Like gravity, you don’t have to actually see Neighbours to feel reassured by it being there. The Aussie soap is a cathedral of the UK TV schedule – an edifice you can walk past daily without ever stepping inside, but knowing that if you ever feel the need for cold stone and silent reflection/sunshine and kidnapping plots, its doors are open. The news that Channel 5, which took over Neighbours’ UK broadcast from BBC One in 2008, will drop the show from this autumn has been met with some outrage. ‘Hey!’ people said, ‘leave Neighbours alone! We weren’t really watching that!’
Over a million people are watching Neighbours in the UK (only a fraction of the 20 million who tuned in for Scott and Charlene’s 1988 wedding, but that’s like comparing apples to massively diversified, digital, globally on-demand oranges). Over a million TV commuters are still travelling daily between here and Ramsay Street. What, I wondered, has changed in the two decades since I last numbered among them? Let’s find out.
One change is that Neighbours isn’t only on twice a day now. Streaming means that it’s also on at forever-ty always o’clock. You can wake up in the middle of the night and watch Neighbours, a feat formerly only achievable by owners of the Scott & Charlene: A Love Story VHS cassette. Another change is that now before you’re allowed to watch it, you have to tick a box that states you’re over 16 years of age. (The series went from an Australian G up to a PG rating in 2018. It had to, because Dr Karl Kennedy kept refusing to wear underwear on set.)* Almost all of my Neighbours viewing, and that of everybody I know, was accomplished prior to the age of 16. I don’t know how, but we just coped.
The real difference is that I am now older than almost all of the adult characters and yet live in a much less nice house than they do. Why didn’t I get my head down and become a GP, or the head of Erinsborough High, or Paul Robinson? I also don’t recognise a single person on the Street. Where is Lou Carpenter or Cody Willis? At least Toadfish should be around here somewhere, causing havoc on his skateboard. Oh, there he is! That’s reassuring. But no. Toadie is a lawyer with two children now, and drives a much better car than mine. It’s sobering to be confronted with the realisation that Toadfish Rebecchi has achieved more in life than me. I’m starting to question the fun of this high school reunion.
The opening credits still feature the Neighbours larking around, being there for one another and becoming good friends, but now they come with the helpful addition of character names. I note with unveiled judgement that the characters are all named things like Hendrix and Roxy and Mackenzie, when they should be named things like Helen Daniels. The majority of the cast is still young and beautiful, made up in large part of milk-fed, dentally blessed, tanned blondes in swimsuits. No change there.
Here’s a change: adverts. In Neighbours’ BBC days, you could watch a full 22 minutes uninterrupted by recruitment ads for the Metropolitan police or praise for Lenor fabric conditioning tumble-dryer sheets. Now, there are six adverts before an episode starts, followed by another break just seven and a half minutes in. How are viewers expected to invest emotionally in the story of Amy’s new smoothie business when we keep being cast out of the story and into the world of petty commercialism?
At least the show is sponsored by Specsavers, who have book-ended each segment by inserting an optician Forrest Gump-like into a vintage clip starring Harold or Madge – the common ancestors of all the Neighbours. It’s a nod towards continuity, as is the glimpse of a beaming Karl and Susan, now the Harold and Madge of their day. The Kennedys and Toadie aren’t the only familiar faces: Paul Robinson is very much here, and hiding a tattoo on his foot, as is his wont, along with what looks very much like the return of Plain Jane Super Brain (posing the question: whither Des?)
Speaking of ancestry, I’m delighted to report for anybody not already apprised of the fact that the Jemma Donovan listed in the opening credits as playing ‘Harlow’ is in fact the daughter of Jason Donovan, aka Scott Robinson. It’s a lovely touch, and adds a kind of Muppet Babies vibe to proceedings. I’m excited to see more of Harlow.
Harlow isn’t in this episode. This one’s primarily about a good-looking man who wants his good-looking brother and his good-looking brother’s husband to raise his baby daughter (she’s okay looking). The couple aren’t keen, but do it anyway as they already have a baby daughter and what’s one more? Then there’s Amy and her new smoothie van business. And a nosy blonde barmaid who goes shopping with her brother’s new girlfriend and talks about clothing brands “blowing up on Instagram”. I remember when the only thing that blew up on Neighbours was the Lassiter’s Complex. On around a weekly basis.
The Lassiter’s Complex is still there, as is its lake and Harold’s café (though now styled in lower case letters and likely serving acai smoothie bowls). The sets look the same but with a slightly uncanny feel, like houses one might visit in a dream. A nod to modern décor is made with the omnipresence of stone bowls spilling over with succulents, but the territory is otherwise unchanged.
The episode ends with a traditional cliff-hanger when the nosy sister breaks into the house of her brother’s girlfriend (honestly, it’s difficult to distinguish between siblings and romantic pairings, but as long as they know the difference, that’s what matters) and then gets held at knife-point. I’d have to watch again tomorrow to see if she survives, but we’ll see because I do also have that thing to do. I definitely mentioned it earlier. That thing.
Neighbours then – the same now as it ever was, just with succulents and LGBTQ representation and I don’t know who anybody is anymore, and I’m questioning my life choices. That Aussie soap was once a constant in our ever-changing world. Can they really take it away from us? Can they cancel… the moon?
*Just a rumour.
Neighbours airs on Channel 5 and is available to stream on My5 in the UK.