In my younger years – long before I got a job in TV, first behind the scenes and later as a presenter and commentator – I was an obsessed kid who hijacked family holidays so I could visit real-life TV locations.
There was the Number 96 building in Sydney, the Homicide headquarters in Melbourne’s Russell Street, and Wentworth Detention Centre from Prisoner, which you could just make out through barbed wire fencing.
These days, I get invited inside the wire fencing; something a younger me could never have foreseen in his wildest dreams.
And the brick walls of Wentworth are still there in Nunawading, but today it is surrounded by numerous outdoor sets for Neighbours, the iconic Aussie drama which is coming to an end after a 37-year run.
My final set visit here starts with a COVID test, a reminder that Neighbours was the first soap in the world to resume production after the first lockdown in 2020.
It led to a story in The New York Times and other shows took note, replicating the Aussie stalwart’s safety measures to keep cast and crew safe.
Upon getting an all-clear, I am warned that the Neighbours family is still coming to terms with the show’s axing, with emotions still running high.
When I ask long-time director Chris Adshead what it was like when the shock news was broken to everyone, there is a pause before he emits a groan of sadness.
“A lot of the crew have worked on Neighbours for years and years. Some are of a certain age, which makes them unlikely to leap into something else.”
Chris, who has been directing Neighbours since 1989, is now prepping for the last-ever episodes which will see the return of several heritage characters, including Scott (Jason Donovan) and Charlene (Kylie Minogue).
Creator Reg Watson had wanted Neighbours to be like his own suburban childhood.
It was to be a new kind of Aussie drama, where people would be kind to each other. But, in eschewing the soapie melodrama of his previous hit shows, including Sons and Daughters, Reg struggled to come up with storylines that captured people’s attention.
Neighbours began on the Seven Network in 1985, but after just four months on air it was axed for not rating well enough in Sydney.
Network Ten swooped in and bought the show, and when told that all the sets had been “accidentally destroyed in a fire”, they built colourful new ones to give the show a fresh look. Unfortunately, Sydney viewers still weren’t looking.
On the verge of being cancelled for a second time, Ten publicist Brian Walsh began “tapping into the popularity of the young cast”.
He sent them out to meet fans, with an “onslaught of competitions and Westfield in-store appearances”.
As the hysteria grew, Brian would film the mayhem and send it to newspapers.
“The editor of the Daily Mirror, Roy Miller, called me to say he’d taken the tape home to show his daughter, and she said ‘Dad, the man from Ten is right, all the kids at school love Neighbours, and especially Scott, Charlene and Mike’,”
Brian – now an executive director of Foxtel – tells me today.
“A week later we had our very first front page.” And, thanks to headlines like: “TV Shock – Teen Sex On Ten”, Sydney viewership finally began to rise.
Within 18 months, over two million Aussies were glued to the wedding of Scott and Charlene in what became Neighbours’ most iconic moment.
At the time nobody knew it was about to become a worldwide sensation, with another 20 million viewers to follow.
Neighbours was sold to the BBC, who considered it a cheap and cheerful show to air around lunchtime.
Aussie soaps, like The Sullivans and A Country Practice, had previously screened in daytime slots, and nobody was expecting much more than that for Neighbours.
But when the teenage daughter of the BBC’s controller, Michael Grade, told him all her friends were wagging school to watch it, he moved the show to 5.35pm. Within a month, it had skyrocketed into the top 10.
Neighbours’ winning strategy of five episodes a week forced UK soaps like EastEnders and Coronation Street to pick up their game.
Each only made two episodes a week, but competition from the Aussie upstart forced them to more than double their own output.
Before the internet, and when episodes screened in the UK 18 months behind Australia, UK fans would do anything for plot spoilers.
Cabbies sold bootleg VHS copies from their taxis, and every Aussie who set foot on English soil was expected to dish the dirt on what would happen next in Ramsay Street.
Neighbours’ appeal in the northern hemisphere has often been attributed to its summery, year-round vibe, even though it’s filmed in not-so-warm Melbourne.
At its peak in the late 1980s, Neighbours was screening in over 60 countries and characters like patriarch Jim Robinson (Alan Dale), his wily son Paul (Stefan Dennis) and mother-in-law Helen Daniels (Anne Haddy) turned into household names.
Fans wept when the show had its first major death, Daphne (Elaine Smith), and while no couple could match the phenomenal popularity of Scott and Charlene, Madge (Anne Charleston) and Harold (Ian Smith) came close.
Many fans wrote in to say they wished they had grandparents just like them.
Therefore, it was sad when Harold was swept off rocks and presumed drowned.
But, disappearing into an ocean never meant you were dead on Neighbours, and five years later Harold was back.
Similarly, Toadie (Ryan Moloney) accidentally drove his newlywed wife Dee (Madeleine West) off a cliff in 2003, and although she too disappeared into the drink, she returned 14 years later, with an evil twin sister in tow.
Neighbours might have stretched believability with its more outrageous plots, but it has always respected its history and loved to welcome back former characters.
Shaunna O’Grady, who played local GP Beverly Robinson, left the show in 1990 and scored herself a husband in director Chris Adshead.
“I directed her farewell scene, and she’s still upset with me for not giving her a better close-up,” he laughs.
Nearly 30 years later, when the show required a new medical expert, Dr Beverly (still played by Shaunna) returned and found herself in the thick of several major storylines, including a relationship with another returnee, former gorilla-grammer Clive Gibbons (Geoff Paine).
Their romance didn’t last, and today Clive is dating another heritage character who once had the nickname “Plain Jane”.
