When Daphne Lawrence (Elaine Smith, pictured) was doing her striptease at the buck’s night for Des Clarke (Paul Keane) on the eve of his marriage to Lorraine Kingham (Antionette Byron) on the premiere episode of Neighbours, nobody’s wildest predictions would have foreseen that the show would survive to see its 25th anniversary.
Even the most optimistic predictions would have only permitted Neighbours to have a lifespan of a few years. At the time of the show’s debut – 18 March 1985 in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide (Brisbane followed with a 90-minute launch a week later) – apart from ABC’s Bellbird (1967-1977) the longest running Australian soaps had been Number 96, The Sullivans, The Young Doctors, Cop Shop (all around six years each) and Prisoner (which had entered its seventh year in 1985).
As well as TV newcomers like Smith and Keane, Neighbours’ founding cast included a few familiar faces – Anne Haddy (Play School, Prisoner, Sons And Daughters), Alan Dale (The Young Doctors), Peter O’Brien (Starting Out), Darius Perkins (All The Rivers Run and the telemovie Matthew And Son), Stefan Dennis (Prisoner) and David Clencie (The Sullivans, Starting Out).
But after only a few months on air, Neighbours was headed for TV landfill when the Seven Network pulled the plug after a lack of support from ATN7, Sydney, and despite strong-ish ratings elsewhere. But the show’s producers, the Grundy Organisation, felt there was still life in the concept – after all, the UK’s neighbourhood drama, Coronation Street, was into its third decade by that stage – so the show was successfully offered to Network Ten, creating Australian TV history as the first drama series to swap networks.
The re-launch on Ten, on 20 January 1986, gave the show a fresher, younger emphasis with a bunch of young newcomers enlisted to the cast – Jason Donovan, Guy Pearce, Annie Jones, Geoff Paine, Charlene Fenn and, a few months later, Kylie Minogue (then a 17-year-old known from The Henderson Kids and for being the older sister of Young Talent Time cast member Danielle Minogue) Also added to the line-up were Anne Charleston (fresh from a former Grundy’s drama, Possession), Ally Fowler (Sons And Daughters) and Vivean Gray (The Sullivans).
Then the show was given an international audience with its debut on BBC1 in a daytime timeslot in 1986, but it was a shift to the 5.30pm timeslot in 1988 that saw Neighbours catapulted to ratings domination, even bumping stalwart Coronation Street and relative newcomer EastEnders from the top of the ratings.
The show went on to win a swag of TV Week Logie awards, including Gold Logies for Kylie Minogue (1988) and Craig McLachlan (1990) and the show being inducted into the TV Week Logie Awards’ Hall of Fame to coincide with its 20th anniversary in 2005.
With success in the United Kingdom and even further abroad (though the Americans never took to it), Neighbours’ longevity was all but certainly confirmed – as without such widespread international support and income, Neighbours could well have had a similar lifespan to its predecessors.
As well as its 25th anniversary, which will be officially celebrated over the coming weeks, Neighbours is also approaching its 6000th episode, scheduled to air in Australia sometime around August.