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CHAPTER 7

Neighbours, the Soap that Whitens

30 Years of Ramsay Street

DAVID NICHOLS

It was about time to look at the average family … Then you start thinking about where they live, decide on the street, the people on either side, the conflict … and you gradually build until you get the whole structure. Obviously, it’s incredibly complex.
— Reg Watson, 19851

In early 2015, the renowned weekday series Neighbours celebrated its thirtieth anniversary, and the media paused for a moment to reflect on what this show had given Australia and the world. Unsurprisingly, nothing of great depth came forward: academe – and even serious journalism, which will delve fascinatedly into the minutiae of Bronies or trends in the ‘twittersphere’ – generally dismisses soap opera as trite and transparent, as if that assessment is all that need be known to comprehend something which captivates billions daily. This chapter is a critical appraisal of Australia’s Neighbours, which for over thirty years has celebrated suburban community, however much its audience may have changed (for all of this century and probably longer, primarily British; for its first year, it was seen only in Australia). The chapter seeks not only to clarify some common criticisms of Neighbours and of soap overall, but also to establish a way in which to write about soap on its own terms. It seeks to recognise the problems inherent in criticism of this long-running, focused and open-ended narrative form; it discusses the way we might see Neighbours as a celebration of home, place and suburb, rather than the locus of story, character and drama

Soap opera is formulaic; in that sense it is like pop music and spectator sport, celebrated cultures similarly touching and engaging many, if not most. Each form generates a slew of subtexts, some operating within and some outside its own ‘world’. The complexities of a program such as Neighbours which, apart from anything else generates 105 minutes of narrative most weeks of the year, cannot be denied.

If it is common to assume that soap opera’s audience consumes it agog, accepting its obvious artificiality as reflecting reality, it could also be argued that many elite critics have little ability to identify the ‘soap’ aspects of ‘quality’ viewing, particularly when it’s located within the early twenty-first century’s golden age of television – Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Homeland, House of Cards and so on.

Writing about soap is additionally difficult because character development can be fractured, attenuated and obfuscatory. Characters are ciphers in many instances, or they may serve as such in one storyline, yet as key to another. Each episode of a soap is (generally) internally consistent, but time can transform scenarios and characters beyond recognition. The 32 pages Andrew Mercado dedicates to Neighbours in his book Super Aussie Soaps shows this well: Mercado is clearly frustrated by the difficulty in making a text-based synopsis of this shaggy dog epic, in which twists and turns are often more contingent on actor availability and the battle for ratings than story sense. But soaps don’t deal in ‘story sense’, any more than our lives do, and a soap is as much an accompaniment to daily life – a parallel universe, perhaps – as it is conventional story.

Neighbours is a place-based soap; the one thing its core characters share is that they live in Ramsay Street, Erinsborough. Questions – ridiculous questions, in the main – of whether Ramsay Street properly ‘represents’ Australian life, particularly in its ethnic, gender-identity, sexual preference, age and standard of living varieties, have been asked for decades now.

What Makes Neighbours?

Strangely, since it is Grundy Productions’ most continually successful product by far, well-known television commentator and analyst Albert Moran has little time for Neighbours in his recent overview of Reg Grundy’s career, TV Format Mogul.2 It was almost fifteen years into his television career – as game show host and then producer – before Grundy delved into the world of serial drama, with the hastily prepared and instantly (intentionally) controversial Class of ’74. As ad-hoc as it may have been, Class of ’74 uses a range of tropes that served Grundys well throughout its drama production. The show, incidentally, was set in Waratah, a fictitious suburb apparently close to Neighbours’ Erinsborough: in a delightful piece of intra-Grundys metanarrative, ‘West Waratah’ has often been mentioned. Numerous soap operas followed from the Grundys stable in the ten years before the company’s star show runner Reg Watson – who had already created a suburban soap, the short-lived Until Tomorrow, for the company – formulated Neighbours.

