After almost four decades, the show bowed out with a 90-minute special, set to air in the UK tomorrow. We take a look back at the series, the ups and the downs, the real-life dramas and ultimately, what those behind the scenes believe made it an institution around the world.
The name Reg Watson may mean nothing to some, but it is perhaps one of – if not the most – prolific names.
Reg is the man who conceived the idea that would eventually become Australia’s longest running serial drama, Neighbours.
And what a relatively simple concept it was.
However, it wasn’t his first. Whilst working in the UK in the 1960s, Reg delivered a proposal to a network over there for a soap set in the Midlands. After a relatively long pre-production process, the series, retitled Crossroads, went to air in 1964. For the first ten years, Reg helmed the series.
In 1973, Reg returned to his home country, where he took up the position of Head of Drama at Grundy’s, a powerhouse television drama production company, and one of the two biggest (the other, their direct rival Crawford’s).
Over the next ten years, Watson created some of Australia’s most popular television soaps, including The Young Doctors, The Restless Years, Prisoner and Sons and Daughters, to name a few.
Amidst these, came a concept that he called Living Together. It was simple – two families on a cul-de-sac, both with different make-ups, that are challenged by the everyday: the situations that we all face. It was a multi-generational series where teens and adults alike could openly discuss their problems to find a resolution. Reg first took the concept to Nine in 1982, who rejected it. Two years later, the series was commissioned by Seven.
It was all hands on deck to get the series ready to go to air. Casting was almost complete when a social event made producer John Holmes and casting director Jan Russ realise that they had made a grave error.
The actor who originally was cast as patriarch Jim Robinson didn’t meld with the rest of the cast. As a result, Reg was called and asked to release Alan Dale from contract on another of his series, Possession. He obliged.
The series, filmed in Melbourne, went to air on 18th March 1985. However, when it failed to resonate with a Sydney audience, Seven dropped the axe. The original ‘final episode’, Episode 170, went to air on 8th November 1985.
Grundy’s scrambled to find another home for the series, and in an Australian television first, Neighbours was picked up by a rival network.
“I remember we were in my office with John Holmes and I think the associate producer, waiting for that phone call to see if anybody had picked us up,” Jan Russ told TV Tonight.
“We had a bottle of champagne. John answered the phone, and said ‘Yes, yes, okay. Channel 10 have picked us up. Open the champagne.’ That was it!”
Unfortunately, the path to the series’ return wasn’t as easy as beginning the shoot again. The sets had been destroyed, ‘burnt down’, meaning new ones had to be built from scratch.
Through sheer strength and determination, the team, led by John Holmes, was able to start again, in the studios used for multiple series before it, at Nunawading. The publicity team, coordinated by now Head of Drama at Foxtel, Brian Walsh, pumped the series to ensure it wouldn’t suffer the same fate it did on Seven.
Reg Watson frantically rewrote scripts and devised stories that would see the show taken to new heights, and indeed, the creation of such characters as Madge (Anne Charleston), Zoe (Ally Fowler) and, of course, Charlene did just that.
When the casting of Charlene came about, no one knew exactly what the future would hold. However, there was always something about Kylie Minogue. Paired with Jason Donovan, who was brought on board when Darius Perkins was unable to continue as Scott Robinson, the power duo took the world by storm and were the ‘it’ couple when the show began to boom.
Around the world, Neighbours became a household name, but nowhere more than in the United Kingdom. Aired twice a day, the fandom for an international series was unprecedented and not just by the everyday person. It is said that The Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, and her granddaughter-in-law Princess Diana used to record the series every day so as to not miss an episode. Paul Robinson was even Diana’s favourite character.
Episode 523 will go down in history as the show’s most famous episode.
A simple Google search of just the episode number returns a Wikipedia page dedicated to the 22 minutes of television that went to air in Australia on 1st July 1987. Watched by two million in Australia, and a staggering 20 million in the UK, the episode featured the wedding of Scott and Charlene. With Angry Anderson’s now famous love ballad ‘Suddenly’ playing over the ceremony, the episode remains loved by many.
