To Absent Neighbours…

It’s no exaggeration to say that there was a point in my life where nearly everything I knew about Australia, I’d learned from Neighbours. For my first fourteen years, Australia had always seemed unobtainably exotic; otherworldly, even. An upside-down place where our night was their day and our winter was their summer, literally half a world away.

To those of us who loved sport, particularly cricket and rugby league, it was also the place where touring England and GB sides would meet their nemesis in front of unforgiving locals, under unremitting sunshine, via an unsympathetic media. There was, of course the famous bridge, the opera house and (ahem) “Ayers Rock” – don’t @ me; this was still the mid-80s. Beyond that? Not so much, but let’s peer through the mists of time and have a look…

Monty Python, true to form, had been early to the ‘Straya’ culture party. So early, in fact that their two most passed-down Australian skits haven’t aged quite as well as their other Greatest Hits. The Australian Table Wines monologue pokes fun at “Cuvée…Wogga Wogga”, with another example being “compared favourably to a Welsh claret” but in reality, Australia was already becaming a major wine exporter, with Victoria’s Yarra Valley now as well-regarded as Napa Valley in California. The other sketch, about the Bruces of the Philosophy Department at the (fictitious) ‘University of Woolloomooloo’, would certainly now be prefaced with an “outdated references” warning, as you might expect for a script that, in 1970, lampooned the coarseness of certain Australians’ views towards minorities.

My own memory of “Down Under” references probably began with Down Under, the 1983 novelty hit by Men at Work, which ticked all the necessary stereotypes required to explain its popularity. Dame Edna Everage was a UK chat show favourite, albeit one where the ‘joke’ here was as much about female impersonation as the cutting satire about Australian attitudes. We’d had Mad Max but mostly, we’d struggled to separate its well-constructed dystopia from our naive presumptions of contemporary reality. And then there was the largely dull daytime saga, The Sullivans, a 1940s period piece that, for all we knew, might as well have been set in the (then) present-day.

Thanks to Attenborough et al., we knew about the kangaroos and the koalas and, of course, our light entertainers were all over the hats-with-corks imagery but thereafter, (and I’m having to say this), it was left to Rolf Harris to fill in the remaining gaps with his didgeridoo and evocative 4-inch brush paintings to give texture to UK audiences. Australia seemed to us a land of mostly comic stereotypes where even the real people behaved more like cartoon characters – I refer you to Merv Hughes or Angus Young. Beyond all this sideshow stuff, the rest of the country (the real bit) might as well have been a parallel universe.

Introduced to the UK in October 1986, Neighbours quickly became something of a cult daytime TV show; a mid-day ritual for your friends’ mums who didn’t work. It took another 14 months – and, reportedly, the daughter of BBC1’s Controller Michael Grade – before the day’s repeat showing was moved to the more teen-friendly 5:35pm slot. It was January 4th 1988, Angela Rippon’s Masterteam had been binned off and, finally, in that perfect slot between children’s telly and your Dad wanting the news on over tea, we had our chance to see what all the fuss was about.

Yes it was cheesy, yes the sets were as lightweight as the storylines and yes it was parochial and suburban. None of that mattered. In fact, this cocktail probably helped to make it so legendary. Suddenly, we saw a slice of what we considered to be ‘real’ Aussie life, neither historic nor futuristic; stripped of all the glossy tourist sights and scary wildlife. The weather might have been better than here and these neighbours looked nicer than ours but apart from that, it was, well, normal. And for that, with all its universal themes of boy-meets-girl, sibling rivalries and garden-fence-peering, we loved it.

It also furnished us with an extended vocabulary of dismissive terms. “Rack off!” was a classroom favourite, its raffish exoticism rather overshadowing any logical conclusion that it could only be a pre-watershed pseudo-curse rather than a synonym for the thing that we all knew it sounded a bit like. I’d hesitate to add the more authentic Aussie term “flamin’ galaah” on the grounds that it was more famously popularised by ‘Alf Stewart’ in the vastly inferior Home and Away.