As well as character ‘types’ Neighbours consolidated much of the Grundy organisation’s previous soap work, not least the calculated creation of hot spot spaces to facilitate formal and informal interaction – a school corridor, a hospital, in or outside a café. Christine Geraghty, writing about soap convention in 1981, has summed up a version of this in the British context: “The locations in which gossip can easily take place are … among the most frequently used sets in the serial – the pubs and corner shops … In these public locations, characters can appear and disappear, as required, in a way which seems quite natural.”3

Watson, credited as the creator of Neighbours (and before it, a Grundy show which has certainly appealed to viewers and critics alike – Prisoner), had extensive experience as an actor and broadcaster in regional Queensland in the 1940s and 50s. He worked in British commercial television for two decades before returning to Australia in 1973. In the late 1980s or early 1990s he was interviewed on the set of Cross roads, a British soap he assisted in devising and producing. The un edited and unexplained footage from the interview, apparently to be used in a documentary on soap opera or perhaps marking the 1988 demise of Crossroads itself, is available on YouTube. Here Watson muses on the success of Neighbours, which had, soon after its launch in Britain, become extremely popular. “Neighbours was a very difficult concept” to promote to television executives, Watson explains, “because of the simplicity of it.” It was counter, he says, to the current “stock approach” of the early 1980s, which he saw as “very phony”.

You see American soaps, they are so intense about their romances … and nobody enjoys anything anymore … I thought why don’t we do it more or less as it really is – so we got a list of … nice normal people involved in very ordinary situations. One of the classic situations in Neighbours which I had tremendous argument about … the great, great moment which rated its head off … was when a schoolboy kissed a schoolgirl in the park …4

Watson is being disingenuous; the schoolboy in question was Scott Robinson, atypically a recently married ‘boy’, in his late teens. Similarly disingenuously Watson – by this time in his mid-60s – explains that he based the suburb of Erinsborough, where Neighbours is set, on his Queensland childhood. Watson was born in Brisbane in 1926, but he may be thinking more specifically of a suburb; the original ‘Erinsborough’ and surrounding suburbs in the credit sequences between 1986–91 depicted an image of the (unlabelled) streets of the Coorparoo, Greenslopes and Woolloongabba area from the Brisbane UBD. Its precursor Until Tomorrow, incidentally, had been set in the fictional Vale Street, in suburban Brisbane.5

In the Australian suburbs as Watson understands them, if you go to the beach and it rains, your neighbours will collect your washing from the line, fold it and even bring it inside – they know where you keep your key. Similarly, in the suburb of Watson’s youth, if you were to go on holiday, locals would look after your pets and “you know the dog’s going for a walk every day”. His question was simple: “If these people exist, why can’t we do a serial about it”. That ‘if’ is searingly rhetorical; Watson did not go on to countenance the unlikelihood of suburban community relationships remaining in aspic since his childhood in Depression and wartime Queensland. On the show’s twentieth anniversary he revised this utopian recollection to be about “Brisbane, twenty years ago” (that is, 1985 – not 1935) when “you knew almost everyone in your street and what a diverse, friendly lot they were!”6

At the time of the launch of Neighbours, Watson was already emphasising the ‘normal’ nature of the show. He told Canberra Times readers:

When we first started talking about Neighbours, someone said ‘There’s no “heavy”.

The heavy, in fact, is life itself. Once you accept that, then you’ve got a tremendous springboard for every drama you can imagine.7

There is no end in sight for Neighbours. Similarly no one actor dominates; there are, however, mainstays, the majority of them male. Stefan Dennis’ business-minded criminal Paul Robinson appeared in the first episode – in a nappy coming back from a bucks’ night, no less – but Dennis, and the character he made his own, were absent from the series from 1992 to 2004. Two older cast members, Ian Smith as Harold Bishop and Tom Oliver as Lou Carpenter, both began in the show a few years after its debut – in 1987 and 1988 respectively – but are now only infrequently seen, if at all. Ryan Moloney’s rural misfit-turned-lawyer and family man ‘Toadie’ Rebecchi first appeared in 1995. Karl and Susan Kennedy, played by Alan Fletcher and Jackie Woodburne, are ostensibly the long-running ‘parents’ of the show (since 1994), a role consolidated by the 2015 opening credits, which see the two standing, arm in arm, in the sac of Ramsay Street before the viewer’s eye is hoist into the sky for a view of the street layout, its radiant houses assembled around the central asphalt. But ongoing cast members, while important, only augment and anchor Neighbours’ core.

