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Features > The Royal Variety Performance by Peter Pinne

London in November is usually wet and cold, but in the week of November 21st, 1988, the air was crisp and the sun shone and shone. There was hardly a cloud in the sky all week. Maybe the Neighbours cast bought a little of their much vaunted Australian sunshine with them, because that was the week when they were to appear at the Royal Performance before Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret. The venue was that London institution of variety, the Palladium, and the date was Monday the 21st at 7.45PM.

Much planning had gone into the appearance which began when the BBC in August contacted the Grundy Organization about having the cast, of what was then the top rating show in Britain, appear at the annual event. I was Executive in Charge of Production on the show and when Ian Holmes, President of the company asked me how it could be achieved, I immediately envisioned a production nightmare in my head. The main problem was that the show was only three weeks off air. That meant three weeks of five completed episodes in the can which was very tight.

Initially we suggested sending a few key actors but the BBC wanted the lot. We could have lived with losing a few key characters for a week but the only way for the entire cast to go would be to close down production for one week. That meant when we returned the show would only have two completed weeks of episodes up our sleeve, a dangerous situation in case any actor took ill and had to be written out quickly.

The other crucial thing to the mix was “what were the cast going to actually do on the show?” They were actors, not variety performers. Were they just going to come out and stand on stage and let everybody gawk at them? They needed to do something. The BBC said they wanted them to appear in a sketch and then sing the theme song. Grundy wanted the writers who wrote for the series to write the sketch but the BBC insisted their people do it. It ended up being a lame piece that introduced the characters in a clunky way, but typical of British variety shows of the period.

Eventually after consultation with all three parties, Network 10, Grundy and the BBC, a scenario was worked out whereby production would stop for a week. Network 10 would pay for their facilities and crew, Grundy would pay the actors and writing team, and the BBC would fund the airfares and accommodation. Qantas and the Dorchester Hotel helped in this regard giving discounts for their component.

As the time drew near, the cast excitement kept building. It was a big moment in all their careers, a big moment for the show, and a big moment for Australian television. At that time Neighbours was screened by the BBC twice daily, at 1.30PM and the same episode repeated at 5.35PM. It had an audience of 21 million viewers in the UK. Coronation Street was the only show that beat it with an audience of 24 million viewers. It was an incredible success story for an imported series and generated jealousy and envy amongst British producers.

Ten of the cast ended up doing the gig; Anne Charleston, Fiona Corke, Alan Dale, Stefan Dennis, Anne Haddy, Annie Jones, Paul Keane, Craig McLachlan, Ian Smith and Elaine Smith who had left the series in Australia, but was still on air in Britain. I was their ‘minder’ for the trip. Being a Sydney resident I had to fly to Melbourne where I met up with the cast and we flew Qantas non-stop on Saturday 19th, November 1988, arriving Heathrow early Sunday morning, travelling first class.

The Dorchester was pleasant, although the hotel had seen better days and was then in the middle of a refurbishment. Several floors were not in use and the coffee shop had closed. There were fans waiting when we arrived at the hotel, and they were there constantly every day and night hoping to catch the odd glimpse of one of their favourite actors.

The BBC had hyped the appearance up to unprecedented levels. They were selling the live television performance of the concert on the fact that it would be starring the cast of Neighbours. That day (Sunday) there was a press reception for the cast. A barrage of photographers and journalists greeted them when they walked in. More than usual for this type of event. Needless to say, the following morning the newspapers were awash with stories of the Neighbours cast arrival in Britain and the fact that they were going to appear that night on the Royal Variety Performance.

Monday afternoon was a full dress rehearsal for the cast at the Palladium. In between I scheduled run-throughs of the sketch and the singing of the theme song. A fairly basic kick routine had been worked out for the song. The only trained singer of the group was Ian Smith, but Craig McLachlan, pre-recording career, handled his vocal chore well. The others just had to keep in tune, which thankfully they did on the night.

The rehearsal went well although there was precious little time for it. One run-through and that was that. Ronnie Corbett and Bruce Forsyth were the hosts of the evening which included not only the Neighbours cast but other international names. Neighbours were on the first half and were going to be introduced by Kylie Minogue who was the act that preceded them. She was no longer in the show and wanted to distance herself from it as she was then trying to establish her solo recording career.

Finally the big night arrived. The audience stood as the Royal party made their entrance and the National Anthem was played. Then the show started with the Band of the Royal Scots Guards and the show dancers. Ronnie Hazelhurst led the Orchestra. Ronnie Corbett and Bruce Forsyth did some introductory patter which was followed by Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney doing a routine from their current West End hit SUGAR BABIES. Then there was a Chinese actrobat troupe, The Chong Qing Troupe, followed by singer Brian Conley. Kylie Minogue was next singing I Should Be So Lucky, and finally the cast were on. The applause was deafening, which increased as each cast favourite made their entrance and it built to a crescendo at the completion of the song. The actors basked in their moment of glory and I was thrilled to experience it with them.

Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones followed, then Cliff Richard, the cast of the British series Bread, American comic Jackie Mason and the First Act closed with Julio Iglasias who was in town for a series of concerts. Second Act started with a salute to pop ’88 that included Bananarama, Rick Astley and A-Ha, then came Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty from The Golden Girls, the Chinese acrobats again, Bob Monkhouse, Michael Feinstein, Bruce Forsyth and Ronnie Corbett doing some schtick, Russ Abbot with Bella Emberg, then the stars of the British Circus followed by the Finale, where everyone who had been in the show made an appearance again.

Then, it was time for the piece-de-resistance, the moment when all cast members would be introduced to the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. The cast were lined up on stage and the ceremony began.

The next day the papers were full of the Neighbours appearance, some were kind, others were critical they did so little. Overall there was a general air of disappointment about the entire show. But there was no time to dwell on it because all of the performers who had appeared on the show had been invited to a special Variety Clubs luncheon. It was held at a venue near where Cats was playing and to get to it the bus had to travel up Shaftsbury Avenue. Passing the row of theatres was a thrill for Anne Haddy, Anne Charleston and Ian Smith who had all been schooled in theatre, but it meant little to the younger members of the cast.

The rest of the trip the cast were on their own, free to do whatever they wanted, their official duties over. All that was required was they be back in Australia in time for taping the series the following Monday. Some chose to return early i.e. Paul Keane. Paul, even at that time, was having a hard time dealing with the fame and adulation. Most of the younger members of the cast went discoing at nights. The BBC had arranged tickets for those that were interested to see Julio Iglasias who was appearing at Wembley Stadium. Some of us went and enjoyed the night and even got to have after-the-show drinks with him.

Friday finally came with us saying goodbye to London. The fans were still outside the hotel and the sun was still shining. It had been a memorable trip, not only for the cast, but for myself as well. It had been an honour to be asked, and to date it has been the only time the cast of an Australian soap has ever appeared at a Royal Performance.