By Scott Jordan Harris
When I was eight years old, my teacher set our class a task: for the next week we would work on a project about the place we would most like to live. We could choose anywhere, in Britain or abroad, in fantasy or reality, provided we could explain why we wanted to live there and draw maps and pictures to illustrate our ideas. Our homework for the night was to decide where that place would be.
My classmates immediately adopted the exaggerated expressions of children who want to show they are thinking hard. Some started talking about their ideas. I didn’t do either. I didn’t need to show that I was doing any thinking because I didn’t have any thinking to do and I didn’t want to talk about my idea in case someone stole it.
I had instantly known my answer, which was quite clearly the best answer anyone could possibly give to the question of where they would most like to live. It was an antipodean paradise populated by charming and eccentric people with amusing accents, who would take me in if I fell on difficulties; invite me to swim in their backyard pools; and treat me to milkshakes at their coffee shop. It was a suburban Shangri-La.
I went home and announced my plan to my parents, who told me not to be so silly; that I was going to embarrass both myself and them; and to change the focus of my project immediately. And so I wrote instead about wanting to live in a medieval castle to which I had made special architectural adaptations that would allow roller-coasters to run through its walls and helicopters to land on top of its turrets.
My project was judged the best in the class. But my victory gave me no joy. To me, it was as hollow as the chocolate Easter egg I was presented as a prize. I didn’t want to live in a 10th Century castle-cum-20th Century theme park. I wanted to live on Ramsay Street. I still do.
For Brits, each episode of Neighbours is an escape to an improbable place where it is actually possible to have barbecues. Nobody in Britain has ever had a barbecue. We all try to have them but none of us ever succeeds.
Ramsay Street, in Erinsborough, is of course where the neighbours in Neighbours reside. And I adore Neighbours in more ways than anyone with a shred of shame would admit and anyone but an autistic savant could enumerate. Many in my country feel the same. In Britain, I suspect, the Ramsay Street sign is a more iconic image of Australia than the Sydney Opera House.
The fact every British person knows about Neighbours, though none of us has much evidence to back it up, is that the program is more popular here than it is in its homeland. To us, it is obvious why this should be. Firstly, the great works of art are seldom appreciated in their own time in their own countries. Secondly, so much of what attracts the British to Neighbours is what attracts the British to Australia.
It is impossible for someone who lives under the leaking, lead-coloured skies of the UK to express to an Australian how marvellous it is to spend half an hour a day watching the happy inhabitants of a sunny suburb in which rain is rare and icicles are completely unknown.
For Brits, each episode of Neighbours is an escape to an improbable place where it is actually possible to have barbecues. Nobody in Britain has ever had a barbecue. We all try to have them but none of us ever succeeds. Each year, August appears and some optimistic instinct suggests to us that we should hold one. And so we set the date, buy in burgers and beer, and make sure we have enough garden furniture to accommodate everyone we’ve invited.
Then the chosen day comes, the sky splits open and month’s worth of rain falls in half an hour. If our guests haven’t already arrived, we call them to cancel. If they have, we cook all the food indoors and eat it sitting round the kitchen table while telling ourselves, and each other, that “It’s just as good this way.”
But on Ramsay Street there are barbecues aplenty. No event is too small, and no achievement too large, that the residents of Ramsay Street won’t celebrate it with a barbecue.
Jubilees aside, the only reason Brits talk to our neighbours is to threaten them with antisocial behaviour orders. But, on Ramsay Street, community is everything.
If you live on Ramsay Street, you throw several barbecues a month. And, what’s more, you invite everyone who lives on Ramsay Street to them: your ex-girlfriend and the bloke she cheated on you with; the professional rival who’s trying to drive you out of business; and everyone from the family that’s been feuding with yours for generations. All the locals are welcome at an Erinsborough barbecue. After all, everybody needs good neighbours.
The same is true at weddings and funerals. You have only to have lived opposite someone on Ramsay Street for a week and they’ll invite you to their wedding. The beloved relatives who lived with them for ten years won’t fly back from Tasmania for it, and no friends from outside Erinsborough will be invited, but everyone on Ramsay Street will be there.
This incomparable community is another reason I adore Neighbours. In Britain, most people have only seen their neighbours three times since 1977: once for an insufferable street party to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and then again in 2002 and 2012 for the Golden and Diamond equivalents. Jubilees aside, the only reason Brits talk to our neighbours is to threaten them with antisocial behaviour orders.