Neighbours and Place

To move into Ramsay Street is to become a Neighbours element, and also – in most cases – to be matched with a local workplace as well as domicile. Many schoolteachers, café workers, and mechanics – along with other professionals across a wide range of social strata, including in 2015 Mayor of Erinsborough Paul Robinson – work close to the street, principally in the school, the hospital or at Lassiters, the least probable of the suburban workplaces represented in the show.

In 2005, Watson reminisced that early in its run Neighbours “inherited a complete exterior set from another drama and I revamped it and called it Lassiters.” It was one of a range of changes, he claims, which “strengthened the serial”.8 Lassiters is a luxury hotel complex based around a set built for Holiday Island, cancelled in 1982 after just over a year. It has since served as a focus for most (if not all) café and bar-related activity in Neighbours. That is, aside from Ramsay Street itself (usually only a meeting place in mornings and evenings, as characters leave for work or school, or return from them), the Lassiters venues host plot advancing conversation throughout each or any episode. Additionally, regular characters can work in the café or bar, the hotel or other aspects of Lassiters’ hospitality functions.

Because its proponents and its detractors are so frequently eager to apply a rubric of (selected) ‘reality’ measures to soap, it is enticing for the commentator with no particular stake in either camp to indulge in contrasts between real and imaginary. But Neighbours, like all soaps, is an enclosed world where the true reality is the television industry and the measure of the show’s authenticity lies not in connections to real suburbia, but to its own interior truth(s).

Watson made an appearance on Neighbours in 2015 to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the show: he played the winner of a trivia competition. This was a delightful, deft and clever touch: the million components of minor detail that go to make up the daily soap of Neighbours are the very essence of the program. Most ardent viewers typically view Neighbours on a range of levels. In 1981, Geraghty wrote that “all viewers/listeners do not have the same knowledge” of a soap opera’s history “and events remembered vividly by some are unknown to others”.9 Additionally, while viewers may engage with storylines, they will often do so in an extremely critical way, based both on their feelings about actors and their extensive knowledge of character trajectories, prior plotlines and the show’s ‘world’. These are the proprietorial, ‘trainspotter’ fans who value the social, cultural and television industry ramifications of the program as much as they do the show’s actions. This is where a soap fan’s responses and reactions to the world of their chosen soap(s) are so similar to a sport or pop fan; the ‘world’ extends beyond the song, or the game, into ‘industry’ or ‘behind the scenes’ narratives which connect to wider social issues.

Neighbours and Race

In 2011, the producer of the highly popular British crime show Midsomer Murders, Brian True-May, caused controversy when he decreed that ethnic minorities had no place in his fictional rural town: “it wouldn’t be the English village with them. It just wouldn’t work,” he maintained.10 The kindest interpretation of True-May’s words are that Midsomer Murders’ viewers are looking back to an earlier (pre-postwar migration) time, but also to an earlier form of drama. This works if you consider the suspension of belief already required to enjoy a show so often ridiculed for the preposterously high degree of crime within the gentle rural idyll of Midsomer.

Perhaps there are some who see Neighbours’ ‘whiteness’ in a similar vein: a comfortable throwback to a kinder, less complicated period in Australian life (although the 1930s of Watson’s childhood would surely not qualify as such). No Neighbours producer has come out with similar statements to True-May’s; there remains, however, a strong perception that Neighbours has a more or less all-‘white’ cast.

