A History by Rhys
Up until the mid-1980s the word Neighbours meant little out of the ordinary. In English speaking territories it merely conjured up images of those people living in the house next door or, perhaps, in the immediate neighbourhood. However, since 1985 Neighbours has come to mean far more than that. These days that word conjures up the image of a long-running television serial, which has developed far beyond the realms its creators ever thought possible.
The story began back in the 1960s when television producer Reg Watson was working on Associated Television's Crossroads programme in the UK. Having spent a long time working in Britain, Watson was as good as judge as any as to what sort of serial would work in Britain. By the mid-1970s Watson was back in his native Australia and was keen to pursue the idea of a serial which, although set in Australia, would at least be marketable in Britain, if not in other countries. The premise behind Neighbours was to try and comine a mix of the formula used for early years of Coronation Street and also drawing on his own experiences growing up in the Brisbane suburbs in which he would be familiar with many of his neighbours, unlike in urban Britain or Sydney, for instance.
Reg Watson was, by 1984, an executive within Reg Grundy's media empire, the Grundy Organisation. As head of TV Drama he was given the opportunity at last to further develop the Neighbours concept. Initially, Watson approached the BBC to consider being co-production partners, however the Beeb did not get its act together in time and Grundy's went it alone. One of the first things to be considered was the show's title, with some intial suggestions including: No Through Road, One Way Street and The People Next Door. Surprisingly, according to legend, Ramsay Street was never a contender for the show's title. In the end they settled on the simple, and catchy Neighbours which, more than anything, enables the programme to branch out from time to time beyond the constraints of the street setting. In trying to make the show popular in Britain, the developers wanted to present Australia as a contrast to the stereotypical images of sandy beaches and dry deserts. The location used for Ramsay Street and the surrounding neighbourhood is as fertile and luscious as anywhere in Europe, and the tropical setting of the Lassiter's Hotel further exploits the image the programme makers attempted to convey. Australia had already become famous for its production of such programmes as Prisoner (1979-1985) which had, and still has, a very large cult following in the UK and it is interesting that the studio complex, much of the crew as well as many cast members employed on Prisoner were later transferred straight onto Neighbours, lending both programmes a very close relationship with each other that persists to this day.
Pin Oak Court is the name of the real cul-de-sac which doubles as Ramsay Street, and is located in the suburb of Vermont South in Victoria, close to the fire-prone Dandenong Range and the beauty of Ferntree Gulley, yet is only 20km east of Melbourne's Central Business District. Owners of the houses on Pin Oak Court were assured that Neighbours was unlikely to last more than a couple of years, and were guaranteed regular payments by Grundy in return for the use of their houses' exteriors. One of the final operations before production began in Melbourne was to cast the roles, with the experienced Jan Russ appointed as casting director. A mix of well-known Australian performers (Anne Haddy, Alan Dale and Francis Bell) were cast alongside relative newcomers (Darius Perkins, David Clencie and young Kylie Flinker). Reg Watson wrote the first batch of scripts, and John Holmes was drafted in as series producer.
Neighbours went to air for the first time on the 18th March, 1985 on Australia's Channel Seven to an audience unsure of what to expect. The initial reactions were promising, and it looked like the series would have a happy run on the network. Yet, despite quite favourable reviews, Neighbours wasn't pulling in the audiences that Seven were hoping for, specifically in the largest market of Sydney, and before long the series was axed. Seven broadcast a total of 170 episodes before the programme bowed out at the end of 1985. Most people have put the low audience figures down the fact that Seven had many others serials running at the time - notable ones such as Sons and Daughters and A Country Practice. The decision to axe the show's original run was taken a good while before many of the 170 Seven-commisioned episodes had aired, so it was understandable that the network was furious when its rival, Network Ten, decided to screen the soap. Neighbours' turbulent private life was making media headlines in Australia, because never before had one series left one network to be screened by another. Worse still for Seven was that they still had many weeks' worth of episodes left to screen when the transfer took place.
