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29 July 2022

The world still needs Neighbours

The Australian soap offered its audience an alternative, sunnier reality. During the pandemic I needed that escapism more then ever.

By James Rawson

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 8 February 2022. Tonight, at 9pm on Channel 5, the final two episodes of Neighbours air on our screens and the UK will say goodbye to this beloved long-running soap.]

On the 27 October 1986 Thatcher’s government deregulated London’s financial markets in “the Big Bang”, changing the face of the City of London and (if Nigel Lawson is to be believed) starting a chain of events that would lead directly to the financial crisis of 2008. On the same day the Australian soap Neighbours debuted on BBC One, offering the British public an alternative, sunnier reality: one with a pool in the backyard, a barbie on the go and scant talk of macroeconomics. I was five months old at the time and have been living in both of these worlds ever since.

When Neighbours arrived on the scene the British public took to it like Susan Kennedy to a wayward teen. In 1988 more than 19 million people tuned in to watch the wedding of Scott ‘n’ Charlene (aka Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue) — more than the entire population of Australia at the time. While it wasn’t able to sustain that level of cultural influence (what show could?) it continued to flourish into the Nineties and Noughties, before changes in broadcaster in the UK (it moved from BBC One to Channel 5) and Australia (it moved from Ten to its digital channel, Eleven) diminished its reach.

Despite these changes Neighbours continued to live up to its promise of frothy drama and an improbably attractive cast. The show has not been without its problems. It was too white and too straight for a long time, but in recent years it has become a leading example of onscreen diversity, with trans, queer, BIPOC and disabled representation, as well as Ramsay Street’s first polyamorous relationship.

On a personal level, Neighbours has made the last two years of my life bearable, simply by taking my mind away from my pokey one-bed flat where I have spent long stretches of the pandemic alone. Mercifully, there is no such thing as Covid-19 in Erinsborough. Neighbours was the first long-running drama to return to production following lockdown, and the flow of episodes was relatively smooth compared with other soaps. TV, like any art form, doesn’t need to be serious to be important, and the effect that Neighbours has had on my sense of wellbeing during the pandemic is a testament to that.

Now, in 2022, escapism has never been more needed. The show’s writing is the strongest it’s been in years, and Paul Robinson is finally going to therapy. But this weekend it came to light that Channel 5 is dropping the series, and the show could come to an end as a result because it is more popular in the UK than Australia. And for what? The ratings aren’t declining: Neighbours regularly gets more than a million viewers in the UK and is the nation’s fourth biggest soap, outperforming Hollyoaks and Doctors. It is simply that the show no longer aligns with Channel 5’s plans: to exclusively make programmes about Yorkshire, Jane McDonald, or both.

I don’t know how we can #SaveNeighbours, as the show’s Twitter fanbase is determined to do. The BBC is a non-starter in this political climate, and it seems highly unlikely that ITV or Channel 4 would want a show that is third-hand goods. Perhaps a streaming service with deep pockets would take it on, though that feels unlikely. But if Neighbours has taught me anything, it’s that the impossible is possible. Harold Bishop can fall off a rock and be lost at sea for half a decade and then return safely. Susan Kennedy can spend every weekday afternoon necking wine at the Waterhole and still be a respected high school principal. Lassiters can explode every other year and still get buildings insurance. Surely the writers can find a way to save Neighbours? I’m not sure I can bear reality without it.

[See also: In defence of Netflix’s Persuasion]

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