March 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Good Neighbours

By Alan Saunders
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Eugene Kamenka, supervisor of my doctorate at ANU, expert on Marxian thought and a man who would never have thought his name would appear in an article about the twenty-fifth anniversary of Neighbours, once, in his youth, found himself giving a lecture (probably on nineteenth-century German thought) in a suburb of London. I can’t remember which one, but let’s say Mill Hill.

Somebody remarked that he came from Australia, didn’t he?

Yes, he told the audience, he did.

“What’s it like?”

He paused, before replying: “Mill Hill’s idea of heaven.”

It was a cruel response, but you can see his point. Australia was Mill Hill but with sunshine, with hope, without gloom and, for those who cared about it, without a nicely articulated class system. The place of Mill Hill’s imagined longings was a recognisably similar, but refreshingly different sort of suburbia; this was the Australia that would soon be refulgently embodied in Ramsay Street.

What makes Neighbours Australian and what has ensured its huge success in the UK, where it started screening just a year after its Australian launch on 18 March 1985, is probably, above all, the even tenor of the life it delineates. It’s true that some Australians, especially certain journalists, especially during the Howard years, have enjoyed nurturing the belief that their country is a place of potential tyranny and high drama, but it really is not. And this, of course, is nothing to be ashamed of – it amounts to a great achievement.

Happy is the country where life can be as low-key as it usually appears in Neighbours. It’s different elsewhere. American soaps often go for baroque and even the British soap EastEnders (in homage, perhaps, to a venerable local tradition of melodrama) is well capable of large and gaudy stories. But the original idea of Reg Watson, creator of Neighbours, was that it would feature people who talk freely and solve their problems together. It was never intended to be Medea.

This is not to say that the characters in Neighbours aren’t as capable of stupid misunderstanding as anyone in an eighteenth-century opera; there has been plenty of high drama in their lives. Fairly early on, there was a death by murder, one by suicide and one at the hands of careless duck hunters. There has even been a hint of incest, in Lucy’s sexual relationship with her half-brother, Glen. Later on, Drew fell off a horse and died, Dee drowned and Bridget died after a car crash (her last moments haunted by hallucinations). In the early years of this century, there was a lesbian story-line, a stalking, a kidnapping and a plane with a bomb in it.

And then there is the casting. Neighbours has never rivalled the British soap Hollyoaks, where – as in some bizarre science-fiction scenario – normal carbon-based life forms have been replaced by beautiful teenage girls. It has, though, had more than its fair share of pulchritude: the great Kylie (of course) and Natalie Imbruglia and Delta Goodrem, Kimberley Davies, Nicola Charles, Holly Valance, the gorgeous Blakeney twins, Scott Michaelson and Jason Donovan.

By and large, however, the denizens of Ramsay Street, both the beautiful and the less beautiful, have behaved in the way that Watson wanted them to. In doing so, in tackling their problems and solving them together, they have fulfilled one of the essential functions of soap opera.

The form is uniquely twentieth-century: other ages and other cultures have enjoyed long narratives, though these narratives have never been endless. The Hindu epic the Mahabharata is ten times as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, but it does have a final goal. Dickens’ novels are not only long, they also appeared, like soaps, in regular instalments. The difference is that Dickens, though not always hot on backstory, knew more or less where he was heading. He knew that eventually it was all going to end. A soap, by contrast, can in principle go on forever. There are weddings and births, people leave town (in Neighbours, they usually go to Queensland), old people die, sometimes young people die (big news this, for TV Week), but new arrivals are always turning up and everything can keep on going on for as long as the ratings allow. Neighbours is, in this way, at least a little like life, and Ramsay Street may just be a few blocks from where you live.

Having a soap in your life means having familiar faces and locations – you can turn up unexpectedly (it’s typical of soaps that you seldom feel the need to be updated on the story) but, once you’re there, you want to hang around. It could, of course, be just a little girlie of me to regret that, now that I’ve lost touch with Neighbours, there is not at present a soap in my life. After all, the first soaps – radio shows sponsored by American soap companies – were broadcast during the day, when, it was believed, the ‘little woman’ of the house would be at home and listening. The emphasis on the domestic rather than the heroic was presumably also felt to be female, though, in truth, the domestic is where most of us live most of the time and the moral issues of domestic life are the issues that we need to think and talk about. For 25 years now, Neighbours has provided us with a way of thinking about the mundane issues of the lives we lead. It has done so entertainingly and by and large gracefully.

Alan Saunders
Alan Saunders was a writer, philosopher and broadcaster who contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bulletin and other publications. He was a presenter on ABC Radio National for 25 years where his programs included The Philosopher’s Zone and By Design.

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