Neighbours has always had ethnic difference as a featured component. One central character in the first year, Maria Ramsay, was given an Italian-Czech heritage and played by Dasha (now known as Dagmar) Blahova, whose Czech accent was evident. As mentioned above, the married Scott Robinson kissed a girl in the park in 1989; she was not any girl but one Poppy Skouros. Poppy’s father Theo was an early example of a stereotype Neighbours (and earlier Grundy shows) regularly featured, the ‘traditional’, hot-headed ethnic father, baffled by ‘modern’ Australian ways and insistent that his daughter adhere to social propriety of the ‘old country’. Three years later, Benito Alessi – an Australian-born man of Italian descent played by George Spartels, who is of Greek descent – had a similar role as an easily angered patriarch in conflict with what were presented as everyday ‘Australian’ mores; there were seven Alessis in all, most of them played by Anglo-Australians.

Some of Neighbours’ fans – those sufficiently engaged with the program to contribute to online forums dedicated to its themes and stories – are keen to defend the show from accusations of unrealistic ‘whitening’. Thus, ‘Tracey C’ in late 2011, who sees the value in pursuing conflict-focused ‘ethnic’ storylines in the show:

The problem with these accusations of ‘whiteness’ is that they come from people who don’t watch the show, and therefore don’t get their facts straight - e.g. there are quite a few nonwhite faces among the extras now, and there have been some regular/recurrent/guest black, Asian, or half-Asian characters over the years.11

Continental European-derived characters have, as mentioned, always been a Neighbours staple; Asian characters are more rare and have been prone to comedy stereotyping. A Japanese businessman, Mr Udagawa, made visits to Ramsay Street three times in the show’s first ten years, each time requiring the Robinson family to make a show of staunch respectability to maintain business ties with a character more at home in a Hal Porter short story than a 1980s television soap. The nadir of Asian representation in Neighbours to date, however, is notoriously the Lim family, who briefly lived at 22 Ramsay Street in 1993. The storyline in which the family were accused by busybody Julie Martin of eating her family’s dog is still reviled by many of the show’s fans as both tasteless and nonsensical.

A large number of guest actor storylines have explored cultural diversity since. A considered move towards redressing imbalance, but ultimately perhaps potential wasted, was the introduction of the Kapoor family to 24 Ramsay Street in 2011. Priya Kapoor was principal of Erinsborough High, her husband Ajay a local councillor and their daughter Rani a high school student. Within a year, Priya was killed by an explosion at the school after alienating herself from husband and daughter via a brief affair with Paul Robinson; Ajay and Rani were written out soon after. Sachin Joab, who played Ajay Kapoor, was quick to air his grievances against Neighbours for backing out of a commitment to a “multicultural” cast. He was particularly displeased that Ajay and Rani were “sent ‘back to India’. It made no sense to me for Ajay and Rani to be sent back to India considering that both characters were born, educated and raised in Australia. I encouraged the head of the writing department at Neighbours to send us elsewhere, but they chose not to”. Joab blamed a change in executive producer for the dispatch of the Kapoors, adding that “they’ve now brought in another all-Caucasian family and returned Ramsay Street to all-white characters.”12

‘Tracey C’, quoted above, was of the opinion that racial tension was a valid topic for Neighbours to tackle:

I still think that the show is too conservative in regards to multiculturalism … I would love to see a Muslim or Aboriginal family in Ramsay Street – not because the show needs token non-white characters, but because multiculturalism, its benefits and ‘problems’, are contemporary issues that need to be explored.13

This is arguably, however, where she is out of step with Neighbours’ views on race. The program has habitually taken a ‘colour blind’ casting approach to non-Anglo Australian characters. Michelle Ang, a New Zealand-born actress of Malaysian Chinese descent, echoed the perception when she claimed that Neighbours “had a little bit of a stigma, they really got slammed for being completely white.” Ang claimed her entrée into Neighbours in 2002 was an example of what is known as “colour blind casting”; she says she “felt quite lucky” as her character, Lori Lee, “had nothing to do with my ethnicity.”14

