Love thy English Neighbours
It has been 26 years and 6000-odd episodes since Danny Ramsay first rode his Malvern Star along Ramsay Street, marking the beginning of the soap phenomenon Neighbours.
That first episode, eager to impress, showed Danny experiencing a nightmare with homoerotic and incestuous overtones, about his brother Shane (in Speedos) diving to his death. Sweaty Danny thrashes around in his bed to the sounds of the decadent bucks’ party next door.
Neighbours would later launch the Hollywood career of Guy Pearce and turn Kylie the talking budgie into a singing one, but for me that first instalment has been a rare highlight.
I have never been a fan of soaps and their replication of ordinary domestic life. Why people would want to watch on TV, exactly what was happening around them while they were watching it is a mystery.
Teenage squabbling and the petty concerns of characters like Harold Bishop, co owner of the impossibly neat General Store (the place for milky grey flat whites and much of the show’s tedious gravitas), were far too insipid to hold my interest.
There have been villains, of course, to break up all that chit-chat. And the gratifying elimination (by fire, plane crash, or a blow to the head) of those characters who outwore their welcome.
The wobbly cheeked Bishop was one of those characters who, after twelve years, had gone well beyond his use-by date. He was disposed of under the pretext of having terminal cancer but the real reason was he had bored the audience and even the actor playing him, Ian Smith, to death. Smith was also fed up with the real life late-night hooligans who would stand outside his house shouting obscenities.
Not long after leaving, however, Smith realised he had been typecast into permanent unemployment. He also found out that being anonymous is worse than copping public abuse. So just when we thought cancer had done the trick we learn Harold is to return “temporarily” next month. When asked if this will definitely be his last appearance on Neighbours, Smith replied: “Look, I’d never say never”. You could try Ian, you could try.
I should be more fond of Neighbours. My brother worked in its art department for several years and there is a framed photograph in our family home of he and Kimberley Davies sharing a pineapple doughnut.
He would regale us with accounts of the tantrums thrown by cast members and got Clive James to sign my copy of Unreliable Memoirs, that wonderful depiction of an Australian suburban childhood, when James made a brief appearance on the show in 1996.
For the exterior Ramsay Street scenes, shot each Thursday, the real life occupants were paid to disappear. It was on one such Thursday that James arrived, dressed for his cameo as a postman. James doesn’t look like an intellectual, or even a writer, but he does look like a postman.
Ramsay Street’s real name is Pin Oak Court located in the outer eastern Melbourne suburb of Vermont South near the unneighbourly intersection of Springvale Road and Burwood Highway; home to an industrial estate and the lowly Burvale Hotel.
But to the British tourists passing slowly by - their mesmerised faces pressed against the bus window - it’s an antipodean wonderland. Like Fosters Lager (another bland Melbourne export), Neighbours is more popular in the UK than in its homeland. Each episode is shown in the morning and again in the early evening.
While they’re viewing our contemporary dross, I’m watching - thanks to Umbrella Entertainment’s “Best of British” DVD collection - their old suburban comedies. Series like Love Thy Neighbour, Bless This House and Man About The House that were prominent on Australian television in the early 1970’s. They depicted a lifestyle that the Anglophile Melbourne related to. Watching them today is like returning to that daggy pleasant time.
As a child I began watching Love Thy Neighbour to avoid nightmares I’d been having after seeing the film Earthquake in Sensurround (where the seat would vibrate with low frequency sound during the quake scenes). Eddie Booth was a slob and a ranting bigot and the conversations puerile but to me, a boy eager to avoid a haunting bedtime, it was funny. The dreadful opinions of Eddie were matched by the invigorating racist retorts of his West Indian neighbour Bill Reynolds.
The main attraction of these shows for me was the whining deadbeat occupants in cardigans drinking endless pints of beer or cups of tea. There was Eddie Booth and his worker mates, of course, as well as the freeloading brother-in-law in On The Buses. The self centred George Roper, torturer of his poor frisky wife Mildred, was the precursor to Homer Simpson with his bulbous head and thinning hair.
The wonderful awfulness of the mainly working class characters was complemented by the all-English smorgasbord of mismatched decor: tatty curtains, Victorian wallpaper, mod orange furniture, and Royal Albert tea-sets.
Man About The House was intended to be risque because the English had a problem with a single man and two women sharing a flat but now it just seems sweet and innocent, set in an era when pubs were homely and a cookery student could afford to live in Earls Court.
Love Thy Neighbour and Father Dear Father were so popular here that when the poms tired of them they relocated to Australia - to be immediately sapped of their English charm.
It really has been an awfully long time since I watched an episode of Neighbours. I hear Toadie is still hanging around. I do wish someone from Lite n’ Easy would slip a dodgy prawn into his Fisherman’s Pie.
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