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Comment > Neighbours: That's A Wrap! by Rhys

Almost twenty years ago, sat in front of a Windows Millennium Edition PC, I wrote the first version of Neighbours: A History for the launch of The Perfect Blend website. Tony Blair was the UK Prime Minister, same-sex couples weren't legally recognised and you were probably using a Nokia 3210 to send your 10p text messages (if you had a mobile phone at all, that is). Neighbours had been on air for nearly 18 years but was stuck in a rut deeper than Bass Strait. An unremarkable couple of seasons, some unsuccessful cast changes (Hancocks, anyone?) and an increasingly dated presentation were conspiring against it in the fast-accelerating digital age...

Coinciding with this was the growing accessibility of the internet and web forums where a newly formed community of 'Neighbours nerds' were vocal in our love for the show. We relished in the ability to share opinions with other aficionados and even had direct dialogue with the show itself for the first time - we recall, fondly, script producers hiding behind obscure usernames and leaking storyline tidbits that we so readily lapped up (not before disconnecting the internet because our mums needed to use the phone).

Neighbours: The Perfect Blend was conceived by a small group of these fans to provide an online reference tool for Neighbours, providing an archive and continuity resource that, as we would later learn, did not exist on the programme itself.

An oft-repeated anecdote direct from the set was the confusion surrounding the bona-fide name of Max Hoyland's late wife. Was it Anna? Was it Claire? Or did they split the difference and call her Anna-Claire? In fact, it was all three. Coupled with this was the production team's apparent unwillingness to delve into the show's esteemed past (why weren't Charlene and Henry even mentioned during their mother's funeral?). These behaviours reinforced the notion that Neighbours deserved a dedicated encyclopaedic resource that could be fleshed out with interesting articles, multimedia galleries and content contributed by the combined strengths of its founders.

At the time of the site's founding the suggestion that Neighbours would run for another 20 years was inconceivable, despite the lifeline provided by the appointment of Ric Pellizzeri as the executive producer at the start of 2003. However, run it did. During the next 5 years we would witness a rise and fall as the glorious 2003-05 seasons laid the tarmac for the 'Fun Bus' to come along, unceremoniously carrying us all into a crazy world of evil twins, sieges and exploding fruit vans. Shortly afterwards the BBC would pull out of renewing the rights to the show and its UK transfer to Channel 5 coincided with a 'back to basics' revamp which would update the cast, filming techniques and presentation.

Unfortunately, the basics were a little too rationed and another refresh was ordered, along with the installation of Susan Bower at the tiller. Credited with further upgrading the programme's appearance and production model, her era also introduced a change to the programme's heart.

The 'feel' of Neighbours - akin to the cosset given by your favourite Kamizole overshirt - was rapidly being eroded. Favourite characters, and even some long-standing crew, were dispensed with and a new tranche of characters and sets introduced. The casual broom swept over the programme's established history with the Ramsay children 'retcon' was the last straw for many, alienating the core of the Neighbours fan base, a number of whom turned away temporarily or for good. This coincided with the natural audience turnover caused by the teenage fans who had followed the show in the last few years coming of age. Unfortunately, Channel 5's lower audience share meant that the usually guaranteed cyclical recruitment process for new viewers was not a given. The final nail in the coffin for Australia was the move from the main Network Ten to digital channel Eleven in 2011. It was clear from this moment that the programme was being produced for, and partly by, Channel 5.

Interim showrunner, Richard Jasek, returned Neighbours to some semblance of familiarity in 2013 and his appointment of Jason Herbison as producer, later to become its final executive producer, would guarantee that Neighbours was in the safest hands possible. We celebrated the 30th and 35th anniversaries, not to mention passing the 8000th episode milestone. Despite well-worn rumours about significant production budget cuts impacting cast retention and location filming the programme continued to churn out the goods. Natalie Lynch stepping into the series producer role gave Neighbours another shot in the arm by introducing guerrilla film crews, cheaply allowing a unit to shoot on location concurrently with the main studio shoots - immediately expanding the Erinsborough universe again. She is also credited with devising the now famous 'Covid-safe' production model that would make Neighbours the very first scripted programme in the world to return to shooting in 2020 and which would be copied across the globe.

When The Perfect Blend launched one of its objectives was to preserve the show's history at a moment in time. Departed characters' stories were concluded as far as we were concerned and our role was to continue to chapter the 'new' generation of Shanes and Janes. Little did we know that dozens of these iconic characters would be revisited during the next twenty years. Perhaps our gentle unwrapping of the great Neighbours chocolate box of characters helped remind everyone how much deliciousness there was in the back catalogue? As the show has continued to warmly welcome the return of iconic characters such as Jane, Melanie, Glen and Amy in recent years, it was critical that their backstories were accurately portrayed. We remain exceptionally proud that since its inception The Perfect Blend has been used by the creative team at Neighbours to fact-check and provide fleshed out character or story details.

It is probably no exaggeration to suggest that the wealth of content on the site has helped enrich and correct countless scripts, stories and journalism pieces, essentially providing the service that PR teams and official archivists have served on the the UK soaps.

With the show proudly riding high as we entered 2022 it was in typical soap fashion that the happiness be shattered by a bombshell. Channel 5 were not renewing their rights to Neighbours, leaving Fremantle without a significant chunk of the programme's production budget and biggest broadcast partner. Campaigns to 'Save Neighbours' were mounted, new production partners sought and former cast members came out of the woodwork to show public solidarity for the gig that earned them their stripes. Despite best efforts and hopes it was on a cold weekend in early March that the story we dreaded was leaked in the UK press: Neighbours was finished. Critically, it was not a case of 'poor performance' or dwindling ratings, but rather Channel 5's desire to spend the Neighbours investment on home-grown content that was cheaper to produce for similar return.

Whilst one cannot argue with hard-and-fast business strategy, it was a bitter blow.

What followed was a drawn-out period of support from the media in a way that hadn't been seen since the early 90s. Neighbours was making the front pages, trending on Twitter and generating a huge amount of conversation among its devoted fans. We welled up with Jackie Woodburne as she spoke on behalf of the cast on national television - suddenly the magnitude of permanently stopping the 'Neighbours machine' became apparent. Hundreds of cast and crew would lose their jobs and one of the most nurturing training grounds for Australian actors and TV creatives would dry up. However, with superb stoicism, the team led by Jason Herbison continued business as usual as one of the most unenviable jobs in television was undertaken. How do you conclude one of the world's longest running serials?

As the final weeks drew closer we learned that the show's most famous names would return for one final stroll up Ramsay Street. It is testament to the absolute gratitude with which the likes of Kylie, Jason, Guy, Natalie, Delta et al hold for Neighbours that they resurrected their characters at very short notice and seemingly with very little persuasion. It is hard to imagine any other soap that would endear such loyalty and affection from the megastars it created. Then again, there is no other soap that has afforded us the globally renowned alumni that Neighbours has.

Whilst the door will always be open for a revival, we take solace in the fact that Neighbours takes its final curtain call with its head held high. Still commanding healthy viewing figures in all territories it is critically considered as being near the top of its game and we should be proud that the programme is closing with its strongest cast in a generation. The Perfect Blend continues to exist as a homage to Neighbours, reminding us of its illustrious achievements and possibly providing us with the not-so-small task of concluding every character's biographies!

We warmly farewell Neighbours as it jumps aboard the jewelled icosahedron, majestically spinning through Reg Grundy's galaxy on its way into the great soap annals. We may never fully realise Neighbours' impact on culture, the media and our way of life, but we know for certain that they would be far less enriched without it.