In 1985 the Australian soap opera Neighbours was established mainly, I think, to depict the existential horror of living in suburbia. (We do something similar here at The Irish Times.) It’s set on Ramsay Street, an antipodean fin-de-siecle cul-de-sac, the doomed denizens of which have seen it all: adultery, betrayal, murder, double murder, double denim, people falling to their deaths from cliffs (they should put up a fence), hot-air-balloon crashes, secret love children, secret love parents, evil twins, morally neutral twins, complicated love geometry, plot-enhancing amnesia, Natalie Imbruglia, the sensible financial planning of Japanese business mogul Mr Udagawa, Bouncer’s dream (in a burst of fevered imagination, Neighbours once featured a labrador’s dream) and, most terrifying of all, Craig McLachlan’s pop single Mona. (“Listen to my heart go bumpity bump,” McLachlan sang to Mona, who I hope was his cardiologist.)
Ramsay Street, much like Rathgar or Blackrock, is a troubled place that discourages hope. And yet, unlike soap operas closer to home, the residents always seem remarkably cheery and upbeat in the face of their Sisyphean travails. I’ve always liked that about Neighbours. It’s as though they see their suffering as part of a bigger utopian project. It’s there in the theme song’s evocation of a perfectible society: “Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours, with a little understanding you can find the perfect blend.” Yes, these words aren’t just something to sing softly and passive-aggressively when waving at your own neighbours, although this is a fun thing to do. They also imply that time has a progressive trajectory. They imply that a day will come when all the peoples of Ramsay Street, their consciousness sufficiently raised by life’s ceaseless torments, will blend into one perfect platonic neighbourhood and history will end. It’s basically Marxism.
On EastEnders you get Phil Mitchell, whose voice is always the same angry, asthmatic wheeze. Neighbours has Harold Bishop, whose every line of dialogue evokes the words ‘he chuckled’
Compare this with the EastEnders theme, a lumpen funeral march bonging away over a twirling Ordnance Survey map of London. The lyrics aren’t as good: “Dush, dush, dush-dush-dush, dush, Duh duh-duh-duh-duh, duh, duh!” etc. This theme suggests that life is a mirthless struggle preceding eternal silence in an empty void. I’m not just reading into things. I’ve been to London. “Life is a mirthless struggle preceding eternal silence in an empty void” is a direct quote I took from an estate agent’s window. I think it’s also in the Tory election manifesto.
And let’s compare classic characters from both shows. On EastEnders you get Phil Mitchell, a scowling anthropomorphic root vegetable. Whether he’s threatening to disown his sister for colluding with drug dealers, or telling his son, who is in a drug-induced coma, that he loves him (he does both this week) his voice is the same angry, asthmatic wheeze. In contrast, Neighbours has Harold Bishop, a twinkly eyed middlebrow aesthete whose every line of dialogue evokes the words “he chuckled” or “he chortled”, no matter what the content. (“I’ve killed again,” chuckled Harold Bishop; “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” chortled Harold Bishop, chucklingly). Indeed, Harold’s own backstory reflects the strange and unremitting optimism of Neighbours. In 1992 he was swept out to sea, where he died a watery death. However, he got better. He only had a touch of death. A mild dose. He wasn’t drowning, merely waving. He soon returned to the show with amnesia, the most common neurological condition on Ramsay Street.
And so it is that in Neighbours’ final episodes, on RTÉ2 this week, we have Harold spraying two warring love rivals with his garden hose to stop their lusty fisticuffs. You wouldn’t see Phil Mitchell whimsically dousing people with his garden hose, unless of course that’s a horrible euphemism for Phil doing sex things. And, actually, you might see that on EastEnders, joyless procreation being a reliable staple of that Hobbesian nightmare.
Now, on Ramsay Street, after 37 years, the time of ascension is at hand. The stoical residents’ struggles are finally coming to an end and the chosen are about to achieve the “perfect blend” foretold in song. There is to be one more wedding, the nuptials of Mel (she collects porcelain pigs) and Toadie (he collects disastrous weddings). His two previous weddings involved a fatal gas explosion and him driving his bride off a cliff. It’s brave of him to keep trying, really.
A stranger arrives on a motorbike. It’s actually the Hollywood superstar Guy Pearce, aka hunky mulleted runaway Mike Young. I remember him from the 1980s, when my generation couldn’t help but watch Neighbours. Plain Jane Superbrain, his first love (who has a perfectly normal Australian name), has recently returned to the show, and he has come to woo her, to the consternation of Clive, who also wishes to woo Plain Jane Superbrain but hasn’t been in LA Confidential. He gets drunk and fights Mike, which, as I’ve said, causes Harold to spray them with his hose. This has now been ruined for me by thoughts of Phil Mitchell. Plain Jane Superbrain brings Mike on a voyeuristic tour of each house on the street, where they wax nostalgic and have flashbacks to old episodes. We even see Mrs Mangel, a classic Neighbours character whom I used to think of as an older woman but can now see was young enough to be my child.
Scott and Charlene seem to have been happily married since they left the programme, in the late 1980s. This wouldn’t have happened had they stayed on Ramsay Street, because of all the infidelity, brain injury and cliff-related deaths
There’s a blast of music. It’s Especially for You, a ballad of romantic exceptionalism sung by Kylie and Jason, aka Scott and Charlene, whose Neighbours wedding, in 1987, involved nobody being exploded or driven off a cliff. They have returned for the finale! It seems that they’ve been happily married since they left the programme in the late 1980s. This probably wouldn’t have happened had they stayed on Ramsay Street, because of the high rates of infidelity, brain injury and cliff-related deaths. (Someone should look into that.)
Plain Jane Superbrain greets them both with joy. So does Mike, but the producers have taken the brave decision never to feature Guy Pearce and Kylie and Jason in the same shot. Perhaps they’re saying something like: “Even when we’re together, we are apart.” There are other cameos from other famous Neighbours alumni. Each character recalls years gone by, probably because they have trauma-induced PTSD, but a chirpy Australian version of it.
There’s a subplot about them all compiling a big book about the history of the street. It doesn’t look big enough to be honest. Susan Kennedy (Jackie Woodburn), who’s been on the show so long she’s possibly forgotten it is a show, spends an episode trying to think up something conclusive to write in it. She wanders into the throng of wedding guests — most of whom are swiftly coupling up in time for the rapture — reciting a fourth-wall-breaking tribute to the show itself. It’s a bit like Prospero at the end of The Tempest, except Prospero doesn’t have to be taken away and deprogrammed afterwards.
Then a balloon flies into the air and we go with it, looking down on them all from on high. Yes, we are in a balloon now, and that’s it for Ramsay Street. They could have gone out with an explosion or a plane crash or having each of them accidentally falling off that cliff one by one. They could have ended with the whole run being revealed to have been another of Bouncer’s dreams (still plausible). But it’s probably better this way, imagining them still there on a Ramsay Street that’s perfected and untouched by horror. These good neighbours had, after all, become good friends.