After 37 years and almost 9,000 episodes, the sun is about to set on Ramsay Street. While TV critics have traditionally dismissed Neighbours as lightweight filler, over the past five years the show has staged a remarkable reinvention to become soap's best-kept secret. Neighbours bucked trends on its closing lap, pushing the envelope and embracing its history, leaving audiences with fond memories and a fitting farewell.
But it was a long time coming. The show had often struggled to adapt to changing times. By the early 2000s, Neighbours felt at loggerheads with its heyday history, drawing a line under the past and consigning its legacy characters to memory. The 20th anniversary in 2005 began a slight thawing as suburban hotel mogul Paul Robinson, played by Stefan Dennis, returned to reclaim Lassiters. As one of the original cast, Paul brought the show some welcome heritage, but the writers often struggled to get the balance right. His antics soon tipped into cartoon villainy, resulting in a controversial plane crash and a string of nuisance schemes, before a helpful brain tumour provided a reset button.
A back-to-basics revamp in 2007 did no good either, draining the humour and ushering in a Teflon parade of newcomers. As the decade wore on, Neighbours cranked out forgettable episodes with a rotating teenage cast, relegating long-term favourites like Karl and Susan Kennedy to the roles of fretful bystanders. It seemed that the show's best days were behind it.
Meanwhile, in line with other soaps, the audience numbers grew stagnant. Neighbours traditionally appealed to a predominantly teenage audience, which needed to be steadily replenished. With Channel 5's average viewer age climbing to 58 by 2017, those younger viewers became increasingly hard to come by. The show's producers seemed to quietly acknowledge that the teen demographic was a thing of the past, shifting the focus to the 20-40-somethings more likely to be watching and cranking up nostalgia aimed at long-term viewers.
Neighbours kicked off its 2017 episodes with a bang. Madeleine West returned after a 15-year absence as Toadie Rebecchi's first wife Dee Bliss, who had been lost at sea since their wedding day. In an epic story that played out across three years, 'Dee' was revealed to be con-artist doppelgänger Andrea Somers, who absconded while pregnant with Toadie's baby. Andrea's off-kilter mum then turned up to terrorise Toadie's wife Sonya incognito as a deranged supernanny – seemingly Erinsborough's answer to Mrs Danvers – before the real Dee returned from the dead and was revealed as Andrea's long-lost twin sister (keep up).
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It was a bonkers, audacious story that served as a statement of intent: Neighbours had got its mojo back. Emboldened, the show pivoted to more long-form ambitious storytelling. Ageing lothario con-man Hamish Roche drowned in a hot tub on Guy Fawkes' night and was revealed a year later to have died at the hands of his estranged son Cassius Grady, who had been hiding in plain sight for months as a himbo gardener. Meanwhile, psychopathic supply teacher Finn Kelly waged a four-year reign of terror against Erinsborough at large, finally meeting a grisly end to celebrate Neighbours' 35th anniversary.
Yet it wasn't all heightened villainy – modern Neighbours tempered its melodrama with heart and warmth, as the show embraced diversity enthusiastically, addressing some historic shortcomings. Neighbours' past efforts at representation had often been short-lived, but things improved as the producers began using the show's heritage to embed more diverse characters into the Erinsborough community: Paul Robinson discovered he was the father of twin half-Japanese sons, David and Leo Tanaka. David subsequently came out as gay and – in a television first – married Aaron Brennan, hot on the heels of the Australian same-sex marriage vote. In the producers' own words, everyone was welcome on Ramsay Street.
As a couple, Aaron and David have grown into one of the bedrocks of modern Neighbours – likeable, devoted to one another, suburban in their outlook, and ever-so-slightly basic. Actors Matt Wilson and Takaya Honda have made the relationship feel matter-of-fact and unforced in a way that should make other soaps take note. Meanwhile, 1980s favourite 'Plain' Jane Harris returned as a regular in 2020, followed by a lesbian daughter, Nicolette Stone. Nicolette soon moved in with Aaron and David and became the surrogate for their baby daughter Isla. After some faltering steps – including the little matter of a kiddie swap and a one-million dollar bribe – the extended Tanaka-Brennan-Stone family settled down to become a lynchpin. Blending three long-running families, Number 32 has evolved into Ramsay Street's most diverse household, connected to almost every storyline.
In the end, Neighbours modernised by stealth, keeping its archetypes but reinterpreting them through a more diverse prism. Transgender actress Georgie Stone joined the cast in 2019, playing teenager Mackenzie Hargreaves. The story broke new ground, yet Mackenzie felt like she was cut from familiar cloth – written with a touch of Plain Jane's 1980s blossoming. Mackenzie quickly gained friends and a surrogate family, before finding love and getting her fairytale wedding earlier this year. It was a remarkable full-circle moment for what once had sometimes been the most conservative of the soaps.
The demise of Neighbours should give its rivals cause for concern, as it points to the escalating pressures that soap operas face. In their heyday, soaps could be relied upon to lock in audiences across the daily schedules, yet as on-demand erodes audiences and viewers discover programming at their own pace, these shows occupy an increasingly precarious space. Once cheap, cheerful and dependable, soaps are becoming harder to justify, as they burn off masses of effort and resources on a single screening. Neighbours and Holby City have vanished in the space of a year, and others will follow.
Soapland post-Neighbours will be a little less kind and welcoming place. Erinsborough is where people make mistakes, learn from them, make amends, and almost always depart as better people than they arrived. From the beginning, Neighbours' worldview was avowedly old-fashioned, presenting an idealised portrait of cosy suburbia that had already slipped into past tense. Ramsay Street offered viewers a persuasive, reassuring fantasy – that the people we're closest to might be literally as close as next door.
Fittingly, the show's final weeks have seen a triumphant return for Ian Smith as enduring fuddy-duddy Harold Bishop. Arguably Neighbours' most iconic character, modern-day Harold remains a good Samaritan, reassuringly eccentric and mildly pompous. This time he visited to offer counsel and comfort, reaching out as a stranger to the recently-widowed Mackenzie. The scene was a simple interaction over a cup of tea, featuring a trans character incompatible with the landscape of the show's early years, yet at its heart, it's a moment that could slot into any era.
Viewers will miss the show's silliness, melodrama and occasional evil doppelgängers, but most of all they should mourn Neighbours' unassailable belief in selfless generosity and the gentle power of kindness.
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Neighbours' final episode premieres on Friday 29th July at 9pm, followed by Neighbours: What Happened Next? at 10:05pm and Neighbours: The Stars' Greatest Hits at 11:30pm, on Channel 5. Check out more of our Soaps coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.
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