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Four young adults (three women and two men) wearing 1900s era clothes and hairstyles, smiling under a 'Ramsay St' street sign.

The teen cast of Neighbours in the early 1990s. Image: © Fremantle/Network 10.

Last week, the world said goodbye to Neighbours. The 90-minute final episode—number 8903—aired on 28 July. Since news of its axing was announced in February, it sparked conversation around the show’s impact. What legacy will our friends from Ramsay Street leave behind? I think it will be greater than some people may think.

I first watched Neighbours as a 10-year-old in 1998, having recently moved from Canada. Growing up, the majority of TV content available was from the US (or occasionally the UK, if Fawlty Towers reruns were on). I was transfixed—I remember watching with my mum and older sister, yelping ‘Look! Susan’s got the same shopping bags as us!’ and feeling excited jolts of recognition seeing cars with Victorian license plates and green wheelie bins. Just like us!

Like many families, we tuned in to see these familiar faces—and objects, evidently—each evening. One weekend, Mum drove us all to a local shopping centre where cast members were meeting and greeting fans. Jacinta Stapleton, Brooke Satchwell and Jesse Spencer were among the friendly, gracious cast members smiling and waving to the excitable suburban families. I was starstruck. Another day Mum took us to the real street where the show was filmed—Pin Oak Court, in Melbourne’s south-east—and a Neighbours tour bus was parked, filled with what I assume were screaming, hooting British fans. I felt like I was in Hollywood.

The series, which first aired in 1985, had a general air of wholesomeness to it—a slightly less ‘soapie’ version of a soap opera, depicting (white, heteronormative) suburbia with a G-rated lens. Sold to over 60 countries, it remains one of Australia’s most successful media exports. Its highest-rating episode—the 1987 wedding of Scott (Jason Donovan) and Charlene (Kylie Minogue)—was watched by over 2 million Australians, and 19.6 million viewers in the UK.

Most of us know the Neighbours success stories: Kylie Minogue, Guy Pearce, Margot Robbie. But there are countless staff who brought those near 9,000 episodes to life.

The largest impact on my family came in 2004, when my sister, a successful working young actor, landed a role as Lana Crawford. The pride and excitement wasn’t felt just in our home. I was in high school by then, and kids from all year levels squealed at the third-degree fame (Yes, squealed—it was an all-girls school). The buzz wasn’t just because it was their classmate’s sister, either: Lana was the first lesbian character on Ramsay Street, and her storyline led to the first same-sex kiss on the show. For a family-friendly prime-time series, this was a big deal. Conservative groups and talkback callers alike clutched their pearls over this smooch, with quotes in national newspapers like, ‘It just saddens me that we give our young people the message that these relationships are okay.’ Again: this was 2004.

My sister responded with grace and maturity that she’s always had. She was just 19, still living at home, and receiving physical fan mail forwarded by the production company. Scores of young people wrote to her professing their gratitude for the on-screen representation of same-sex attraction. I vividly remember sitting in her bedroom as she showed me the multiple envelopes of hand-written notes: tangible evidence of the widespread cultural impact of a three-second moment on screen.

Neighbours had a profound influence on cultural consciousness. My Neighbours era can be defined by the character’s hairstyles: Toadie had his ponytail, Susan was rocking Judith Durham-esque long locks, and Billy had the perfectly tousled 90s heartthrob mop. A replica of Scott (Jason Donovan) and Charlene (Kylie Minogue)’s wedding cake currently lives at Melbourne Museum for long-time fans. There’s a wonderfully niche website which helps shoppers locate and buy clothes seen on the show. Since the announcement of its cancellation, commentators locally and in the UK have shared how the series impacted their lives, too.

Like all long-running daily dramas, the tone and themes of the show fluctuated over the years and were occasionally inconsistent: this is inevitable in an environment of fast-paced writing, last-minute edits and actors receiving scripts almost as soon as they’re on set. Some of the wilder storylines will never leave my mind: middle-aged Susan slipping on milk and getting a rare amnesia where she thinks she’s a teenager; Dee and Toadie sailing off a cliff in a car smiling after their wedding; the return of a fake ‘Dee’ years later. Years ago I reached out to a writer on Twitter because I vividly remember a 1999 episode where Lou Carpenter thinks he’s booked the band Powderfinger for his bar, but it turns out to be a keyboard player named ‘Powerfinger’. The episode ends with the cast conga-lining around the pub. They turned rain into a rainbow, and the wholesome silliness of this plot is something I still think about fondly 20-plus years later.

‘It takes an enormous amount of work to put together a show like that—five episodes a week, with almost no room for error.’

In recent years, there has arisen a somewhat tongue-in-cheek appreciation of the series in all its daggy glory: I’ll admit to purchasing a Toadie shirt similar to this one a few years back. Writer Sinead Stubbins’ recaps of the show were, in my view, the most memorable of the recap genre because they celebrated the series’ ridiculous elements with playfulness and affection. In a world of internet snark and mocking of earnestness, praising this soap felt joyful and almost radical.