Through the late 80s and early 90s, Ray Kolle oversaw the entire script department. In his time, the series endured some of its most prolific stories. Who could forget the saga of Paul and Gail, then Paul and the Alessi twins, the introduction of the Willis family and of course, Bouncer’s infamous dream.
As anyone on the series will say, the latter is what happens when TV executives hand down orders. In fact, Peter Pinne once told The Perfect Blend that he was never forgiven by the story editor Jason Daniel for making the team do the sequence. Although hated by the team on the series at the time, it remains to this day one of the most well-known scenes.
However, much like the royal family that loved it, 1992 could be considered an annus horribilis for Neighbours. The first blow came when Ray decided to leave to set up Shortland Street alongside his second-in-command from the soap, Jason Daniel.
Following this, the series found itself pitted against long-time rival Home and Away. Neighbours had aired at 7pm since its return to television in 1986, but Seven made a powerful move by shifting its flagship drama to the same timeslot, despite it having aired at 6:30pm since its inception in 1988.
It was a worthy battle, however Ten capitulated and moved its then-dwindling drama to 6:30pm – the timeslot it has stayed in for the last thirty years.
A massive change came in 1995 when Reg Grundy decided to sell his now international production company for $279m. With Neighbours now the only surviving serial drama, the company was absorbed by Pearson Television, who in 2001 rebranded as Fremantle Media.
Whilst the production company was taken into good hands, Neighbours was in a dire position. After a period of instability and nearing cancellation, Home and Away had been given a shot in the arm, made more adult and was working well for Seven. Unfortunately, it seemed everyone had all but given up Neighbours. Then-storyliner Ben Michael recalled that the stories they were telling were quite hit and miss.
“There were lots of silly ones I couldn’t believe we got away with like Helen taking “herbal tea from Northern New South Wales (hint hint)” for her glaucoma – and doing finger painting with Julie (yes this actually went to air – and yes, the BBC kicked our arses for it,” he recalled.
“These stories became known to hardcore fans as ‘1995 stories’, the year a young writing team were left alone in the candy shop without adult supervision, had no self-control, lost their minds and almost sunk the ship.”
After all, the drama of the real world had taken over. The sale of the production house wasn’t the only big event that occurred that year. One day, out of nowhere, the police stormed the Neighbours production offices and walked a senior executive out in handcuffs. Charged with having sex with a minor, the executive left a junior team with no leader.
Within two years of starting, Scott Taylor was given the ropes to the series and told to go for gold. Bringing Ray Kolle back as a consultant proved to be a smart decision and the duo were able to send the Neighbours ratings sky high. So high in fact Home and Away poached Scott two years later.
In fact, it was under Scott and Ray that the first ever serious ‘return from the dead’ occurred.
Having been washed off some rocks in 1992 and presumed deceased, Harold Bishop (Ian Smith) returned with no memory of what happened.
Bringing him back lured back Anne Charleston who had left not long after Harold’s disappearance. With the pair back on screen, alongside Karl (Alan Fletcher) and Susan (Jackie Woodburne), they were able to devise stories for all ages, after the show had become ‘too young’.
The 1997 season finale will go down as one of the show’s most historic cliffhangers. With a huge stunt in Ben’s (Brett Cousins) car crash while Philip (Ian Rawlings) proposes to Ruth (Ailsa Piper), intercut with the ‘will she, won’t she?’ of Anne walking in on Billy (Jesse Spencer) kissing Caitlin (Emily Milburn) as well as Karl and Sarah (Nicola Charles) giving into temptation and sharing a passionate kiss, it will go down in the history books as one of the most ‘edge of your seat’ moments.
After all, it was the catalyst of the now infamous slap that occurred six months later when Susan learnt of Karl’s infidelity through their son Billy.
