These days, we like to see our soap stars on quiz shows, and our Ordinary Joes storming the charts. In the 1980s the reverse was true; you couldn’t turn on the TV or the radio without encountering a song by an Aussie pop star. But how did this musical revolution begin? Why was Neighbours the soap that kick-started the phenomenon? And where are they all now? Let’s rewind a little…
In the beginning, there was Ramsay Street…
In the UK in the mid-to-late 1980s, Neighbours was less a soap opera and more a live-action boast that was beamed into the nation’s homes five days a week. ‘Look at our happy country filled with beautiful people,’ it seemed to say to us. ‘Isn’t it better than your drizzly little post-industrial hellhole?’
Neighbours showed us the enriching and exquisite existence that was being enjoyed by the citizens of the south-sea penal colony we used to own, which made us look like Morlocks in comparison. We hated the Aussie soap stars, grudged them their every sun-soaked joy, but we also loved them, and desperately, desperately wanted to be like them. Sun, surf, tinnies on the beach, beach bodies, bleached smiles and skin that wasn’t the colour of a hypothermic smurf. That’s what we wanted. And when we realised we couldn’t get it, we turned to Neighbours as a sort of televisual methadone, painful and relieving in equal measure: a daily twenty-minute fix to take the edge off our miseries. But for some people it wasn’t enough. They wanted more. They wanted Neighbours mugs and Neighbours board-games, tattoos of the Neighbours cast on every inch of their exposed skin. They wanted the navy to sail to the southern hemisphere and drag Australia back to Britain on the end of a tow-rope. They wanted to wear Harold Bishop’s face like a mask. Things started to get ugly.
The first rumblings of dissent were felt in the belly of the education system. In 1987, every child in Britain truanted from school rather than risk missing their daily dose of Neighbours, which in those days was broadcast only once, and at lunchtime. Hundreds of thousands of angered parents marched on Downing Street to demand a tea-time repeat.
“What do we want?” they chanted. “A tea-time repeat of Neighbours!”
“When do we want it?” they chanted. “Just after John Craven’s Newsround at five thirty-five on BBC One!”
It wasn’t very catchy, but it got the message across. Prime Minister Thatcher was forced to declare a state of emergency. The unrest spread throughout the country, despite Thatcher’s famous insistence that there was ‘no such thing as Neighbours‘. Riots erupted. Shops were looted. Churches were burned. The state’s response was swift and brutal. Within days, tanks were rolling down British streets.
Society quickly crumbled. The Scottish city of Dundee fell to pro-Aussie rebels who changed its name to ‘Crocodile Dundee’, and added the tagline: ‘You call that a city? THIS is a city.’ The casts of British soap operas were captured and forced to fight to the death live on air during special editions of It’s A Knockout (The Archers never stood a chance). Millions of deodorant cans were emptied into the air above the north of England in a bid to destroy the ozone layer and create a sunny, southern-style ecosystem between Bolton and Hull. It didn’t work, although for a good few months Bolton did smell immensely sexually attractive. In Leicester, as a show of solidarity with the rebel cause, millions of galahs were set alight and released into the cold night sky. Vivean Gray seized control of Wales in a bloodless coup, and for six months Mrs Mangel’s frowning face stared out from the Welsh fiver. Eventually, UN forces led by President Reagan landed troops in Britain and seized control of its infrastructure, in a move that led to skirmishes and violent battles.
And then, just when all hope seemed lost, something extraordinary happened. Three days in to the Battle of Auchtermuchty (generally acknowledged to have been the bloodiest battle of the entire conflict), brave young Kylie Minogue walked out into the middle of the corpse-hewn battlefield with a microphone clutched in her delicate little fist. Bombs and gun-fire raged all around her, but she refused to show fear. She had to end the madness. She raised the microphone, opened her mouth and started to sing.
“I’d never even tried singing before,” remembers Minogue. “Just something about it felt right. Being a soap star was what got us into this mess, so maybe being a singer would get us out of it. That’s what I was thinking when I walked out there.”
