Stefan Dennis on Neighbours’ finale: 'It'll leave a hole in the industry'
The soap icon speaks exclusively to Johnathon Hughes about saying goodbye to Ramsay Street forever…
When the news broke earlier this year that Neighbours was being axed, fans around the world were devastated. The iconic Australian soap had entertained millions for 37 years, what would the show’s loyal devotees do without their daily visits to the gentle suburb of Erinsborough?
The audience mobilised to stop it disappearing from the schedules with online petitions, social media support, prayers and positive vibes, but sadly Friday 29th July sees the last ever episode reach our screens. Neighbours legend Stefan Dennis, who has played poisonous Paul Robinson since episode one, is as gutted as the rest of us, but reveals there was a glimmer of hope for a reprieve before Ramsay Street’s fate was sealed. Sort of…
“We had a cruel April fool’s day trick played on us that another network, Channel 7, were going to save the show,” he tells us, in an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com celebrating the much-loved soap. “That made me laugh because they actually axed us after our first year back in 1985, and we were picked up by their rival Channel 10!”
Dennis tells us the original deal in the early days that allowed the drama to continue for over three decades was done inside of a few months, but despite the best efforts of producers – and fans – things were different this time, much to everyone’s disappointment.
In February, UK broadcaster Channel 5 announced they were withdrawing their hefty funding contribution for financial reasons, leaving Channel 10 in need of a new investor to keep the programme on air that, unfortunately, wasn’t found in time.
“It could’ve gone on forever and eventually we probably would’ve made it more for the UK and European audience,” reflects Dennis. “Unfortunately, there is the financial tie with Australia and the ratings maybe aren’t as good as they’d like them to be. It’s a financial thing.”
Neighbours has notoriously been a launchpad for performers, giving the likes of Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Margot Robbie and Guy Pearce a passport to international stardom. While it’s sad that platform won’t exist for the next generation of Australian talent, Dennis points out the show’s demise is significant for many other reasons.
“To me, the saddest thing and biggest disappointment is losing what it gives back to the industry,” laments the actor. “I don’t understand why the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), which is our government-funded equivalent of the BBC, didn’t pick it up, then it would be owned by the Australian public and we wouldn’t have to worry about sponsorship or any of that. It’s an iconic piece of TV history and would’ve been preserved. There are obviously lots of reasons why that didn’t happen but it’s a shame.
“What I’m really upset about, and I’m not referring to myself as I was probably going to retire in the not-too-distant future anyway, is the 200 or so people behind the scenes that will be out of work. We’re forgetting those who won’t have jobs and still have bills to pay, Neighbours has been their employer for nearly 40 years. It will leave a big hole in the industry which people don’t realise.”
The character of Paul is as much a part of the soap as the Ramsay Street sign. Like Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow, EastEnders’ Ian Beale and Hollyoaks’ Tony Hutchinson, the Robinson rogue has been there since the start and his eventful life epitomises the show itself: whatever he’s up to it’s always entertaining, frequently dramatic and often leaves you aghast. Will Dennis miss his alter ego?
“I never wanted the job at first!” he laughs. “I only committed to six months initially, once I was there and got my teeth into it I started to explore the character, in my naive way as I did back then when I was a young actor!
“At the start Paul was a happy-go-lucky 20-something and a bit of a blank canvas, vastly different to the person I’m playing now. I left in the early 90s and when I came back in 2004 that’s when he became a proper evil baddie.”
The unique challenge for a long-standing soap actor is to cling onto the essence of a character over many years in the face of ever-changing creative personnel. Producers and writers come and go but stalwarts such as Dennis must maintain an integrity and consistent through-line for die-hard fans, does that make him protective of dear old Paul?
“I suppose to a degree,” he ponders. “I know what the public want from him. There was a storyline where he suffered a brain tumour then became squeaky clean and a good guy afterwards. I went along with it for a while but kept going back to the producers telling them the audience don’t want him to be Mr Nice Guy, they like Paul to be Mr Nasty!
“Eventually they got the message and slowly started turning him back. I’ve always wanted to be truthful to the Paul that the viewers want. At times he’s an idiot, but that’s a good thing and when we know the character is working!”
Ruthless businessman Paul became the suburban JR Ewing, the cunning kingpin of the sleepy cul-de-sac who fans loved to hate, but still feel a huge affection for as he remains nostalgically linked to Neighbours’ golden age of the late 80s.
Back then the show was generating ratings of around 20 million in a teatime slot on BBC One and was a cultural phenomenon, which Dennis and his cast mates were clueless about until they were flown to the UK in 1988 to appear at the Royal Variety Performance.
“That was a big eye-opener,” he recalls. “Screaming fans were everywhere, rocking the coach we got from the airport to the hotel. We had security guys, publicists, this big entourage, it was exciting but also quite scary! In Australia fans were more laidback and you didn’t get hassled, none of us were prepared for the level of attention in the UK.”
At the time it felt like most of the country were tuning into the show, even royalty… “We lined up to meet the Queen Mother backstage, she shook our hands then moved on down the line to meet the cast of American sitcom the Golden Girls who were the big headline act of the night. Midway through talking to them, the Queen Mum came back down to us and asked what was going to happen in Neighbours in the future, as Australia was 18 months ahead in those days. She snubbed the Golden Girls to get the gossip!”
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A huge factor in the first wave of Neighbours-mania was the irresistible teenage romance between Scott and Charlene, the roles which sent the aforementioned Kylie and Jason into the stratosphere. Their wedding, broadcast in the UK in November 1988 (just weeks before the Royal Variety appearance) remains a touchstone soap moment and as big brother of the groom, Dennis was alongside them at the altar. Did he realise he was part of TV history?
“It was one of the most boring filming days I ever had on Neighbours!” he laughs. “There was hardly any dialogue, most of us were glorified extras, there were lots of meaningful looks. I remember sitting around that drafty church with nothing to do. Thank goodness I took I book with me!”
Despite the boredom, Dennis acknowledges the episode’s enormous impact, and we can’t let him go without asking why he thinks the tearjerking clip of the nuptials still strikes a chord, and will no doubt be watched umpteen times as the duo make their long-awaited return as part of Neighbours emotional farewell.
“It remains iconic simply because of the popularity of Scott and Charlene at the time. Whether it was pure luck or orchestrated, Jason and Kylie managed to latch onto two of the most popular characters in history.
“It was a massive storyline with this big build-up of: ‘Will they? Won’t they?’ When they finally got married everyone was so pleased for them. It was the ultimate happy ending!”
And that’s what everyone on Ramsay Street deserves…
- Rebekah Elmaloglou would join UK soap after Neighbours ending
- Neighbours confirms Guy Pearce's return storyline as Mike Young
- 6 Neighbours finale spoilers: Will Ramsay Street bow out with a happy ever after?
Looking for Neighbours' merch? Look no further than TruffleShuffle.com!
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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