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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Axing Neighbours will be a screen industry blow

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Could the screen door on Ramsay Street have truly slammed shut for the last time?

Channel 5, which took over broadcasting the show in the UK from the BBC in 2008, has decided not to renew their contract with Fremantle, the show’s Australian producers, and will air the final episode in August 2022.

If Fremantle cannot find a new buyer in the United Kingdom, the show will be cancelled.

Channel 10 has maintained its promise to air the show in Australia (despite moving it from the main channel to Ten Peach a few years ago), but the show’s budget (albeit small in TV terms) is reliant on the UK sale.

Neighbours has roughly 200,000 daily viewers in Australia, which is about half of what Home and Away has. Its popularity is more secure in the United Kingdom, with about 1.5 million daily views, however this is still less than UK soaps like as Coronation Street and Eastenders, which each have roughly 5 and 3 million viewers.

Channel 5 is reportedly investing the funds in UK programming created locally. What is going on behind the scenes is merely a speculation. When Neighbours moved from the BBC to Channel 5 in 2007, I was working for Fremantle in Europe, and there were machinations at work in that decision that went beyond money and viewing metrics (and beyond my full knowledge).

Television is a huge, complicated industry that most of us will never comprehend.

Growing up on Ramsey Street

While many may say ‘good riddance’ and ‘about time,’ if Neighbours ends after 37 years and nearly 9,000 episodes, there must be a reason it has lasted this long and is still so popular.

If the show ends, the UK audience would be devastated, and the Australian screen sector will suffer enormous consequences.

This is the show that introduced Kylie Minogue to the world, with special appearances by Emma Bunton, Michael Parkinson, Russell Brand, Matt Lucas, and David Walliams. Celebrities from the United Kingdom have been invited to stroll onto the shaky sets of Neighbours and onto Ramsay Street’s cul-de-sac.

Many viewers have grown up with the Erinsborough residents. Karl and Susan, Toadie, and Paul Robinson, the persistent manipulator, are like family to them. When she found out I was involved in writing Madge Bishop’s death, she erupted into tears and yelled Madge Bishop was like a grandma to her.

Characters matter when you’ve spent most of your life watching them go through comparable difficulties and tribulations.

Complex, fantastic, and well-liked

In 2004, when Paul Robinson returned to Ramsay Street, it was one of my favourite scripting moments.

We wrote a fire that destroyed the Lassiters compound for the end-of-year cliffhanger episode, and in the final scene, the smoke cleared to reveal Paul standing watch.

We were giddy in the storey room because it was such a big deal – but it was nothing compared to the audience’s reaction. This was the return of a character who first appeared in episode one of the shows in 1985 and was bringing his nasty ways to Erinsborough.

One of my VCA Screenwriting students just informed me that when he was a small child in the UK, his mother would watch that episode and yell, “Paul!” “It’s PAUL,” says the caller.

Recently, the show has developed a genuine strength in bringing back beloved characters and continuing their tales and lives, much to the delight of committed viewers.

Neighbours have created a whole world: complex (Dee Bliss returning from the dead, only to discover it was her separated-at-birth twin Andrea), far-fetched (Harold drifting off rocks and reappearing four years later with amnesia), and just plain silly (Harold drifting off rocks and reappearing four years later with amnesia) (Susan slipping on milk and reverting to thinking she was 17 again).

Then there was the apex of insanity when a dog fantasised about marrying the dog next door.

Indeed, this world has grown so complicated that when we couldn’t recall all of the various cousins, aunts, and loves of so many characters, we turned to the fan website The Perfect Blend as the show’s bible.

Neighbours University

While less well-liked by audiences in Australia, Neighbours is highly regarded in the film industry.

Over the course of 37 years, Neighbours has given a start, training, and long-term employment to many writers, directors, producers, performers, and crew members in a changing and cutthroat world of free to air broadcasting.

Fremantle openly welcomes this industry growth as a function of the programme, and screenwriters often refer to it as Neighbours University – yeah, the show appears clunky on-screen, but that’s due to the cheap finances and fast production, not the passion and expertise of those who make it.

To become an expert in anything, it is said that you must put in 10,000 hours of work, and I quickly racked those hours storyboarding, script editing, and writing for Neighbours. (Plus, as a screenwriter, it was the most stable paycheck I’d ever had.)

In terms of a location to learn the craft, discover a creative voice, and meet peers, the loss of this training ground will have a substantial – though mostly unnoticed – impact on the screen industry in the next decades.

If Neighbours is cancelled, it will leave a huge void. It’s a cultural symbol that’s easy to criticise but difficult to dismiss.

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