Minogue’s gamble paid off. The battlefield fell silent. Soldiers and rebels alike downed their rifles and lay prone on the still-smoking turf. And they wept, they wept like lost children, their tears mingling with blood as Minogue’s haunting song of peace sailed across the sky like a dove:
‘I… should be so lucky… lucky, lucky, lucky…”
The peace accord was signed the next day. The UN passed a resolution calling for all Neighbours’ cast members to release as many singles as possible, hoping to usher in a new era of world peace.
And THAT, my friends, is the story of why Neighbours has produced so many of our most beloved pop-stars over the last three decades.
Are you bloody kidding me? I’m never trusting Wikipedia again. Apparently none of that actually happened? Really? The funny thing is, I remember it all, especially the assassination of Mrs Mangel. It’s so vivid. Maybe those teachers were right when they cautioned against the recreational use of petrol.
Anyway, it’s all true in spirit. For a brief time in the 1980s and very early 90s, Neighbours became a bona fide cultural phenomenon in the UK that sent us all bat-shit crazy for anyone and anything Australian. The show’s cast members enjoyed the status of movie stars. Whenever they landed in Heathrow for a promotional tour, the blood-curdling screams of a thousand girls could be heard as far away as Clydebank. The cast even got to sing for the Queen at the Royal Variety Performance, even though their show had absolutely nothing to do with singing. Can you imagine Ron Dixon and Jimmy Corkhill being invited along to perform a haunting rendition of the Brookside theme tune using kazoos and rolled-up copies of the Socialist Worker? I certainly can’t. And neither do I want to.
The stratospheric levels of fame enjoyed by the stars of Neighbours gave many of them the opportunity to move sideways into the music industry, where their notoriety alone was enough to guarantee them a smash hit. Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan, aka Scott and Charlene Robinson, were the Aussie soap’s pop pioneers: phase 1 of the Neighbours Shared Universe, if you like. If anyone’s to blame for the gargantuan musical bandwagon that rolled out from Ramsay Street in their wake, it’s them. Or maybe ‘you’, if you indiscriminately purchased a lot of random LPs in the late 80s.
It’s true that the musical output of Neighbours has been something of a mixed-bag; however, for every Stefan Dennis sent out into the world there is always a Delta Goodrem or a Natalie Imbruglia or an Alyce Platt to balance out the horror.
The below will concentrate mostly on the horror, but also on some of the one-hit wonders and lesser-known surprises of the Erinsborough soap-pop oeuvre. But, you know. Mostly the horror. The horror’s more fun.
Character played: Charlene Robinson nee Mitchell
Years active: 1986 – 1988
(Number 1, UK singles chart, 1987)
In 1987, Kylie released a cover of Little Eva’s 1962 hit The Loco-Motion. If Sam Beckett leapt into Kylie’s body during the shoot for the video he wouldn’t need to ask Al or Ziggy which decade he’d arrived in. It’s so 80s you can almost taste the mousse. Lycra, spandex, frizzy perms, gigantic ear-rings, shell-suits, a woman wearing braces and a pork-pie hat: Ziggy says there’s a one hundred per cent chance that you’ve leaped into the single worst year of fashion in human history.
Character played: Scott Robinson
Years active: 1986 – 1989
TOO MANY BROKEN HEARTS
(Number 1, UK singles chart, 1989)
Jason Donovan was up next, spending the duration of the video for his 1989 smash hit Too Many Broken Hearts wearing the standard heart-throb uniform of the 1980s, which was a tight white T-shirt and an even tighter pair of jeans. The floppy-haired young Donovan looked like he’d just stepped out of a Daz commercial. These days, with his mysterious goatee and black turtleneck, Donovan looks like a Bond villain with a side-line in existential French philosophy.
JASON AND KYLIE
ESPECIALLY FOR YOU
(Number 1, UK singles chart, 1988)
I could easily use the video for Especially For You as a pretext for launching another blistering attack on the 1980s, but I’m not going to, because it’s nice. The song’s nice, the story’s nice, and you don’t get a whole lot of nice in the music industry today. Or anywhere actually, including this article.