The casting of non-Anglo-Australians in roles that make no reference to a character’s origins appears to have begun with the 1988 casting of indigenous actor (and more recently, playwright/screenwriter and creator of The Sapphires) Tony Briggs as Pete Baxter, a bank teller and aspirant Olympic runner. One writer, reminiscing in consideration of the issue of racism in Neighbours, suggests that Baxter’s “race never became an issue and was in fact never even mentioned”.15

Close on a quarter of a century later, Neighbours featured another young indigenous man in its ranks: as indigenous, at least, as Pete Baxter, inasmuch as he was portrayed by an Aboriginal actor, with once again no acknowledgment of his ethnicity. Nate Kinski is played by Meyne Wyatt – who had a supporting role in The Sapphires – and is one of a series of young gay characters in the show. “We have a character currently who is gay, Nate, who is a returned Afghani war veteran,” Woodburne told David Dale on the thirtieth anniversary of the show. “It’s not a big coming-out story or anything, that’s who he is. He is played by an indigenous actor, but that’s not made a big deal of, either”.16 Here, the tolerant nature of Neighbours and Ramsay Street is arguably emphasised by simple acceptance of anyone and everyone, their ethnic backgrounds being of so little consequence as to be entirely uninteresting to all characters themselves, including the ‘ethnic’ individual in question.

However, Nate’s arrival in Ramsay Street is almost provocative – insofar as the peculiar nature of his genealogy is concerned. His uncle, Alex Kinski, had briefly been married to Susan Kennedy. Long-term viewers would have recalled that of Alex’s three children, Katya, Rachel and Zeke, the first was played by a Nepalese-born Dichen Lachman and the second and third by young actors of European extraction. The siblings’ mother, never seen in the program, had the maiden name of Sangmu – possibly intended as a Korean name although it is more commonly used to denote the sports division of South Korea’s armed forces (!).

Of course, one’s uncle can be purely a relation by marriage and Nate may be in no way biologically connected to the Russian Kinskis or the Korean Sangmus. It is in the eye of the beholder whether such tortuous melting-pot dichotomies between actor ancestry and character family tree are important. The consideration of Ramsay Street residents’ likely responses to such issues goes too far into the realm of speculation to be reasonable. It is similarly a matter for debate whether the casting of ethnically diverse actors in roles which ignore their ‘difference’ is a valid representation of a multicultural nation.

This is Neighbours’ next challenge. The show proceeds extremely cautiously on all fronts, so as to embrace as wide an audience as possible. Unlike some other Australian soaps – A Country Practice springs to mind, but so too does a clumsy predecessor, Glenview High – it has never tried to be an ‘issues’ show. Yet its compulsion to align all empathic characters with a range of ‘normal’ values is what shapes its world view. This ‘normality’ is only arguably white (it might better be described as ‘middle class’). But it is the reason that casting can be colour blind, and why most straight viewers would have little trouble empathising with the gay characters, the most recent of which at time of writing is the popular, recently returned, character of Stephanie Scully (Carla Bonner).

However, what is perhaps more extraordinary is the expectation in certain quarters that a program such as Neighbours should be required to represent a ‘realistic’ proportion of non-Anglo-Australian residents in a ‘typical’ suburban cul-de-sac; does insistence on such diversity come close to tokenism? Joab is correct in his assessment that the Kapoor family was a trio of interesting characters, interconnecting with other residents of the street; but their ‘Indian-ness’ was barely touched on, at least until it framed their departure.

The cynical observer might simply conclude that the intricacies of representation of realism are too much (and in themselves too dull) to incorporate into standard soap opera storylines; that while Neighbours can (and does) include non-Anglo actors, non-Anglo storylines are largely outside its domain – and Julie Martin’s tangle with the Lims is an object lesson in why such issues are better left untackled. This leads us to the key component to Neighbours’ success; a marginal, but crucial, aspect of Watson’s original conception.