Classic wedding of Scott and Charlene (Jason Donovan
and Kylie Minogue)
New episodes were filmed and were ready for airing on Ten at the start of 1986, with a number of changes to the format. For the sake of believable continuity, the majority of characters remained… for a while at least. Darius Perkins was replaced by Jason Donovan in the role of Scott Robinson. David Clencie as Danny Ramsay was gradually written out, as was Francis Bell as Max. Among other additions were Kylie Minogue as Charlene Mitchell, Anne Charleston as Madge and later Ian Smith as Harold Bishop. Seven's outrage at Ten for cashing in on the Neighbours brand was evident to all when rumours circulated that all the show's sets had been burned, so as to slow down new production. This was another noticeable change in the 'new Neighbours'. The interior sets were either very realistic reproductions, or they had been rebuilt with any differences explained to the viewers by on-screen redecoration storylines to hide the fact that some of the original furnishings were impossible to replicate. Ten took this opportunity to add another location to the series, apart from Ramsay Street: the Lassiter's Hotel Complex, in reality a disused outdoor set from the early 1980s serial, Holiday Island. It was pure convenience that this set had been built in the grounds of the Channel Ten studios in Nunawading, which meant quick and cheap 'location' filming was right on the doorstep.
Under the guidance of publicity chiefs at Ten, Neighbours soon worked its way up the ratings - achieving quite remarkable audience figures for the time slot. As the BBC hadn't managed to organise drafts of their daytime schedules in time for the show's production launch, which ultimately lost them the ability to co-produce the programme, it was to be eighteen months after its Australian debut that Neighbours went to air on the BBC. It originally screened in Great Britain at 12:30pm with a repeat of that lunchtime episode the following morning. After a year or so of attracting not only housewives and out-of-work people, but also students and children, Michael Grade, of the BBC, was persuaded to give it new timeslots of a lunchtime showing, and a repeat at 5:35pm. This early evening timeslot was never altered in the programme's 22 year history showing on BBC1.
Neighbours' huge success on the BBC enabled the cast to fly over to London in 1988 to appear before the Royal Family in a Royal Variety Performance. Prince Charles famously asked Kylie Minogue "And what is the series you are in?" When Kylie replied "Neighbours", the Prince assured her that he would make a point of watching it! Diana, Princess of Wales was also believed to be a fan and evidence suggests she once contacted the BBC Press Office for video copies of episodes she had missed!
One of the greatest changes in Neighbours' history occurred in early 2007 when it was controversially announced that the BBC had pulled out of bidding for the rights to screen the programme in the UK after FremantleMedia Australia (the new name adopted for Grundy Television in 2006) upped the asking price to an estimated £300million for an eight year contract. This was approximately three-times what the BBC had been paying and they took the view that it would not be a wise investment of licence payers' money. Channel 5 stepped in and bought the rights, ironically, for only £130m. However, Five also negotiated a far greater stake in the programme than the BBC had ever claimed, allowing for greater input on stories, characters and publicity. Neighbours debuted on Channel 5 in February 2008 under a blaze of promotion which has continued to this day, so much so that during the episode broadcast on April 29th 2011 in the UK a specially recorded scene was inserted to reference that day's wedding of Prince William of Wales to Catherine Middleton. The same year also saw Neighbours transfer from Australia's Network Ten to its sister channel, the digital station, Eleven. Inititally, there was grave concern for the show's future as its Australian audience share was in seemingly terminal decline. However, with a much-publicised change of production team in late 2011 and a return to "traditional" Neighbours values the show's long-term future is assured.
Cast Members from the 2002 season
Without doubt Neighbours is a global phenomenon. From humble beginnings it has developed into one of the world's most popular television serials - with an estimated daily audience in excess of 120 million viewers around the world at its peak. Its famous, catchy theme tune, composed and written by husband and wife team Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent, has been voted one of the world's most recognized television theme songs many times over - a testament, if any were needed, to the programme's enduring global popularity. Neighbours has been the launch pad for some of the world's most recognisable artists - most famously, Kylie Minogue; Jason Donovan; Guy Pearce; Natalie Imbruglia and Alan Dale. More recently, Jesse Spencer, Holly Valance, Delta Goodrem and Sam Clark have continued successful careers post-Neighbours. Even Oscar-winning actor, Russell Crowe, once guest-starred in the series before breaking into movies. Its unprecedented success ensured a large number of the cast are able to appear in pantomime in Britain every Christmas, as well as providing the success of merchandise based on the series - everything from annuals; board games; records and most recently a comprehensive collection of DVDs. In 2010, Neighbours celebrated the filming of its 6000th episode - firmly establishing it as Australia's longest running serial.
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