Ever since Christina Aguilera decided to use her hips like a sexual sub-machine gun, most music videos since have stopped just short of showing full penetration. Watching Jason and Kylie at work is like watching a photo-casebook from the agony aunt pages of Jackie magazine brought to life and set to music. It’s innocent, and nice. I miss nice. Nice was… well, it was nice.
Christ, I’m old.
PS: In the interests of journalism, I forced myself to watch Christina Aguilera’s Dirty video many, many, many times, just to make sure it was as DISGUSTING as I remembered. I’m still not sure. Back in a second…
Whatever happened to those two? Jason Donovan went on to star in musicals, and eventually hit the big time when he became the voice of the host in the popular PlayStation quiz series Buzz. There was absolutely no controversy surrounding his career or personal life. None. None at all. OK? So just leave it.
Kylie released another few singles, and then faded into obscurity, never to be heard from again.
Character played: Paul Robinson
Years active: 1985 – 1993, 2004 – present
DON’T IT MAKE YOU FEEL GOOD
Number 16, UK singles chart, 1989)
Don’t it make you feel good? It goes without saying that the only sane answer to that grammatical slap in the face is a resounding ‘no’. The only people this song could make feel good are CIA interrogators using it to bombard enemy combatants into vegetablised submission.
The success of Jason and Kylie’s pop careers was predicated upon three things: the popularity of their characters in Neighbours, their photogenic fizzogs and their obvious musical talent. Around the time poor Stefan was persuaded to leap aboard the superstar bandwagon it’s fair to say that very few of those three factors were working in his favour.
These days, one-legged, pub-torching panto-villain Paul Robinson is a firm favourite with fans, but back in 1989 it was a different story. Late 80s Paul was an uptight, huffy yuppie with all the charm and likeability of a corrupted Ceefax page. This made it difficult to unlock his full popstar potential. What made it impossible was Stefan’s singing voice, which sounds like the low-moan a dog makes in the back of its throat immediately before it starts howling.
Remove the lyrics from Don’t It Make You Feel Good, and you’re left with the backing track to an early 90s car-chase game on the Amiga. Remove the music, and you’re left with lyrics that read like an under-educated serial killer’s stab at romantic poetry. The accompanying music video, with its forlorn stares and billowing curtains, was clearly a key inspiration for David Brent’s version of If You Don’t Know Me By Now. Which is approximately ten billion times better, even though it’s a spoof performed by a fictional character.
The video begins with Stefan descending a set of stairs to a basement in slo-mo, wearing an anguished expression and a leather jacket with the collar upturned. I’m a bad boy, he seems to be telling us, though my soul courses with sorrow. Like a very, very poor man’s Justin Bieber. Next, he conjures his best pensive expression and grabs a section of chain-link fence, much like Sarah Connor did in The Terminator seconds before a nuclear explosion blasted the flesh from her bones. Somehow, watching the latter is the less traumatic of the two experiences.
Stefan spends the remainder of the video dancing through basements like a drunk uncle at a wedding, whilst moody women scowl at him from shadowy locker-rooms. Essentially, it’s Grease meets The Shining. At one point Stefan strolls into shot rocking a T-shirt-and-scarf combo, a fashion statement that reminds you there are worse things in this world than famine and genocide.
THIS LOVE AFFAIR
(Number 67, UK singles chart, 1989)
This Love Affair tries to reinvent Stefan as a high-verve rocker of the Springsteen school. He bounds around a miniscule stage shaking various parts of himself, punching the air, leaning on his mic stand, aggressively pointing at people in the crowd, and repeatedly falling to his knees like some Baptist preacher gone bonkers. The ADD-fuelled crowd before him transforms itself into a turbulent sea of bops and fist-pumps. It’s a theatre of physicality that doesn’t quite gel with the flavour and feel of the song: the equivalent of watching Cliff Richard dancing on-stage at a children’s birthday party as Metallica knocks out the theme tune to Postman Pat.
When Stefan isn’t on stage dressed in a button-bedecked waistcoat that even Doctor Who would’ve been too ashamed to wear, he’s on a bus journeying through a yellow-tinged apocalypse, like a man trapped inside a Steven Soderbergh film.
