On 18 March 1985, Australian TV viewers got their first glimpse of the sun-soaked cul de sac of Ramsay Street, in a fictional suburb of Melbourne, Australia. Its inhabitants were a convivial, nosy bunch particularly prone to romantic affairs and, increasingly, bouts of personality disorder, amnesia and violence. The confines of Erinsborough provided a moral utopia – no matter how much soapy drama poured forth, the barbies, bikinis and banter would soon return.
First broadcast in the UK in October 1986 on BBC One, the show was a symbol of exotic aspirationalism amid the gloom of Thatcherite politics and the continual shuttering of industry. The teatime drama drew in 20 million viewers when Kylie Minogue (as Charlene) married Jason Donovan (Scott) in 1988.
In recent years viewership has declined – the show moved to Channel 5 in 2008 – yet a committed fanbase continues to tune in, nostalgic for the viewing habits of their school days, or a younger bunch looking for that familiar escapism and more modern storylines, along with the usual screaming matches and heartbreak.
With the show celebrating its 35th year, the cast and makers recall its early days of shaky sets and dodgy wardrobe choices, fan phenomena and decades-long onscreen relationships.
Stefan Dennis (Paul Robinson): When the show was starting, my agent contacted me, but I didn’t want a job on it – I ended up going to the audition because I was talked into it.
I got the part and decided to give it a go, mainly because I thought it would only last six months anyway; it lasted seven the first time around.
Channel 7 dropped it because of poor ratings, but by then I had settled into the character of Paul and thought the show did have some mileage in it. I was disappointed, but I moved on and went to Europe indefinitely to start trucking around in a combi van. Then, a couple of months later, my agent got in touch with me to say that Neighbours was being picked up by Channel 10 and they wanted me to come back as Paul Robinson. Here I am 35 years later. I’m certainly glad I gave it another chance.
Ian Smith (Harold Bishop): I joined the show in 1987. I had been starring in another programme started by Neighbours’ creator, Reg Watson, called Prisoner. So, I went from the blood, gore, hate and violence to children playing in a cul de sac in Ramsay Street. On Neighbours, people putting their rubbish in each other’s garbage bins was the worst crime that could happen.
Initially, the role was only for five weeks and so I searched for something to make Harold stand out. I went into rehearsals and in the second week, out of desperation, I did something stupid, tripping over myself – and the crew all laughed. That turned into the clumsiness and naivety that Harold brought to the screen. I nurtured that over the next 20 years.
Alan Fletcher (Karl Kennedy): I started out in 1987 doing three weeks’ work as a guest character called Greg Cooper. I had no idea it would be a success back then – the look and feel was cheaper, the sets tended to wobble and it mainly was just a nice gig for a jobbing actor to have.
When they asked me to audition for the role of Karl in 1994, the show had completely taken off. Although it wasn’t until I went to the UK in 1999 to do panto that I realised it was a global phenomenon.
Stefan Dennis: The show completely skyrocketed once it went on to the BBC. We were never prepared for what was going to happen when we went over to Britain for the first time for the Royal Variety Performance in 1988. That was only a couple of weeks after Scott and Charlene’s wedding was broadcast. We were lambs to the slaughter in those early days. When you’re sitting in a bus being rocked backwards and forwards by crazed fans, you realise something major is happening.
The mania over the wedding was really something else – people wanted to wear the same clothes, to have the same hair, and they were even singing the song Kylie walked down the aisle to. I’d never seen anything like it before and I’m not sure I will again.
Geoff Paine (Clive Gibbons): When I joined in 1987 things were still looking pretty tenuous. I was playing the role of Clive, a doctor who quit the medical profession to rediscover himself, eventually setting up a gorillagram agency, of all things – although this was back in the 80s so it made sense.
Jason Herbison (executive producer): When I was in high school I wrote a letter to the production team giving them a few ideas for the show. To my great surprise, someone from the script department called to tell me that they liked them. Then, when there was a job available in the early 90s, I joined the writing team.
The writers were a lot older back then than they are now and I remember one of them telling me that it was so difficult since the show had been on for about six years and they were struggling to think of what to write next. Here we are 35 years later still coming up with new storylines.
Alan Fletcher: Neighbours is a show that speaks to people because it is honest. It has the right blend of comedy and drama and the characters are incredibly relatable because we all have our flaws and we don’t try to cover them up. People find that endearing.
Jackie Woodburne (Susan Kennedy): When we started as the Kennedy family in 1994, we had a great response because the audience connected with the fact that we were far from a perfect family unit. The cracks in our marriage were already there and we were struggling to keep up with three kids.
Alan Fletcher: When you start on a show like this, you have to create a family instantly – there’s no practice and I got very lucky indeed. I was working with three marvellous young people and, most importantly, one of my great pals, Jackie Woodburne. We gelled as a family unit quickly and I think that’s what has kept us on the show for 25 years.