This wasn’t the only confrontation Karl and Susan endured. Whilst the physical whack that Susan delivered will be forever etched in the memories of Neighbours fans around the world, the on-street confrontation that occurred six years later tugs at the heartstrings. The story of a heartbroken woman learning that her husband is having a baby with younger woman Izzy (Natalie Bassingthwaighte) and exploding on the street in front of said woman and the couple’s daughter Libby will never not be compelling television.
It was under the story-focussed Ben Michael and his script-focussed counterpart Luke Devenish that this scene and indeed entire arc was devised. In fact, it was Ben and Luke that devised Susan slipping on milk and getting amnesia, Paul’s return to Erinsborough and burning down the Lassiters complex as well as Lou’s (Tom Oliver) mail order bride and the plane crash that killed Harold’s entire family.
Known as the “Fun Bus” era to die-hard fans, it divided viewers, but with the perfect blend of light and shade, melodrama and kitchen sink, the era should be looked back on with fondness.
The show underwent a revamp in 2007, turning to high-definition filming and a renewed sense of family and friendship.
It was under network executive Dan Bennett that the directive came, with the former Home and Away script producer brought on board at a network level to ground the show and reinvent it.
The production office was moved to the series’ studios in Nunawading, the cast expanded, and indeed the series returned to its roots. A bus crash triggered the beginning of a new era. What followed could be considered a metaphorical crash.
Over the next six years, the show saw many highs and lows, with the era not spoken highly of by many die-hard fans. In fact, it was 2011 when the show made a big move. Having been on the main channel for 25 years, the series was shuffled to Eleven, a new digital channel from Network Ten.
What it meant for viewership was that a portion of fans who hadn’t made the switch from analogue to digital television were unable to access the series. Despite this move, it continued as the little train that could for the next eleven years. Dwindling in the background, Neighbours found itself once again in a dire position.
That is until 2013, when a man by the name of Jason Herbison took over.
With a history with the show that spanned almost three decades, Jason came on as story producer. The change in direction, pace and story could be seen almost instantly. He made the change seem almost seamless. Stories that had been dragging and rinse-and-repeating were dropped, characters shuffled off canvas and new characters (from the past) were brought in. Within months, the series was at a peak not seen for almost a decade.
Jason’s history may have something to do with it. As a high school student, Jason was an avid viewer of the show and in the 90s, a series of letters arrived on Ray Kolle’s desk. Upon opening them, he would find inside feedback of the series, both good and constructive.
Jason’s name became one of fame in the production office and in the early 90s, he was brought onboard as a storyliner. He left after two years, dabbled in other series, and was a soap correspondent for Inside Soap in the UK and TV Week in Australia. However, from the mid-noughties, Jason worked on several Aussie dramas, including Aus/UK co-production Out of the Blue. So, when the job at Neighbours came up, Jason jumped at the opportunity.
Within a year, he had handed the story producer reins over to Stephen Vagg and taken on the top job as Executive Producer, the role in which he sees the series out. In his role, Jason was responsible for the oversight of the entire production, from story conception to final edits.
It has been his brain behind the big stories of the past eight years: from “Dee’s” return and Sonya’s cancer to the wedding of Aaron (Matt Wilson) and David (Takaya Honda) and Fire Island. With a strong team of professionals around him, Neighbours has been able to hit new peaks, delivering ‘unmissable drama’ whilst sensitively tackling controversial topics, and breaking new ground for the LGBTQI+ community on the Australian television landscape.
28th July 2022. It’s a date that will go down in the history books. After 37 years, 8903 episodes and more than 180,000 scenes, tonight Neighbours has aired its final episode.
For many around the world, there are tears and heartbreak. However, if the series has taught us anything, it’s about hope: the hope of the world, the hope of family and friends, the hope that tomorrow is a new day. The reason it lasted so long was due to the simplicity of the concept and the truth within. The perfect blend.