Stefan’s vocals in this song really make you appreciate Don’t It Make You Feel Good, which is a bit like saying that a kick in the crotch makes you retrospectively appreciate a punch in the face. Unaided by electronic effects, Stefan’s voice comes at you with the savage inevitability of Scooby Doo in heat.
Whatever happened to that guy? Stefan Dennis played a rapist in the Scottish soap River City, and then decided that while he enjoyed playing dodgy characters, that wasn’t quite what he had in mind. He returned to Ramsay Street.
More singles were originally planned for release after This Love Affair, but then, in 1990, the Berlin Wall fell. And Stefan realised his work was done.
Click on the next page for reflections on the musical careers of The Twins, Henry Ramsay, Harold and Marge, Karl Kennedy, Mrs Mangel and more…
THE TWINS – Gillian and Gayle Blakeney
Characters played: Caroline and Christine Alessi
Years active: 1990 – 1992
Remember the twins from Neighbours? Remember Paul was going with one of them, but then they swapped one day and he couldn’t tell them apart? Yeah, that’s all I can remember about them too. Don’t worry if you can’t tell them apart. It’s not important. The poor loves don’t even have their own separate Wikipedia pages. Even Ant and Dec have their own separate Wikipedia pages.
ALL MIXED UP
(91 Australian charts, 1991)
All Mixed Up is a frisky, frenetic little ditty that didn’t exactly set the world alight, but did go on to become an early-90s club classic, probably in Lithuania or somewhere cosmopolitan like that. The video attacks your eyes like a rainbow-coloured death-ray, the images spinning and flickering in your skull with a violence that brings to mind the fate of Malcolm McDowell at the end of A Clockwork Orange.
Whatever happened to those two? They released another few songs and then gave up music altogether. Gillian Blakeney now runs a very successful scarf line (where were you in 1989, Gillian? Stefan needed your advice). The other one is doing stuff too.
Character played: Henry Ramsay
Years active: 1987 – 1989
(Number 2, UK chart, 1989)
Mona is an insanely catchy, feel-good song that drills through your skull and tattoos a smile on the surface of your brain. If Henry Ramsay was a song, he’d definitely be this one. Once you’ve heard Mona, your thoughts will echo for eternity with Craig McLachlan’s oooooos (careful with the spelling there). When you least expect it, when you least want it, that perm-n-denim barn dance will take over your mind: even when you’re projectile vomiting, being slung in a police cell or trying not to cry at a funeral. The chorus makes your body rise like a puppet whose strings have been snagged on a rocket, and your toes tap like chickens in an earthquake. It’s lyrics may be sparse and convey somewhat stalkerish sentiments (“You’re going to build a house next door to me? That’s… who are you again?”), but who cares? It’s the happiest, most infectious song on the entire planet, and powerful enough to coax a smile from even the dead, joyless lips of Donald Trump.
(Number 19, UK chart, 1990)
In Amanda, Craig takes the fateful decision to abandon his cheerful, Henry-esque persona in favour of becoming a sour-faced, angst-ridden rocker. The yutes, the perms and the toe-tapping have all been replaced by the sight of Craig with his top off moping around sepia landscapes. At one point he even dons a leather jacket, begging the question: did he learn nothing from Stefan Dennis? The song is pretty much a dreary dreck-a-thon, although the Amanda-themed chorus is undeniably catchy, proving that Craig is at his best when he’s saying ‘whoa oh oh’, or ‘woo’, and then mentioning a specific girl’s name.
I ALMOST FELT LIKE CRYING
(Number 50, UK chart, 1990)
This song is so far away from the fun and feel-good vibe of Mona that I almost felt like cryin’ too. There’s angst, regret, longing, and a full-on mullet that shoots for Jon Bon Jovi but lands just the wrong side of Pat Sharpe. Not even the chorus can redeem things this time. The chorus of a song is the part that usually resonates most powerfully with the listener; the infectious mantra that people are most inclined to belt out at random joyful moments throughout the day. Here, Craig abandons his winning formula of Woooooos and girls’ names in favour of a doom-laden dirge about crying that’s delivered in a haunting staccato. Somebody should have told Craig that a chorus, a really good chorus, shouldn’t bring to mind a serial killer whispering threats under your bed.
