> A Brief History of Neighbours by Luke Devenish
Everyone has different memories of Neighbours from the early days, and we all have different ideas as to why it has survived for so long. Here script co-producer Luke Devenish discusses his take on the Neighbours phenomenon...
This will upset people, I'm sure, but when Neighbours first appeared on screens I was about 18 or 19 and, I'm sorry to say, I thought it was terrible! Not that I really watched it with any dedication - if I had I would have seen it differently. I was already hooked on two other soaps - Dynasty and EastEnders. I loved Dynasty for its bitchy fun and outrageous storylines, and I loved EastEnders for its ability to stun me senseless with its storytelling and performances. To my late adolescent mind, Neighbours was horribly lame and insufferably cheesy.
I couldn't understand the fuss about Jason and Kylie - what a snob I was! I dismissed Mrs Mangel as simply Mrs Jessop from The Sullivans rehashed, and I particularly thought ridiculous the whole of Erinsborough as a parallel universe thing - and still do! I was also at that point in my life when anything suburban was anathema too; I was all inner-urban and faux-gothic cool. Neighbours was just too plain daggy! I came to see it differently a few years later when I was living in Melbourne, where Neighbours has a much larger presence on the radar than my home town of Perth. People were so obsessed with it that I sort of started watching it too - this was around 1989-90. I didn't become a fully fledged fan until 1993-94 when Pam was foolishly thinking Doug was having an affair. I started properly watching it nightly and I've remained that way ever since!
The Neighbours Formula
terms of the show's popularity and cult, everyone has different
takes on this of course, and I can't pretend to have the definitive
answer. I think the easy pocketing of Neighbours as
a "sunny skies" soap is a little ill-informed. In truth, perfectly
dreadful things seem to happen with horrendous frequency on
Ramsay Street, just like any other soap locale! A difference
certainly exists in the decisions characters make in their
interactions with each other. In Neighbours our characters
are usually always heading towards a point of reconciliation
and empathy with other characters with whom they may presently
be at odds - even if it takes them a long time to get there.
It's rare for Neighbours to finish a relationship story
between two characters - be they friends, family or lovers
- at a point of anger or hatred. I don't know if the same
can be said for, say, EastEnders.
Because my bag is the script and story side of things, my reading of the show's success is naturally slanted towards those areas. We go to an enormous amount of trouble to make the dialogue as good as it can possibly be. While it is dressed up as naturalism, in truth, it's highly structured to maximise wit, romance or emotion - depending on what's required. What makes it most stand out to the casual ear, however, is its very "Australian-ness". The words and phrases characters use are quintessentially Aussie, and proudly so. Neighbours celebrates the unique way Australians communicate with each other and I think Australian viewers enjoy hearing this on the show - and clearly viewers from other countries do too. Another key factor is the story mix - the 'perfect blend' as you guys call it. We have a very clear three part story formula - drama, comedy and romance - that has been set in stone since Reg's day when the basic requirement of the show was that there were always three stories running simultaneously per episode that each touched upon one of the three basic parts. This mix ensures that there's something for everyone. I suppose our nearest relatives in terms of this formula are Corrie and Emmerdale, but I think we've long offered a higher proportion of laughs per episode than those two fine shows, which is what makes Neighbours unique in the soap landscape.
In the old days, rules were very strict that every episode had to have exactly equal proportions of drama, comedy, romance. While this usually worked for standard episodes, it was the landmark ones that really suffered for it. Madge's death was a case in point. We basically consider that episode to be one of the show's least satisfying moments here in the script and story department because we were required to cut away to a ludicrously lightweight story, thus dissipating what was happening in the story the audience most cared about. Now we've chucked those sort of restrictions out of the window. If a story requires it, we will allow it to dominate an entire episode, no matter how dramatic or emotional. It makes for more satisfying storytelling and, ultimately, makes Neighbours a more addictive show.
The 'Addiction' Factor
The "addiction" of Ramsay Street is another factor of our enduring success I think. One thing the show has always managed to use to addict audiences very well - and now more than ever - is by providing fabulous pay-offs. Because we are able to tell stories with great depth over considerable periods of time, stories are able to gather enormous power as they continue. When they reach startling twists or glorious conclusions, they truly deliver on the emotional and dramatic level thanks to the weight of the journey behind them. The curse of doing a soap based upon constant shocks, disasters and attention grabbing stunts is that the impact of pay-offs becomes greatly lessened over time and audiences become immune. This certainly caused the death of Melrose Place and E-Street. I think we avoid that by always mining stories for depth and truth. Certainly our story pacing is a lot slower than, say, Home & Away, of which I'm also a big fan. But, when we hit our big moments, we REALLY hit them and every nuance of the event is explored. I'm constantly looking for places to provide pay-offs - rewards for both long term and short term viewers. For long-termers, I know there is huge satisfaction in rediscovering the past in stories - something we're fully embracing now. This is a reward for having a good memory!
Thanks to Rhys