Almost immediately, this tear in the zeitgeist unleashed a flurry of Antipodean soap stars upon our pop charts. First, Kylie, then Jason, then Stefan Dennis, then Craig MacLachlan, then Dannii, Natalie, and so on, and so on. It also seemed to fuel a boom in Aussie lager, as first Fosters and then Castlemaine XXXX adverts kept returning to the well of ‘outback’ stereotypes to shift their “amber nectar” onto the willing British palate. Equally incongruously, actual Australian favourite drinks like ‘VB’ and Toohey’s somehow managed not to cross the hemispheric divide.

Back in the world of ‘proper’ culture, Clive James, Nicole Kidman and Mel Gibson were all gaining screen time, imprinting themselves further on our national consciousness. Even the self-parodying Crocodile Dundee was proof that, for the first time outside a sports ground, it was necessary for the rest of the world to start taking Australians seriously.

By November 1988, the month of ‘Scott’ & ‘Charlene’s wedding, the whole UK seemed to be enchanted by their fairytale – even with its idiosyncratic Aussie soundtrack, provided by Angry Anderson. To many of us, this ‘water-cooler’ moment (although I don’t think we called it that, then) was peak Neighbours. Our two young lovers, having got hitched, promptly “moved up to Brisbane”, where Kylie & Jason could more conveniently continue their pop careers. ‘Mike’ had also got it together, with “Plain Jane Superbrain”, so all the carefully-built will-they-won’t-they jeopardy was lost. The cycle of character development had to start again with some new neighbours…

As my education moved from school, to college, to university, there was still more ‘Australiana’ to be gained from Melbourne’s greatest cultural export. I was still watching Neighbours, but “ironically” by now – obviously. Okay, I admit, not always ironically. The same was true of my viewing late-night re-runs of its harder-hitting Reg Grundy predecessor, Prisoner: Cell Block H. Even amongst all this ‘irony’, it was still easy to embrace the fandom. Ian Smith (‘Harold Bishop’ on Ramsay Street) had been a producer, writer and even ‘Ted Douglas’, Head of “The Department” [of Correction] in Prisoner. Elspeth Ballantyne, who’d played ‘Meg Morris’ (the “screw” with a heart) in “Priz” then turned up in ‘Erinsborough’ as ‘Cathy Alessi’ in the early 90s. As students and therefore twice-daily Neighbours viewers who considered ourselves immune to all its tweeness, we couldn’t have been more thrilled!

The 90s also saw the beginnings of the web, an explosion of TV channels and a general re-framing of our perceptions of Australia, as part of ‘our universe’. Or, as Michael Hutchence would have put it, “Two worlds collided”. In 1993, I spent a raucous evening with a bunch of real-life Aussies: jubilant cricket fans in a pub in Leeds, after a(nother) disappointing day supporting England, at Headingley. The following year, I hard-wired my bedroom TV to the living room satellite box so I could watch overnight coverage of the Boxing Day Ashes Test, live from the MCG, while in bed. Suddenly, the world seemed much smaller and more connected. The distance remained but the power of the new information super-highway to link the whole planet meant the ‘parallel universe’ was no more.

As the 90s wore on, Kylie became a superstar, Jason not quite so much. Guy Pearce (‘Mike Young’) started appearing in cult films – and later began to appear in bigger films. It felt like the continuing presence of the old ‘Ramsay Street’ gang would be like a reassuring blanket as we all headed towards respectable adulthood, away from the street itself.

I was fortunate to meet and befriend a few Aussies around this time, learning more about the country, understanding the many differences between life in Queensland and Victoria. I remember thinking how unsophisticated it would be to ask “do you watch Neighbours?”, so I didn’t – although secretly, I always wanted to. With each Ashes tour (cricket and rugby league), I amassed a little more knowledge, to the point where an insubstantial soap opera from a Melbourne suburb ceased to be a necessary source of information about this intriguing country that was also, somehow, described as a continent.

At the dawn of the millennium, Australia laid down a marker by having not quite the first but certainly the best of the New Year celebrations. In Sydney Harbour, there was a perfect, iconic backdrop for this young, 212 year-old nation to captivate the whole planet. Sydney was also months away from hosting the Olympic Games and it was clear that the opportunity to demand the world’s attention was not going to be missed. Thanks to rolling news channels, the ‘SYD|NYE’ celebrations have subsequently become a highlight of New Year’s Eve: truly ‘appointment television’ – at 1pm every December 31st if you’re in the UK.