ON MY OWN
(Number 59, UK chart, 1991)
‘On My Own’? What single are you going to release next, Craig: ‘I’M SO FUCKING UNHAPPY I CAN TASTE IT’?
There’s a ‘Metallica meets Spandau Ballet’ flavour to this video, which sees Craig sulking around the Australian outback in a white T-shirt, occasionally twanging out power chords from the top of big rocks. All the while snakes slither hither and thither through the brush, and a woman inexplicably performs ballet in some dirt. This song’s about crying, too. By this point, the only way Maclachlan could’ve plunged any deeper into despair would’ve been to join the cast of Eastenders.
Whatever happened to him? Craig doesn’t care if you like his pop songs or not, because he went on to become a well-loved lead in stage musicals like Grease and The Rocky Horror Show. He’s also the star of the acclaimed Aussie TV series The Doctor Blake Mysteries, which is so bleak it’s almost Taggart.
Character played: Felicity Scully
Years active: 1999 – 2002, 2005
KISS KISS (AKA Graham Norton’s theme tune)
(Number 1, UK singles chart, 2002)
The video for ‘Kiss Kiss’ – with its flickering lights, plinky-plonky melody and plethora of flesh – looks and sounds like the Turkish entry for the Eurovision song contest. That’s actually a compliment, believe it or not.
Back in 2002, Valance’s half-naked, gyrating body sent many a Dad scurrying for a sofa cushion after hearing an unexpected noise outside the living room. “OH, IS THAT YOU BACK, LOVE? YOU’RE EARLY! I’M JUST WATCHING THE END OF TIME TEAM. THAT’S FUNNY, THE CHANNEL’S CHANGED ALL BY ITSELF?! DON’T COME IN HERE!!”
Whatever happened to her? Valance went back to acting. You may remember her from such films as Taken, and Pledge This (I haven’t googled the movie, but I’m guessing it’s some sort of instructional video on dusting).
IAN SMITH AND ANNE CHARLESTON
Character played: Harold Bishop
Years Active: 1987 – 1991, 1996 – 2009, 2011, 2015
Character played: Madge Bishop nee Ramsay nee Mitchell
Years active: 1986 – 1992, 1996 – 2001, 2015
Harold and Madge were Ramsay Street’s most enduring couple, staying together and remaining steadfastly in love despite all that fate hurled at them. Lou Carpenter was forever trying to woo Madge away from her jiggly-jowled childhood sweetheart, thinking himself irresistible despite having the laugh of Sid James and the face of Earl from Dinosaurs. To be fair to Lou, he did manage to almost-marry Madge, but that was only because Madge thought Harold was dead after he’d been swept out to sea. Harold returned four years later, suffering from amnesia and believing himself to be a Salvation Army officer called Ted (He basically did a ‘Dirty Den’, although without the subsequent killing-off or any of that unfortunate web-cam business). Thankfully, Madge’s love was powerful enough to rekindle Harold’s memories, and the two joyfully renewed their wedding vows. (although Harold never forgave her for making him remember ‘Don’t It Make You Feel Good?’) Madge died in 2001, but came back to commemorate Neighbours’ 30th anniversary, appearing as a figment of Harold’s imagination in an incredibly episode that won an award for its writing. PS: Madge used to be in a basketball team called ‘The Grey Growlers’. Guys, do yourselves a favour and don’t google that. I had a lot of explaining to do when my missus reviewed my internet search history.
AN OLD FASHIONED CHRISTMAS
On this Xmas LP, Ian channels the spirit of a jolly, jowly old granddad who’s merry after a few too many brandies. He pulls off that warm, cosy, Christmas-by-the-fireside feel we’re all so desperate to capture come the festive season, despite hating our families and loathing absolutely everything about Christmas. Unfortunately, it’s at this point Anne Charleston starts singing, with a voice like a knife being scraped down a snake’s back. An Old Fashioned Christmas is more of a duel to the death than a duet. It’s like listening to Harry Secombe trying to exorcise a demon.
