Donald Clarke: Without Neighbours, Hollywood would have a staffing crisis

The sexless but sanguine soap is on the endangered list, struggling in a changed world

The lamps are going out all over Erinsborough. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetimes.

Okay, we are a bit premature in paraphrasing Edward Grey’s famous quote about the first World War. But one of the most significant pop-cultural institutions from the pre-millennial years is skirting the precipice. Last weekend it was announced that the future of the long-running sun-bleached Australian soap opera Neighbours was in question following its cancellation by British broadcaster Channel 5.

Fremantle, the show’s producers, did not make the most positive of noises. “These discussions are ongoing. However, there is no new broadcaster at the moment and production must end, effectively resting the show,” they wrote in an email to cast and crew.

"RTÉ is currently in talks with Fremantle in relation to Neighbours," a spokesperson for this country's national broadcaster, which has carried the series since 2000, commented cautiously.

Those of us who caught it when shown only after the lunchtime news can call ourselves The Real Fans

Former BBC One controller Michael Grade, who knows a thing or two about Neighbours, was not ready to extinguish the lights just yet. "It's got a ready-made audience," he told BBC Radio 4. "It may not have the audience size that Channel 5 needs to keep the advertisers happy, but someone will pick it up."

This is nonetheless a significant moment for the peculiar series. Once a mid-Thatcher-era behemoth, Neighbours is now gasping for 21st-century air. Variety confirmed last week that Neighbours was “largely bankrolled by Channel 5”.

First broadcast in 1985, the breezy, undemanding soap opera, set in an obscurely located suburb (only later confirmed as being within Melbourne), arrived to the BBC in the autumn of the following year. Those of us who caught it when shown only after the lunchtime news can call ourselves The Real Fans. The rest are mere arrivistes.

It was not until his daughter told him she had got in trouble for watching telly during her school lunch break that Michael Grade realised he had slipped a potential sensation into a dead slot. “Ever the scheduler, I said: ‘What were you watching?’ She said a thing called Neighbours,” he told the Daily Mail last year. “Christ, I thought, we’ve got it in the wrong place. I rushed back to the office the next day. ‘We’ve gotta move Neighbours, to when the kids get home, at five o’clock!’ ”

Good looks

The rest is scarcely credible history. Viewers in the UK and Ireland latched on to the positivity, the gentle humour and the blow-dried good looks of the young actors. Following Grade’s decision, in 1988, to screen at teatime as well as in the middle of the day, the show’s viewership soared, eventually reaching a now inconceivable 21 million in 1990. (About 15 million people watched the finale of Line of Duty, the UK’s most-watched show last year.)

Neighbours almost singlehandedly transformed perceptions of Australia in this part of the world. To that point, the most popular Australian television show had been Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. Popular culture portrayed Antipodeans as blunt-speaking rubes in hats decorated with dangling corks. At first shockingly short on racial diversity, Neighbours offered the Old World neat, dull streets in quiet urban locales where, by the standards of grim soaps such as the contemporaneous EastEnders, life progressed with only occasional murderous traumas.

Suddenly everyone wanted to emigrate to Australia. Why not? According to Neighbours, the country was just Stillorgan (or Surbiton) with warmer weather and fewer bus strikes. Altogether less stressful than moving somewhere properly foreign like Belgium.

Neighbours took over the music charts. Kylie Minogue, then still required to make occasional use of a surname, arrived to the show a year after its premiere and, with fellow cast member Jason Donovan, ran parallel careers as soap star and bubble-gum pop queen. The legendary episode 523, in which Charlene and Scott, the duo's characters, married became the third-most watched programme in the UK of 1988.

Sexless sanguinity

Looking back at the details of that broadcast, we get some sense of how much has changed. Until the soap went to Channel 5 in 2008, episodes were broadcast in the UK months after their first showing in Australia. Fans in these islands sat down to watch the wedding almost a year after it played in its home country. Such a delay would be inconceivable in the age of easily shared video on broadband internet.

More has changed. The show's incessant, largely sexless sanguinity seems unlikely to appeal to any current viewer old enough to walk upright. Successive generations turned to the postmodern undead feminism of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the privileged party porn of Gossip Girl. Try and imagine any current hit show journeying out with opening music as cheesy as Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent's theme song from Neighbours.

Russell Crowe, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, Liam Hemsworth and Ben Mendelsohn all began there

Yet one legacy remains. Neighbours, like competing soaps such as Home and Away, acted as unofficial drama school for the wave of Australian actors who took over Hollywood in following decades. Russell Crowe, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, Liam Hemsworth and Ben Mendelsohn all began there. The world would be a worse place if it had never existed.