We all have guilty pleasures when it comes to TV – those low-brow shows that you’re a little bit embarrassed to admit to watching. I used to feel a bit like that about Australian soap Neighbours, until I discovered a podcast which introduced me to a whole fandom full of kindred spirits.
Neighbours was first broadcast in Australia in 1985, making its way to British screens in 1986. The premise was simple, and has remained the same for over 30 years – the show revolves around the characters who live on Ramsay Street, in the fictional Melbourne suburb of Erinsborough. It’s typical soap opera fare – relationship dramas, dramatic disasters and cheesy comedy sub-plots beamed into your home every weeknight. The show was an almost instant success back in the late 80s and early 90s, catapulting its young stars, such as Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan, to fame in a way that had never been seen with a soap opera before.
Despite the viewing figures dwindling considerably since the heady days of 3 million per episode, Neighbours remains steadily popular, especially in the UK. I got on the bandwagon as a child in the late 80s, and I haven’t been able to stop watching. I dread to think how many hours of my life I’ve spent with the inhabitants of Ramsay Street over the years. Even in the UK, where it still draws a fairly healthy viewing audience, eyebrows are raised whenever I admit to people that I’m a huge Neighbours fan. It’s a pretty uncool show, which is why I was surprised and delighted to find the Neighbuzz recap podcast, hosted by Vaya Pashos.
Vaya is joined for each episode with different co-hosts, including the hilarious regulars Kate and CJ, to recap the past five episodes of the show, make fun of the most preposterous storylines, nominate a Ramsay Street regular as either Citizen or Sh*tizen of the Week, and talk about whatever the ‘Ceramic Pig’ storyline is (a plot sidebar inserted into the week’s episodes for comic relief, and which was named after an actual ceramic pig featured in one such story). The Ceramic Pig storylines are just one reason why people struggle to take Neighbours seriously.
“Most people are genuinely fascinated by the concept of a Neighbours podcast, but are very quick to tell me they don’t watch Neighbours, in the way people like to tell you they don’t listen to pop music,” says Vaya. “I’m often re-introducing my podcast guests to the show after a long absence and regardless of their views on its plotlines, most rekindle their fondness for it pretty quickly. It is considered a niche interest though!”
One of my favourite things about the podcast is when Vaya has to explain the most ridiculous storylines to someone who hasn’t seen Neighbours in a while. There’s something incredibly funny about listening to someone try to digest the fact that Paige fell out of a hot-air balloon, Toadie was paralysed in a freak inflatable castle incident, or that Shane ruined Diwali when the urine-powered generator he’d invented blew up and showered everything with human waste.
The inherent uncoolness of Neighbours is one reason why I just didn’t realise that it had an actual fandom. Internet fans are the first people to pounce on a show and rip it to shreds because it doesn’t adequately represent the diversity in real life, and Neighbours has had a bucketload of this kind of problem. Up until recently, Ramsay Street was one of the whitest and straightest fictional places on this planet, or any other. A few people of colour were added here and there, but they never seemed to stick around. Only in the past year or so has Neighbours properly started to introduce a little bit of diversity, with gay and bisexual characters, a Hindu family and Japanese-Australian twins – even if the introduction of these characters can be a little bit clunky. The first episode featuring the Tanaka twins saw them wandering around Erinsborough asking anyone with ears if they could point them in the direction of some miso soup.
“I don’t know an Australia without multiculturalism, so it’s been quite frustrating to see how long it’s taken producers to reflect our cultural landscape accurately, says Vaya. “Neighbours has taken big leaps in terms of depicting a broad spectrum of relationships and moving away from the nuclear family so there’s a lot of content to be proud of. ”
With such cheesy plots, clumsily handled diversity and a tendency to catch on to a zeitgeist long after the world has moved on to something else (they genuinely did a Gamergate-themed plot a few months ago), it’s kind of hard to defend Neighbours at times. But the fans don’t seem to want to, that seems to be part of the appeal. As well as the Neighbuzz podcast, there’s a thriving ‘Art of Neighbours‘ Facebook group where people draw cartoons and submit memes that make fun of the show, and people often snarkily live tweet episodes.
The fans love the ridiculous comedy plots, they love the preposterous disasters, and they love the fact that nobody ever seems to go to work – and when they do, their jobs are apparently taken directly out of a children’s book. In Erinsborough, you can be a teacher, a doctor, a police officer, or you can run your own business, like a hotel or a cafe – there are very few other options. Vaya is keen to point out that this is one of the many ways that Neighbours falls short of depicting real life in Australia.
“Most Australians are expected to be at their jobs during the day, despite how many lattes we see Paul having at the Waterhole,” she jokes.
When even avid fans of the show freely admit that Neighbours has a lot of flaws, it’s hard to see how it survives, especially at the level it has in the UK. Vaya thinks this is in part due to the way it portrays Aussie life to the Brits – it’s always sunny in Ramsay Street and you can have a pool party even in the depths of winter.
“It lies to the Brits! It paints a picture of Melbourne in eternal summer. I used to be an extra on Neighbours and we had strict costuming instructions to only wear bright colours, and no winter clothes. So, it provides the UK a false escapism. Don’t cancel your trip to Melbourne though – Melburnians will be the first to tell you it’s the best Australian city, but for god’s sake, pack layers!” says Vaya.
I’ve been a fan for around thirty years, and sometimes I find it difficult to pinpoint exactly why I still watch, despite having ditched countless other less imperfect shows from my viewing schedule. I do like the escapism, and I love that it doesn’t take itself so seriously – how can you not be endeared to a show where someone misses their wedding because they fell down a well? Or a storyline where a sofa which was witness to an affair keeps turning up unexpectedly to haunt one of the guilty parties? Yes, an actual sofa, travelling around a suburb to remind someone of their infidelity.
Neighbours recently did a spin-off web series which saw perennial villain Paul Robinson time travel back to the 1980s and then return to the weird parallel universe his meddling had created on Ramsay Street. He also found himself running away from a T-Rex at one point. It might just be this utterly bonkers level of ridiculousness that keeps me hooked – it’s so delightfully bad at times. As Vaya says, “There’s something very soothing about turning my TV on at the same time every night, and more often than not there will be a gem of a character, or piece of dialogue, or story arc that reminds me that even in Erinsborough – where the hotel explodes every year, hot-air balloons crash and jumping castles paralyse lawyers – things aren’t so bad.”
Huge thanks to Vaya Pashos – @vayapashos on Twitter. Visit Neighbuzzpod.com or follow @neighbuzzpod on Twitter.