CAST OF NEIGHBOURS AT XMAS
What could be more festive than listening to the Neighbours’ theme tune being murdered to a calypso-techno beat, as Craig McLachlan jumps about like a kangaroo with its arse on fire and Harold feigns a heart attack at the piano? You can almost smell the mistletoe.
The video is best described as Sesame Street meets Twin Peaks, as seen on TV in an episode of The Young Ones. The forced jollity of the cast in the living room portion of the video lends a sinister, Midwich Cuckoo-esque feel to proceedings, while the absurd trip to what looks like the Microsoft Paint Dimension carries with it nightmarish echoes of The Lawnmower Man. The less said about the excruciating though mercifully brief Sex Pistols pastiche the better. This video made me want to strangle baby elks.
Character played: Dr Karl Kennedy
Years active: 1994 – present
Karl Kennedy’s been healing parts and breaking hearts in Erinsborough since 1994. He’s the local doctor, but he isn’t just any old doctor. Oh no. When Karl graduated, they asked him which kind of medicine he’d like to specialise in, and he just laughed and said, ‘Everything, mate. I want to be the doctor of everything.’ It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a staved toe, a broken leg, a punctured lung, a severe psychiatric problem, advanced renal failure, or you require risky keyhole surgery on your bowel: Karl’s your man; a one-man NHS. When he isn’t healing the sick or cheating on Susan, Karl likes to while away the hours jamming in his band, The Right Prescription. In a case of art imitating life, the actor Alan Fletcher also helms a band, the real-life, also-medically-themed Waiting Room. I’m pretty sure that’s as meta as the situation gets, although if any of you have evidence of Alan Fletcher performing minor surgery in his spare time, we’d love to hear from you.
Waiting Room began life as a crowd-pleasing turn by Fletcher and his musical cohorts at the annual Neighbours fan-party, at which they would play tongue-in-cheek songs like Sleeping Alongside Susan, a homage to Karl Kennedy’s sexual indiscretions sung to the tune of Living Next Door To Alice. Outside of their annual nods to Neighbours, the band’s vibe is a dad-rock blend that channels the spirit of T-Rex, Morrissey, the Manics and Elvis Costello.
When I first saw front-man Fletcher in action, he reminded me of a recently-divorced geography teacher doing karaoke at a faculty Christmas party pissed out of his head. But the more I watched him, the more I grew to like him. His style and delivery is infectious, and he always looks like he’s having a tremendous time. Not quite up there with Doctor Hook, but better than Doctor Zhivago.
Whatever happened to that guy? He’s still Ramsay Street’s dashing doctor, and he still tours occasionally with his real-life band.
Character played: Mark Gottlieb
Years active: 1993 – 1995
ONE OF A KIND
All of us will die. We’re born to it. It’s a cruel trick that just when we reach the age at which the futility of it all starts to make sense, our bodies wither, rot and die. Our untethered breaths escape into the air, and everything we are or ever were is scattered to the void. We may be remembered by our loved ones, they may weep at our graves, statues may even be raised in our names, but eventually, inevitably, inexorably, all trace of us will be purged from the cold, never-ending canvas of the universe as it unrolls itself towards its own inescapable oblivion.
Listening to One of a Kind will make you feel okay about that.
Whatever happened to that guy? B-Man Samazan, as he styled himself, makes Vanilla Ice look like Tupac. He’s still very much keeping it real today.
He’s a real-estate agent.
Character played: Nell Mangel
Years active: 1986 – 1988
Ikke det at du skal føle deg bra? (Number 1, Norweigan Charts, 1991)
In 1991, Vivean Gray – aka Neighbours’ Mrs Mangel – teamed up with Norweigan death-metal band Padde Fisk to do a cover of Stefan Dennis’s seminal 1989 hit, ‘Don’t It Make You Feel Good?’ In the video, Mrs Mangel is seen perched on an armchair made of skulls, wearing a leather jacket with the collar turned up, and menacingly shaking her fist out of a window. At one point she sacrifices a squirrel with a carving knife as three large men with beards scream in her face. The video ends with Mrs Mangel roaring up a deserted highway on a Harley Davidson with the police in hot pursuit.
Ach, alright, I made that up. That would’ve been great though.