Watching Neighbours was the only part of the day my late wife felt happy

Alex Moffatt: The Australian soap has brought me comfort amid grief and confusion

Last weekend was a bleak one for Neighbours fans like me: this was when we learned that British station Channel 5 was pulling the plug on the Australian soap, and without Channel 5’s money the whole show could be over after 37 years on air.

I discovered Neighbours in the early 1990s, a few years after its heyday with Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan. I began watching over the summer after my first year at university, mainly because friends were constantly discussing it and I wanted to know what they were talking about. I also began to watch Home and Away. When college resumed and I had less free time, I dumped Home and Away but stuck with Neighbours.

And I’ve stuck with it ever since, seldom missing an episode over nearly 30 years. It hasn’t always been brilliant, and there have been periods where it seemed to lose its way. But it would always bounce back. The theme song has a line about finding “the perfect blend”, and that’s the key. Where Home and Away is relentless melodrama, Neighbours has always comfortably mixed extreme melodrama with more regular drama and doses of outright farce.

Even the extreme melodrama has a high-camp, farcical element. I’m thinking of a storyline in recent years about science teacher Finn Kelly, who attempts to murder an entire school by pumping poison through the ventilation system. (I seem to recall the attack was spurred by his frustrated desire to secure the job of deputy principal at Erinsborough High.)

Then we learn that Kelly's madness stemmed from the lengthy period he spent as a hostage in Colombia. He keeps trying to kill people and ends up being pushed off a cliff by Susan Kennedy, principal of the school where he worked. He survives but suffers that most rampant of soap-opera ailments, amnesia. Out of guilt for almost killing him, Susan decides to let him move in and live in her house.

It all culminated in a five-night special two years ago (to mark the show’s 35th anniversary) in which half the cast went for a holiday on a deserted island and Kelly unleashed a bloodbath involving arson, an abandoned mine, a crossbow, a snake, a large rock and an exploding wedding cake. (To Kelly’s credit, that cake explosion killed off an extremely irritating character played by Denise van Outen.)

Part of the appeal of Neighbours, as with any soap, is its regularity: an episode a day, five days a week. For many years when I was working late nights at newspapers, watching the day’s episode was the last thing I would do before bed each night.

Unserious viewing

I married in 2014 and my Polish wife, Magda, would scorn my unserious TV viewing. She watched intense, subtitled European cinema and found my Neighbours obsession vaguely ridiculous.

Our son was born in 2015, and nothing can really prepare a new parent for the shock of that transition from childless peace and autonomy to having a tiny baby requiring constant care.

The day we returned from Holles Street with our new baby seemed like it would be a happy milestone, but it wasn’t. Magda was in a sort of silent rage, which I couldn’t make sense of. In retrospect, it was clearly the first sign of postnatal depression. She was also in a permanent state of terror that something would go wrong, that our baby would become ill.

For the first few months we were living in a one-bed apartment, with me coming home from work late at night and attempting to sleep on the sittingroom floor so as not to disturb their sleep. The baby cried a lot. I remember one freezing winter’s day when he cried for most of the day and when Magda refused to leave the apartment and would not let me take him for a walk because it was too cold. I remember her screaming in despair at his refusal to settle.

Magda took a year off work and it did not go well. She seemed more and more angry. In retrospect, it seems obvious that she was depressed. At the time, though, I thought it was just her normal response to the strain.

During these months, she would sometimes find herself watching Neighbours with me. Soon, she was watching it even when I wasn’t around, and would text me in work to tell me that that day’s episode had been a particularly good one. She began to discuss the plots with me, enjoying the melodrama, the silliness and the simplicity. Also, it is filmed in near-permanent Australian sunshine, making it seem idyllic in a cold Irish winter.

Magda would watch Neighbours every afternoon with our son while I was in work. One day she texted me a sound file in which I could hear the closing credits playing while our one year old repeatedly shouted “Neighbours! Neighbours!”

Police workings

Magda was a garda, so she appreciated the weird workings of the Erinsborough Police force and its top detective, Mark Brennan. Brennan was notable for his unbending devotion to upholding the law (he chose to arrest his bride moments before their wedding ceremony because he suspected she had been involved in handling stolen goods).

I thought of Magda a couple of weeks ago when Levi, the current cop character, casually told a woman he had only just met about his borderline illegal behaviour in securing a couple of arrests. Even long after we were married, if I asked questions that strayed into the area of gardaí bending or breaking the rules, Magda would cut me dead by saying: “That would be an operational matter.”

Her depression became deeper and deeper. She slept less and less and was consumed with misery and hopelessness. She told me that the 20 minutes she spent watching Neighbours each day was the only part of the day that she felt happy.

This story doesn’t have a happy ending. Magda spent two months in the St John of God’s facility in Stillorgan, Co Dublin, failing to respond to a range of medications, until she finally found an opportunity and took her own life in December 2017, a few weeks after our son’s second birthday and a week after her own 37th birthday.

I still watch Neighbours every day. I always watch it with our son, who doesn’t understand a lot of it but thoroughly enjoys it. It was a particular comfort in the months after Magda’s death, living through a fog of grief and confusion.

Every time I watch Neighbours, I think of Magda. There was an episode a couple of years ago where one of the main characters, Sonya Rebecchi, died of cancer in the arms of her husband, Toadie. It was almost unbearably painful.

After nearly 30 years, it’s hard to conceive of a world without Neighbours, without that daily blast of Melbourne sunshine. As a show that specialises in characters making improbable returns from the dead, I’m desperately hoping that this is just another cliffhanger, and that Neighbours too will burst back to life in an implausible twist.

If you have been affected by any issues in this article, you can call:
– Samaritans' 24-hour listening service 116-123
– Parentline 1890-927277
– Aware 1800-804848
– The HSE's postnatal depression service on 021-4922083

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