Jane (Annie Jones) was the granddaughter of Mrs Mangel (Vivean Gray), the prim and proper neighbour who drove everybody crazy with her busybody ways.
Mrs Mangel never did approve of Jane dating their hunky neighbour Mike (Guy Pearce), but there was no way teenage romance could ever be thwarted, especially in the early years when Neighbours was dominated by the fabulous foursome of Charlene, Scott, Mike and Jane.
Kylie, Jason and Guy all left Neighbours to become international superstars, but the show proved it had a knack for discovering fresh talent – Margot Robbie, Daniel MacPherson, Natalie Imbruglia, Jesse Spencer and Delta Goodrem all started out there, too.
While others moved to Tinseltown, Annie stayed on to look after her ailing mother, but she’s never had any regrets and says today:
“I had watched the first episode of Neighbours as a fresh young actor and loved it, so being in the show has always been a dream come true for me”.
Annie is honoured to be there for the final episodes, even though nothing can ever top going to London in 1988 to perform at The Royal Variety Performance.
Neighbours-mania was in full swing, and the cast had a baptism of fire when they did a media call at The Dorchester Hotel, with a wall of photographers two to three deep screaming at them.
Annie and the cast met the Queen Mother, who said to them: “Ooh my goodness, there certainly are a lot of you.”
It was said at the time that the Queen, Princess Diana and Prince William were all watching Neighbours, although Prince Charles was not.
Earlier that year, on meeting Kylie Minogue for the first time at Sydney’s Royal Australian Bicentennial Concert, he promised her: “I’ll have to make a point of watching it.”
Richard Huggett joined Neighbours in 1990 after playing bad boy Sonny Bennett in E Street, where he had killed off several cast members:
“Not surprisingly, some actors were a bit concerned about my arrival, but of course, Neighbours was not as edgy as E Street, so everyone was safe.”
Richard played Glen, the long-lost son of Jim Robinson, his life forever marked with delight at “working with actors I’d watched on TV as a kid”.
Recently returning to the show after nearly 30 years away, he jokes, “Now, I’m the old bloke who can’t remember his lines!”
Neighbours has always been a family-friendly show, so it was no surprise that during their summer hiatus cast members would fly to the UK to appear in Christmas pantomimes.
“When you walked out on stage, the audience screamed like you were a rock star,” Richard says. “Sometimes it would take five minutes for the applause to die down so you could say your first line, and we were mobbed everywhere we went.”
As the years rolled on new characters came and went, but some became mainstays.
Toadie had fans crying with joy when he cut off his infamous mullet hairstyle, and they squealed with delight at Dr Karl’s (Alan Fletcher) cheating ways.
His affairs, which included Sarah (Nicola Charles) and Izzy (Natalie Bassingthwaighte), earned him several well-deserved slaps from wife Susan (Jackie Woodburne) who got retrograde amnesia, multiple sclerosis and was nearly buried alive.
Neighbours has weathered many peaks and troughs, “regime changes and revamps”, and Chris has been there, as director, through them all.
One low point was in 1993 when Julie Martin (Julie Mullins) accused the newly arrived Lim family from Hong Kong of eating a neighbourhood dog. Not surprisingly, they fled Ramsay Street six weeks later.
This disastrous attempt at diversity resulted in Neighbours sticking to its all-white roots for many more years. But, with more and more critics and fans questioning why it wasn’t moving with the times, executive producer Susan Bower introduced an Indian family, the Kapoors, in 2008.
Two years later, she also brought on teenager Chris Pappas (James Mason), the show’s first regular gay character.
“Neighbours used to be incredibly naive,” Chris says. “The subject matter was, frankly, not that critical.”
Today, under executive producer Jason Herbison, Neighbours is more pacy, and leaves the airwaves as the most inclusive show on Australian TV.
“I think it’s really great now,” Chris adds, “because more diversity opens the door to more interesting stories.”
Neighbours now has a full range of multicultural and LGBTQI+ characters, and has gone out of its way to cast actors with a disability.
Behind the scenes Neighbours has been a training ground for anyone wanting to change careers or break into the industry.
Actors like Kate Kendall (Lauren), Scott Major (Lucas) and Gold Logie nominated Eve Morey (Sonya) have gone behind the camera to work as directors.
Recently, there’s been a push to train more female directors, and many of its current scriptwriters started off as young fans of the show.
Neighbours has also shown what can be achieved with collaboration.
When teen transgender activist Georgie Stone wrote to Jason to explain why seeing yourself on TV was important, the producer called her in for a chat, gave her a screen test and then announced she could play the role herself.
She debuted on screen a year later in 2019, after she’d worked with scriptwriters to make her character, Mackenzie, as authentic as possible.
Mackenzie has gone from shy schoolgirl to now studying law, but it’s Georgie who’s been on a real journey:
“Neighbours has been a wonderful experience. I’ve gained expertise from the best people in the industry, and it’s also been an opportunity for me to raise awareness about the trans experience. It’s been empowering, and made me much more confident.”
For all its diversity though, Neighbours is still a soap, and has never looked better.
The resort set from failed soapie Holiday Island has been transformed into a giant backlot that houses several backyards, a restaurant and the hotel, Lassiters, which has survived a tornado and being blown up.
Neighbours is leaving at the top of its game, but like all those Ramsay Street characters who left, only to return, many fans believe that good neighbours, and good friends, will always be worth revisiting.
The final episode of Neighbours airs on Thursday July 28 on 10 and 10 Peach
You can read this story and many others in the August issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now
Are you a die-hard Neighbours fan? Don’t miss out on grabbing this vintage TV WEEK cover Neighbours t-shirt from Hard To Find, for only $39.95.