“Has it really been 30 years since Bouncer’s dream?” wondered aloud the chap in the Channel 5 voiceover booth. Well, no. It hasn’t.
I remember when it was announced C5 had nabbed Gotham and someone on Facebook observed: “Well, that’s that ruined”. There is a genuine perception that the network – until recently draped under the cloak of Desmond – stinks up everything it touches. But they didn’t get all that much wrong when it came to celebrating Neighbours‘ 30th.
There’s a winning self-awareness about the soap, always has been. It knows its place. And so no one, over here or over there, ever seemed to contemplate it laying on an EastEnders-sized bash. Instead the celebrations were annexed off to one evening – Wednesday. Well, I say that; it might be the case regular daily episodes of the show are going nuts, but there hasn’t been any communication of that. The highlight for this receding telly nerd was obvious: Neighbours: The First Episode (11.55pm).
Just to make things tricky, Neighbours isn’t actually 30 years old over here, which might be why you’re not quite feeling the synergy between that and any residual Walford nostalgia. The show debuted in the UK in October 1986, and with a first episode that doesn’t initially feel much like Neighbours. The rolling Grundy icosahedron1 arrives accompanied by a BBC Video-type sting and then we’re into Danny Ramsay’s dream. Surreally shot and seemingly scored by John Carpenter, it’s indicative of absolutely nothing that’s to follow – except maybe Bouncer’s own nocturnal visions (which first aired in Australia in 1990 and over here in ’91, Channel 5 Guy). It’s a weird way to introduce us to the neighbourhood. Max grabs Danny’s neck as if to throttle him and breaks into maniacal laughter, then Shane tumbles from the high board, vapour lifting divinely from his torso.
We catch up with Danny the next day, and returning from a fruitless visit to his GP (Mum and Dad are getting worried about his night terrors), the camera settles on the street he lives in. This is positively the dullest moment at which to raise the show’s logo and bleed in the tune. A Breaking Bad tableau, it’s so lacking in romance. Half the screen, tarmac, the other defined by a lonely power line and an abandoned car.
But then we meet Anne Haddy’s Helen Daniels, who’s brilliantly Helen Daniels-ing from the off. Cut to Paul Keane’s Des Clarke and, in a scene pretty much about nothing, he beats out a little drum solo on a car chassis while yakking to one of his mates. For no other reason than that’s the kind of affable bloke Des is. Later, Julie Robinson (in her original Vikki Blanche incarnation) demolishes Lorraine’s regard for the poor guy, whom she’s due to marry in the morning. “He isn’t really a spunk, is he?” And during the bucks’ party, across the way the Robinsons are keeping vigil, the stripper music preventing anyone on the street from getting some sleep. Little Lucy Robinson (Kylie Flinker) emerges from that door, as she so often will: “I heard Paul telling those dirty jokes again.”
I’m not over-egging it. There’s real gold here. And it can’t just be the writing. It’s doubtful Des’ finger skiffle was in any script. And how could stage directions conjure up Helen so forcefully? Our conclusion must be that, wibbly-wobbly dream aside, Neighbours had a doubty confidence from the off. Its pretensions were merely towards being plain (“Produced in the studios of Flinders Productions” say the end titles), but plain connotes honesty. We went nuts for Erinsborough in the ’80s, I think, because of that, and because it never tried to convince us it was of much consequence.
I’m travelling backwards through Wednesday night. Here’s Neighbours: Scott & Charlene Get Married (11.30pm), about which we already know everything, except, maybe, what else happened in that episode. Like Brookside‘s Lesbian kiss in 1994, it feels like the programme makers didn’t quite realise what they were getting. In that other instance, no one from Mersey TV thought to capture the moment with the obligatory ‘episodic’ photo-shoot2 and so it must forever be illustrated with a screen grab. That’s not quite the case with Scott and Lennie (the chummier nickname never quite supplanting the formal ‘Charlene’ as was obviously intended). But it’s weird that the wedding isn’t placed as the culmination of the episode.
But what a wedding! Dismissing soap orthodoxy, there isn’t a parallel element of tragedy trying to hone in on the action, even when the bride-to-be baits fate: “This is going to be the best wedding ever!” Instead it’s just a lovely sequence, wherein the couple charmingly steal glances at each other, while around the church the peoples of Erinsborough are allowed micro-interactions that writ their characters large. Mrs Mangel looks hopefully at Harold. Gail gazes wistfully into the middle-distance; Paul turns briefly and catches that, an expression of guilt touching his face while he considers their sham marriage. Madge dabs a tear.
Back at the Robinsons’, the soap opera rolls on. Mrs Mangel catches Harold embracing Madge. “For heaven’s sake we were engaged!”/”But after the accident, she probably doesn’t remember.” Also, Lucy’s pet mouse has escaped. The episode was written by Ray Harding and directed by Rod Hardy, suitably utilitarian sounding names.
Unsurprisingly, that episode (#532) was voted fans’ favourite in Neighbours 30th: The Stars Reunite (10pm). The 90-minute celebration was helmed by Stefan Dennis, who was pragmatic enough to explain the backstory of the character played by his co-host, before bringing in Tim Phillipps. And this was fun and admirable, the big guns like Kylie Minogue, Guy Pearce and Margot Robbie seemingly happy to chat about those days. What pleasure there was in the pop princess once again uttering the phrase: “Plain Jane Super Brain”. It was absolutely implicit that the show’s glory years lay in the 4:3 era. Only one of its top five moments broke out into widescreen, but no one seemed too fussed. Craig McLachlan still had oodles of charm, insisting on a recording break while he donned Henry’s dungarees, and later wigging out as he played his own electric guitar version of theme. “This one’s for you Bouncer!” he declared, before noodling a final solo.
And then, here was where the evening started. With our regular visit to those Antipodean… [clunk] Neighbours (5.30, repeated from 1.45pm), where for no reason, they’re celebrating Erinsborough with the inaugural Erinsborough Festival. Old pictures of Ramsays and Robinsons (are both still on the street?) and a trivia quiz about the recent history of the area (“Anyone remember the name of Helen Daniels’ car service?”). Here’s Harold, who moves – with sure practise – from pathos to bathos and back again, crashing his van into one of the fete stands, and then hallucinating up his dearly missed Madge. “Oh, Harold, what have you done?!” she hisses.
Earlier on, Mayor Paul Robinson announced that someone called Reg Watson had won the quiz. It was the soap’s own ‘Julia + Tony’ moment. Done in the customary style, playing down any real piquancy.
- This will be the last update to OTT for a couple of weeks, while I knuckle down and complete some things for Doctor Who Magazine. But I’ll be back. And in the meantime I’ll keep slinging stuff onto my vanity site: www.gk-w.com