bad as the divorce was, at least it increased the possibility, storyline-wise, of Joe’s return to Ramsay Street. It’s a lot easier bringing back one actor than two (although Lucinda Cowden did make a brilliant cameo appearance on the Anniversary episode), and single characters often if not always seem to have better storyline potential. Of course, this wishful thinking suddenly became reality when I heard the news of Mark Little’s return back in February, and the exciting prospect of seeing him back on my TV screen as Mr Mangel far outweighed any fears I may have had about what the writers would do with him.

In my view, Joe’s return has been nothing short of a success and this year I have no qualms with the way his own past has been handled. If anything, it did his character’s history more justice than I expected. In particular, his scenes with Sky have done wonders for both characters. Not only do we see perfect ties with the past, such as Joe still calling her by the same nicknames, but we also get an incredible father-teenage daughter relationship well worth exploring that we would otherwise have never seen on screen. Obviously the acting ability of Stephanie Macintosh as well as Mark made it what it was, but the writing could not be faulted here. I also feel that the changes we have seen in Joe are perfectly natural. After so many years in the outback, it would perhaps have been stranger had he returned as civilised as he was in 1992 (1991)! On top of this, there is little else in the way of change to speak of anyway, and I have found myself liking the very same things about his character that I did all those years ago: his humour, his outspokenness, and his role as a family man.

Even taking Joe out of the picture, Sky’s own return two years back was a great move in itself. As well as becoming a popular young character in her own right, she breathed new life into an arguably diminishing Harold Bishop and also came equipped with a fascinating ongoing storyline: Her feelings towards her mother. Sky’s struggle with Kerry’s legacy would perhaps not have worked as well had she not been without a mother for most of her life. This gave her character added depth and may have helped to make her one of Neighbours’ most memorable young characters in recent years. Meanwhile, the arrival of other Bishop faces, old and new, also strengthened the show’s ties to its roots without doing much harm in the process… if one is to cast aside the implausibility of Serena’s age, that is!

Paul’s return, meanwhile, is another essay in itself and I admit to feeling unqualified for the job. All I will say here is that I very much enjoyed his return and the storylines that followed. His appearance in the final few seconds of the already spectacular 2004 finale made the episode twice as memorable, and his character’s input gave us some fantastic viewing this year. I suppose it follows that the ultimate question would be this: Is it worth changing an old character or the direction they were headed at the time we left them for the sake of current storylines? As loyal fans, instinct would probably tell us to say no. Of course there’s a part of me that wishes Sky had never returned and was living happily with Joe, Mel and Toby. But for reasons I’ve already explained, what we got instead made it worth it. (Well, almost!) It sometimes slips the mind of the long time viewer with fond memories that much like real life, a soap is all about the present. That’s certainly how the writers need to see it. Maybe another way to look at it is this… real life doesn’t always go the way we want, and neither does Neighbours. Perfect couples don’t always last, good people sometimes keep secrets, and above all, anyone can be changed by circumstances. We usually manage to accept those storylines when they occur in front of our eyes, so why not away from them?

Overall, I very much doubt I would be happy to trade the highs and lows of the last two and a half years for more of what we had just prior to 2003, despite the latter being a time when our old favourites were usually left safely alone. The sheer brilliance of having Paul Robinson and Joe Mangel back on Ramsay Street in 2005 would have been enough, but for the most part, delving into the past has given us more compelling storylines than it has disappointments. At this point in time, I for one refuse to shoot down this brave change of direction the show has taken.