No Through Road

The star of Neighbours is, in fact, the one constant, that dead end where all characters abide; indeed, one of the working titles for the program in 1984 was No Through Road.

We can only marvel at the peculiar blend of tradie, teacher, doctor and other profession calculated to maximise interaction with other characters across generations. Of course, the six homes we see – as is clear from their numbering, 26 to 32 – only constitute some of the street. Watson said in 2005 that when Neighbours began he “told everyone concerned with the serial that Ramsay Street was a long street,”17 which it may be, but the show deals only with the occupants of six houses at the controllable and ‘manageable’, even defensible, end of a cul de sac. The street has come perilously close to death at times in the program; its loyal unofficial website Perfect Blend details at least two instances when, ironically given its ‘soap’ status, it has faced demolition for the sake of a supermarket project.

No drama reflects its contemporary society purely: all need mediation and critical viewing to be understood. Neighbours may be, for some, a comforting reflection of an earlier time. It would be inaccurate to suggest that it can be a source of escapism for anyone wishing to flee to a pre-multicultural Australia, however; if the show did ever play that role, it was neither deliberate nor overt. If anything, it is a celebration of community and egalitarianism, where collective values of fairness are imposed and difference is only skin-deep. Realism, as mentioned before, is not ‘the point’ of soap. But while it would be hard to pinpoint the most unrealistic element of the Neighbours world, its tolerance and the tendency towards bonhomie of so many characters, might well qualify.

The author wishes to thank Claire O’Meara and Andrew Spencer for suggestions made during the writing of this chapter.

 

1Reg Watson quoted in Andrew Ferrington, ‘Life in an average street: following a great tradition’, Canberra Times, 6 May 1985 p.27.

2Albert Moran TV Format Mogul: Reg Grundy’s Transnational Career Intellect, Bristol, 2013 p.xi

3Christine Geraghty ‘The Continuous Serial – a Definition’ in Richard Dyer et al Coronation Street, British Film Institute, London 1981 p.10

4www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbfhO7GrPi0.

5Andrew Mercado Super Aussie Soaps: Behind the Scenes of Australia’s Best Loved TV Shows Pluto Press, North Melbourne 2004 p.83.

6http://perfectblend.net/features/interview-watson.htm.

7Watson quoted in Andrew Ferrington ‘Life in an average street: following a great tradition.’ Canberra Times, 6 May 1985 p.27.

8http://perfectblend.net/features/interview-watson.htm.

9Christine Geraghty ‘The Continuous Serial – a Definition’, in Richard Dyer et al Coronation Street British Film Institute, London, 1981, p.24.

10Quoted in Hannah Poole, ‘Incest, blackmail, murder – but no minorities in Midsomer, please, we’re English!’, The Guardian, 16 March 2011.

11‘Tracey C’, 4 Dec 2011, www.neighboursfans.com/forum/index.php/topic/35728-the-kapoors-spoilers/.

12Daniel Kilkelly, ‘Exclusive: ‘Neighbours’ Sachin Joab on ‘low-key’ exit, diversity on screen, more’, Digital Spy, 10 August 2013, www.digitalspy.com.au/soaps/s14/neighbours/interviews/a505631/neighbours-sachin-joab-on-low-key-exit-diversity-on-screen-more.html#~polAfiylW3Kfmx.

13‘Tracey C’ 4 Dec 2011, www.neighboursfans.com/forum/index.php/topic/35728-the-kapoors-spoilers/.

14Michelle Ang Interview: Tribe, Neighbours, Outrageous Fortune, Big Mommas & Norman Mao, https://youtu.be/BHRBV4VqKuM.

15‘Steve’, ‘Racism in Ramsay Street?’ Perfect Blend website, http://perfectblend.net/comment/racism.htm.

16David Dale, ‘The Tribal Mind: Neighbours turns 30 and stamps its place in Aussie TV history’, The Age, 8 March 2015.

17http://perfectblend.net/features/interview-watson.htm.

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