With an ever-increasing roster of live TV coverage from the place (NRL matches, Big Bash League, news throws to Australian Correspondents, even I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!), it became easier to work out the time differences and transpose the seasons. For years, I’d taught myself: New York – five hours behind; California – eight. To that I could add: Sydney – nine hours ahead in our summer, eleven in winter. Melbourne – same; Brisbane – forget the daylight saving; Adelaide – half an hour behind Melbourne; Perth – three hours behind Sydney.

By now, the fact of simply knowing people who lived there seemed to make the concept of Australia as accessible in the mind as other, closer countries. And there was a growing number of them: emigrating friends, business contacts, returning visitors. With the rise of social media, the divide was narrowing further still. When we saw headlines of flooding in Queensland or wildfires in New South Wales, it was no longer abstract; it meant something to someone you know – often potentially life-threatening.

And so, when the opportunity arose for us to make our own Grand Tour of this beguiling place, it was impossible to resist. It’s never not a big deal to go that far so we felt we needed to tick some serious bucket-list stuff. We went in December 2017, timed perfectly to take in (you’ve guessed it) a Boxing Day Ashes Test in Melbourne, a New Year in Sydney Harbour and a bit of snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef. It was an unbelievable two-and-a-half weeks, perfectly deserving of the description “once-in-a-lifetime” – although I do hope that proves to be inaccurate.

What made it even more special was the connection I now had with the place that the 14 year-old me could never have imagined possible. It’s a wonderful thing to realise daydreams and experience sights that were once so seemingly unreachable. It’s quite another when the place itself is not so alien or remote. Melbourne is now amongst my favourite cities and the MCG is every bit as awesome as I wanted it to be but it ‘feels’ infinitely more connected to me because we’re fortunate to have friends who live there. Being greeted at a faraway airport by a familiar face was a memory just as special as everything we’d planned to do. Similarly, Sydney may be jaw-droppingly beautiful but the same sense of connection is also there, thanks to just being able to arrange a meal out with friends in Darling Harbour – or to simply ‘pop in’ to see other friends in the Blue Mountains.

We did as much as, I think, it was possible to do in those 17 days and, inevitably, there’s so much left to see. Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Uluru, Tasmania, Bondi Beach are all on the still-to-do list, as is one other glaring omission…

Disclaimer: You have to remember we had only five days in Melbourne and hadn’t hired a car. We landed on 23rd December and half that day was written off with jet-lag (if you know…you know!). The next day, Christmas Eve, was spent walking around the city. We’d obviously made plans for Christmas Day and we soaked up the summer sunshine of the (to Northern hemisphere eyes) counter-intuitive Australian Christmas. Boxing Day was spent at the “G”, with 90-odd thousand others, watching cricket. Our final morning was spent mooching about central Melbourne: the Sea Life Centre and the Eureka Tower, before we caught the train at Flinders Street Station, to Frankston, to meet up with our old adopted-Melburnian mate, who’d offered to drive us to Phillip Island, to see the Penguin Parade – something you simply have to do if you’re ever in Melbourne!

Have you spotted our omission yet? Sadly, we didn’t have time to venture out to Pin Oak Court – the real life name of ‘Ramsay Street’ – situated about eight miles east of the city centre. The closest I got to considering it was as we looked out over the sprawling suburbs from the top of the Eureka Tower. If I’m honest, I’d ‘moved on’ from Neighbours, years ago. It had served its purpose, both as adolescent entertainment and as a portal to another world. Thanks, in no small part, to the 1980s residents of ‘Erinsborough’, I was there, looking at it – sort of – from 975 feet up.

Looking eastwards from the top of Melbourne’s Eureka Tower. In the foreground is the MCG (with Day 2 of an Ashes Test being played). Beyond that, among Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, is Pin Oak Court – or ‘Ramsay Street’.

For many years, I loved watching Neighbours and I was so pleased to see all the old sentiments stirred in its final episode – there was no way I was going to miss that! I felt it was precisely the ‘victory lap’ that the show deserved. What became more important was the real legacy it left me – the door it opened to a fascinating land. And, thanks to the march of time and the increasing ability to connect every part the planet, even people on the other side of the world can be as much a part of your life as those who live in the same street.

That’s when good friends feel like close neighbours…

An album of our trip to Australia, via Singapore, can be found on my flickr page.