Jackie Woodburne: I’ve always really enjoyed the Karl, Susan and Izzy love triangle because there are so many facets to each character that can be explored. Before Izzy, I don’t think Susan had anyone she had truly hated. She is generally a decent person, so to have someone that she could show her less compassionate side to, I found that very interesting to play. And of course there were the huge fights and screaming matches to get into.
Alan Fletcher: I remember so clearly filming the scenes when Karl had a heart attack, he made his final phone call as he was dying and instead of ringing his current squeeze, Izzy, he called Susan. That was so poignant.
Then there is also the famous slap that Jackie gave me when she found out about my character’s affair with Sarah. That is a big fan favourite and also a big favourite with the crew because straight after they got the take, they all lined up to slap me too.
On a more serious note, though, I used to think that I was completely unaffected in my own life by playing Karl, that I could leave the big emotional stuff at the green room door. But I came to realise that’s not true. When you’re doing emotional scenes, it does stay with you and you can see yourself feeling quite unsettled in life. So you have to be careful and much of the entertainment profession suffers from all sorts of anxiety and mental illness because of that. Our work life is lived right on the edge of that high emotion.
Ryan Moloney (Toadie Rebecchi): I’ve spent more of my life on the show than off it. I joined when I was 15 and it was a bit of a wild time to be on TV so young, so Jackie and Alan have provided a parental presence for me; they have certainly been there for me through some tough times.
It all began because I played a vandal in one episode and then the producers rang up and asked if my hair was the same and if it was whether I would come back to expand on the character of Toadie more. It grew from one scene to just over 26 years. The hair was probably the only reason I got the job.
Stefan Dennis: Probably the most noticeable change in the show over the past 35 years would be the physical changes – the lack of huge hair and shoulders and big baggy suits. We have set some fashion trends over the years though; Jason [Donovan] and Ryan brought back the mullet in a huge way and made it really popular.
Jason Herbison: The secret to the show is that it is constantly evolving and moving with the times, while staying true to its core premise of ordinary people living in an extraordinary street.
Our motto is that everyone’s welcome on Ramsay Street, so it’s really important to represent society faithfully. In the past year, we’ve had a transgender character on the show. Since her storyline was announced, I’ve had a number of young transgender people telling me how amazing it was to see themselves reflected on television. We also had a same-sex wedding between David and Aaron in 2018 and that has really shaped public perceptions on the issue.
Our audience is very broad, so our stories cut across society. We try not to be heavy-handed about it. Now our transgender character has told her story, she is just another part of our cast and the fact that she’s transgender doesn’t even come into it.
Takaya Honda (David Tanaka, Paul Robinson’s son): It’s a shame that Neighbours hasn’t been celebrated more for everything it has been doing for social change over the years. It is a core part of the show and my character embodies that in a number of ways.
There’s not a whole lot of representation for the LGBT community or for Asian Australians on TV. Before I took this role it was a rare thing to see someone on screen who didn’t look Caucasian but who had a natural Australian accent.
I’ve had several messages where people have said how powerful the Asian representation has been for them, or they are saying that David’s coming-out storyline gave themselves or their friends the courage to come out, which is just amazing.
Stephanie McIntosh (Sky Mangel): The Sky and Lana storyline was groundbreaking. It was the first time on Neighbours that they had explored a same-sex relationship and they had a same-sex kiss in 2004.
Neighbours was very bold in doing that on daytime TV and of course there were very mixed emotions and quite some backlash from the media. But to now come back and complete that storyline in having Sky marry Lana, it shows just how far we have come. These storylines are completely normalised now and that’s how they should always be.
Jason Herbison: There were of course the heightened storylines, like Bouncer’s Dream or the return of Dee from the dead, which turned out to be an evil doppelganger. That’s incredibly soapy, but we grounded it in a lot of fantastic performances.
Ultimately, Neighbours is the best university for work in television that there is. Actors hone their craft and then we watch them leave the show and become Margot Robbie or Kylie sometimes.
Colette Mann (Sheila Canning): I’m a mentor to a couple of the younger characters on the show and it’s wonderful. There was no one around to help me when I was that age and starting out. I have to watch the show to give them feedback, which can be a bit excruciating. I often think: “Oh my God, who’s that old woman who looks like my mother?” But I do it for the kids as a learning experience because if you stop learning, there’s no point in doing this job any more.
Geoff Paine: The show has endured for so long because it represents a community that looks after each other. So if anything goes wrong in Ramsay Street, someone will try and help to correct it. And isn’t that the kind of world we all want to live in?
Neighbours airs on Monday and Friday on Channel 5. Catch up with Neighbours Late: Endgame on My5.