From an employment and economic perspective, the show was a hub for a host of cast and crew for its 37 years, colloquially known as ‘Neighbours University’. Most of us know the actors who are constantly trotted out as Neighbours success stories: Kylie Minogue, Guy Pearce, Margot Robbie. But there are countless staff—writers, directors, editors, make-up artists, camera, sound and light operators—who brought those near 9,000 episodes to life, and in a struggling Australian arts industry, that’s a crucial outcome of the show’s axing that can’t be overlooked.

Author Anna Spargo-Ryan, former digital producer on the show, shared her experiences of her time there with me. She described the crew as a passionate and hard-working team who ‘held the heart’ of Neighbours. ‘It takes an enormous amount of work to put together a show like that—five episodes a week, with almost no room for error,’ she told me. ‘It was a well-oiled machine, from the production assistants to wardrobe, and the art department to directors. Every single person in that place contributed some brilliant expertise or another.’

An Neighbours cast and crew standing outdoors in the Ramsay Street set on a cold winter's day. Camera, lighting and sound operators point their equipment toward actor Jackie Woodburne, who is walking towards them.

Neighbours cast and crew on set filming the show’s final episode. Image: Neighbours/Facebook

As a young employee, Spargo-Ryan says it was the first job where she realised people could write for a living. ‘[It] sounds silly, but I’d never seen actual working writers in action. For me, a wannabe writer, it felt like permission to give it a go—and I’ve been a professional working writer ever since.’ She has subsequently published two novels and a memoir, as well as being the non-fiction editor of Island Magazine. For many former crew, Neighbours was both a proving ground and launching pad for successful careers in the arts, and one of Australian film and TV’s few long term, steady employers.

‘So many great writers have come out of that studio,’ Spargo-Ryan reflects when discussing the show’s end. ‘I’m sorry for the jobs that have been lost. I’m sad about the opportunities for mentoring that no longer exist. It’s a rare thing, to have a show run so long, and it’s hard to imagine it could happen again in this country.’

Similar sentiments are echoed by my big sister—sorry, former cast member—Bridget Phillips (formerly Neval), who recalled the openness and generosity provided by accommodating long-standing cast and crew. ‘As a young actor, it taught me that fast-paced shows are great equalisers: experienced actors can struggle with the quick turnaround and those who have never been on set before are fine because they don’t know any differently.’

Mainstream, demographic-straddling art and media may be imperfect, but it is also important.

While my sister’s storyline was progressive for its time, criticisms of the show’s casting and lack of diversity go back years: in 2008, a British report by the nation’s equity chief found many Black and Asian viewers felt underrepresented. In response, the show introduced more actors of colour in both main roles as well as extras casting over the years—though those actors have not always felt supported by the production. As recently as last year, an independent review was launched after two First Nations actors shared experiences of racism on set.

Both Spargo-Ryan and Phillips raised these issues of whitewashing and bullying when we spoke. ‘If the arts received more funding, the industry could make something new that truly gives a voice to the types of Aussies who are living in our neighbourhoods now,’ Phillips told me. ‘Kids need to grow up seeing Australian stories on screen. Whether it’s recognising the sprawling Queenslander houses in Bluey or having the same wheelie bins as Karl and Susan, seeing your own culture on television is so important.’

The excitement I felt recognising elements of my life on screen is something every young person should feel. For the viewers who rejoiced seeing a same-sex TV kiss, Neighbours had a meaningful impact. If there is no space or support for us—all of us—to tell our stories to large audiences, how can we better understand each other, and ourselves? There is safety and support in niche communities, but so is there power in a cultural behemoth like Neighbours introducing a trans character (which they did in 2019 with Mackenzie, played by Georgie Stone). Mainstream, demographic-straddling art and media may be imperfect, but it is also important; my concern is that without it, in such a polarised cultural climate, already marginalised voices and communities will become marginalised further.

Neighbours always felt like a television version of the local fish and chip shop: reliable, digestible, easy. Isn’t there space for cultural institutions like that?

So as the dust settles, sets are packed up and 200-odd people search for work, we’re left to wonder where to go from here. I fear we’ll one day see a gritty reboot of Ramsay Street on a platform owned by Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, and when that day comes I will hold a one-woman protest on Pin Oak Court, if I am not immediately struck down by the drone police.

Neighbours always felt like a television version of the local fish and chip shop: reliable, digestible, easy. Isn’t there space for cultural institutions that aren’t slick, billion-dollar productions? A local fish and chippery can co-exist alongside a Michelin-hatted restaurant; they each fill a niche. And crucially: shouldn’t all Australians have a right to access local content without the need to pay for one (or five) streaming services?

With further cuts to the ABC and free-to-air floundering amid the explosion in subscription streaming services, it seems publicly accessible local media will soon be a thing of the past. ‘I hope the ending of Neighbours will bolster people into caring about the amount of money we put into the arts,’ Phillips says. ‘I hope it lights a fire under people to care about the film industry in Australia.’ I do too.

Neighbours is available to stream on 10 Play.