Screenwriter Wendy Hanna reflects on the legacy of Australia's most iconic soap opera and shares a few magic moments from the show's phenomenal 37-year run.
Created by television powerhouse Reg Watson, iconic drama Neighbours first aired on 18 March 1985. A whopping 37 years and 8,903 episodes later, viewers around the world will sigh with heavy hearts as it fades to black on 28 July 2022.
Reflecting on the impact of Australia’s longest running television series, it’s easy to focus on the numerous famous faces who spent their early careers in the fictional suburb of Erinsborough – each generation loves to reminisce about favourite characters who’ve since moved on to bigger, glossier careers.
Often overlooked though are the hundreds of production crew who built their careers on the show too. The Neighbours team has always been one of the most hardworking in television, delivering 5 (and for a few years there, 6) half-hour episodes a week, up to 48 weeks a year, for close to 40 years. As former producer Neal Kingston once told me, 'The good thing is, it’s relentless. The bad thing is, it’s relentless.'
For these reasons, Neighbours has always relied on their Script Department (and in particular their tireless Story Team) to carefully construct emotionally satisfying plots alongside a mind-boggling logistical juggle of actors, sets and strictly controlled schedules, all in a fraction of the time allocated other programs.
The imagination and focus have been epic as the pressure to produce shootable script after shootable script is not for the faint-hearted. So yes, while Neighbours has certainly been an important training ground for newbies, it’s also demanded unflinching in-house professionals who’ve honed their skills to a world-class standard.
Just as Neighbours’ relentless pace and volume has produced and sustained generations of actors, it’s also produced and sustained some of our most successful screenwriters – Pete McTighe (Wentworth, The Pact), Mithila Gupta (Bump, Five Bedrooms), Sarah Dollard (Doctor Who, Bridgerton), Sam Meikle (Wakefield, Secret Daughter), Peter Mattessi (EastEnders, The Heights), Sarah Walker (All Saints, The Secrets She Keeps), Stuart Page (Total Control, Secret Daughter), Magda Wozniak (Mustangs FC, The PM’s Daughter), David Hannam (Nowhere Boys, A Place To Call Home), the list goes on… And on! No doubt many of the recent writing team will go on to similar acclaim.
Yes, Neighbours has had its share of far-fetched plot lines, but what soap hasn’t? And on a more serious note, the show’s also occasionally stumbled in its representation of a more inclusive, diverse society. But for all its explosions and back-from-the-dead storylines, it’s a testament to the writers that Neighbours has nevertheless held onto its passionate audience across decades, and broadcasters.
In recent years, led by Executive Producer Jason Herbison, there’s been a lightness and refreshing self-awareness to the show, rewarding staunch fans by luring back a string of heritage characters, as well as pushing the boundaries of typical serialised storytelling. High-volume shows like Neighbours are, after all, perfectly placed to explore contemporary social issues in near immediate, accessible ways.
A highlight was Australian scripted television’s first same-sex marriage, between characters David and Aaron (played respectively by Takaya Honda and Matt Wilson, and celebrant joyfully played by Magda Szubanski). Paul Gartside, writer and then Script Producer, is still enormously proud – 'It had been a long, difficult journey to get LGBT+ representation on the show, and now we finally had two permanent gay characters, and had built their relationship to this wonderful pinnacle. The timing was also perfect, as same-sex marriage had just become legal in Australia.'
Neighbours has also provided a rare boon for Australian screenwriters – a regular gig. It’s employed battalions of freelance writers to help translate the story team’s plots into working, breathing shooting scripts, and done so for decades.
The announced end of Neighbours in 2022 leaves a massive hole in the local industry, as it does in the hearts of its devotees. It’s a double blow for those who are as much aficionados as crucial players, like writer Shane Isheev, who posted to social media on the show’s last day of filming: 'Being a massive fan since I was little, the opportunity to work on the show was indeed a dream come true. To be the show’s last ever Script Producer is an absolute honour. Helping craft the show’s ending is an overwhelming privilege.'
As one of Neighbours’ numerous writers, I feel incredibly lucky to have played a tiny part in a phenomenon that leaves a significant cultural legacy. How do you explain the thrill of writing for characters who’ve been around longer than you’ve been a writer?! So, I’d like to take the opportunity to celebrate and thank the inspiring writers, script producers, story editors, storyliners, script editors and script coordinators who’ve been pivotal since the show’s inception. Like the saying goes, it takes a village – and on Ramsay Street, that village has been a thriving, vibrant one, which will be very much missed.
With almost 9,000 episodes in the can, it's near impossible to choose the best moments from the iconic soap, but here are a few scenes that undoubtedly deserve an honourable mention:
Alan Fletcher and Jackie Woodburne have played Dr Karl and Susan Kennedy for 28 years. As you'd expect, the Ramsay Street couple have had their fair share of ups and downs, but viewers were shocked when infidelity crept into the pair's marriage. In this heart-wrenching confrontation from 1998, Susan discovers Karl has had an illicit affair with a younger woman and gives him a resounding slap. The slap has since become infamous for its ferocity, and is considered quite camp in hindsight. Despite Karl's various lapses in faithfulness over time, the fictional marriage endured and strengthened, making Karl and Susan two of the most beloved characters in the series:
In 2003, fan favourite Toadie Rebecchi (played by Ryan Moloney) married Dee Bliss (played by Madeleine West). The union was memorable not for the bright, whimsical ceremony, but for the disastrous car accident straight afterwards that sent the newlyweds spectacularly hurtling off a cliff and into the ocean. While Toadie was devastated to learn Dee had perished in the accident, the event set off a long-running storyline which saw Dee, and then her twin sister Andrea (pretending to be Dee), return to up-end Toadie's world over the years that followed:
In what's since become soapie folklore, Neighbours featured this magnificent sequence in 1990 which glimpsed into the mind of beloved icon, Bouncer the dog. Apparently Bouncer had a romantic attachment to the dog next door and here he dreams blissfully of their wedding day. The fact it's equal parts ridiculous and sweet, as well as being a wild departure from what we usually expect, Bouncer's dream is often referenced by fans as one of the most unforgettable moments in the show's history:
Wendy Hanna is a screenwriter and script editor, based in Sydney.
Three months after the 'final' episode of Neighbours aired in August 2022, producers Fremantle secured Amazon Freevee and Prime Video as international partners and announced that the show will return to Network Ten in late 2023.
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