But, on Ramsay Street, community is everything. Every problem, from Susan Kennedy’s multiple sclerosis to Harold Bishop’s predilection for playing his tuba too loudly, can be solved by popping next door for a chat and a cup of restorative tea.
And Erinsbourough, unlike England, has no class system. The Ramsay Street cul-de-sac is practically a Communist state. For years Paul Robinson—the egomaniacal overlord of the Lassiter’s complex, who seems to have sufficient funds and influence to either buy out or scare off any business smaller than Microsoft— has lived just yards away from builders, students and mechanics.
Of course, a reason for this is that there are so few habitable properties in the area. Newcomers to Neighbours who watched an episode that recently aired in the UK would have learned that the dastardly Troy, biological father of young Callum, had just purchased No. 32, meaning that he now lives next door to Callum and his adoptive father, the loveable Toadfish.
From this, they might deduce that Ramsay Street has at least 31 other properties. They would be wrong. There are only half a dozen properties on the street in which anyone is able to live. The rest of the houses, though mysteriously well-maintained, are completely uninhabited and have been since 1985. No one, under any circumstances, could possibly live in any of them.
But this is seldom an issue. Dozens of people are capable of living in each of the few Ramsay Street properties that are available for occupants, sleeping in unseen bedrooms that must be the size of army barracks. And no one who lives on Ramsay Street ever wants to live alone or simply with their own family. Indeed, when half a family moves away, the local custom is for the other half to remain in Erinsborough and move in with the family next door.
Like a true zealot, deaf to criticism of his faith, I accept all these absurdities about Neighbours without them making the slightest dent in my devotion to it. Because, in a sense, I grew up on Ramsay Street.
Neighbours was first shown in Britain when I was three and I began absorbing it as the adults around me watched. Later, I became a full-time fan. That my parents allowed this was a miracle made possible by the times at which Neighbours was broadcast and the channel on which it was broadcast.
For me, no performance Russell Crowe or Guy Pearce will ever give in Hollywood could equal the power and prestige of their appearances in Neighbours.
Although I would never normally have been allowed to watch a soap opera, my mother believed that nothing that was shown by the venerable BBC, and certainly nothing that was shown immediately after the afternoon news and then repeated immediately before the evening news, could possibly be a bad influence.
And so I grew up knowing that, whatever historians may tell us, the most important wedding of the 1980s wasn’t that of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, but of Scott Robinson and Charlene Mitchell. As a child, I shared the terror of Scott’s little sister, Lucy, when she was trapped down a drain for days.
As a teenager, I disliked Drew Kirk, who attracted the dual attentions of the comely Libby Kennedy and the exquisite Steph Scully, because I was in love with both women. And, as an adult, I understood Joe Mangel’s decision to put his son’s need for a father ahead of his own desire for romance.
I’m now a professional film critic but, for me, no performance Russell Crowe or Guy Pearce will ever give in Hollywood could equal the power and prestige of their appearances in Neighbours. And, in my mind, no amount of number one singles will ever make the music careers of Kylie Minogue and Holly Valance anything but footnotes to their time in Erinsborough.
For a while, in my teens and early twenties, I was ashamed of this. But I long ago abandoned the lies the self-loathing soap opera addict routinely tells. I no longer pretend, when Neighbours comes up in conversation, that I just happened to catch the episode in question but that “I haven’t actually watched it since Helen Daniels died.”
I adore Neighbours and I always shall. Some people are gripped, several times a day, by the sudden horror that one day they will die and the world will carry on without them. I am often overwhelmed by a far worse fear: that one day Neighbours will end and I’ll be expected to get through the afternoons without it. I don’t dwell on this for long, though. It’s too awful to contemplate.
About Scott Jordan Harris: Scott is an English film critic and sportswriter, who is on Twitter as @ScottFilmCritic. Formerly editor of The Spectator‘s arts blog, he is a culture blogger for the London Telegraph; a contributor to BBC Radio’s The Film Programme; and UK correspondent for Roger Ebert. He has contributed to more than a dozen books about film and edited two: World Film Locations: New York and World Film Locations: New Orleans. His greatest ambition remains to live in No. 32 Ramsay Street, in a house-share with Libby Kennedy and Steph Scully.
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