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Strewth! 20 years of Neighbours

TOMORROW is the 20th Anniversary of Neighbours, the popular daytime soap that launched the careers of Kylie Minogue, Russell Crowe and Natalie Imbruglia. EMILY McCARRICK looks back over the show's history from its humble beginnings and wobbly sets to Kylie and Jason's unforgettable wedding and Bouncer the dog's bizarre dream sequence.

ECHOING the words of the annoyingly catchy theme tune, good Neighbours really have become good friends for more than three million British viewers.But while it might now be shown in more than 50 countries worldwide, the Australian soap set in the fictional Melbourne suburb of Erinsborough, had difficult beginnings.

It was axed by Australia's Channel Seven after 171 episodes and was consigned to the scrap heap until it was given a reprieve when the rights were bought up by rival channel Channel 10.But even then, it had to start from scratch with a totally new look when Channel Seven burned all the sets so their rivals couldn't have them.The winning formula was dreamed up by Reg Watson, who had a track record for working on successful soaps both down-under and in the UK.

His recipe was simple: it was just three very different families – the Ramsays, the Robinsons and the Clarkes – living in the same street. But it was actually too simple, and Reg ended up writing 20 drafts of the first script in a bid to get the balance between humour and drama, friendliness and rivalry just right.

The next problem was finding a street to film in, but when a location scout spotted a cul-de-sac in a suburb of Melbourne not far from the studios, the makers of neighbours knew they had found Ramsay Street.

They asked each of the owners of the houses in the street if they would mind a few months' inconvenience, as no one expected neighbours to last for very long. Now not only do the owners of those houses have camera crews in their front gardens every week but they also have tourists from all over the world coming to have a look.

When it came to casting the residents of Ramsay Street, the producers picked a mix of well-known faces like Alan Dale (Jim Robinson) and Anne Haddy (Helen Daniels) with younger unknown actors like Elaine Smith (Daphne) and on March 18, 1985, Australians got their first look at their new neighbours.

But even with a new timeslot and an expensive advertising campaign, Neighbours failed to bring in the viewers. The problem was that people in Australia's biggest city, Sydney, weren't tuning in.

Traditionally, there has always been rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, the city where neighbours is made, and Sydneysiders didn't want to watch a show from a rival city, so Channel 10 decided to promote the show in Sydney by flying the cast there every weekend to make personal appearances and meet the public.

Australian viewing figures gradually crept up. However, they couldn't have predicted how successful the show would be abroad.

Neighbours was bought by the BBC to rev up their daytime schedule and the soap was shown in the UK for the first time on October 27, 1986 and though it was only aired in the morning and at lunchtimes, it still attracted a loyal audience.

During the school holidays the figures swelled dramatically as school kids got hooked on the light-hearted mix of harmless pranks, mini crises, and minute romances. And when the school days finished, thousands of students watched in their lunch hours or even skipped school to see key episodes.

When the BBC bought it to be shown here, they weren't confident of its success. But it didn't take long for Neighbours' popularity to take hold in the UK and in 1987 the story goes that BBC boss Michael Grade was persuaded to give it a repeat slot at 5.35pm by his daughter Alison, who said her school friends loved it.Kylie and Jason may have been the ultimate boy and girl-next-door for millions of viewers right around the world, but, of course, it wasn't just these two who signalled the soap's success.

The sunny location scenes and the lack of poverty certainly contrasted with the usual British fare of gritty, grimy soaps like Coronation Street and Eastenders. Some experts also claimed that Neighbours' commitment to family values had particular resonance for a society just starting to come to terms with Aids. Whether or not that's true, the after-school time slot certainly helped and Neighbours became the perfect way to relax from the day into the evening for millions of UK viewers.

It's impossible to single out any one particular reason why Neighbours has been so spectacularly successful, but whatever the recipe's secret ingredient is, it's certainly a magic blend.

Naturally, when anything gets as much attention as Neighbours has had, not all of it will be appreciative. Some claimed the plots were silly and unrealistic, others said that it set a bad example for teenagers who were rarely seen doing their homework, and even the TV watchdogs criticised it for failing to feature any racial minorities – and showing too many adults drinking alcohol.

All the criticisms were taken on board which made neighbours a stronger show that continued to find the international pulse and create storylines for the never-ending supply of engaging characters. Whatever the secret formula, the remarkable feature of the show is the sheer cross-section of its fans – from royalty (rumoured to include the late Princess Diana and the Queen Mother) to university students and mums and kids at home.

The reason for the show's success will no doubt always remain a mystery but because it never fails to entertain, you can bet that neighbours will be with us for quite some time to come.

Memorable moments

* Scott and Charlene's wedding (right). Thought by many to be Neighbours' defining episode, it went out during the show's heyday in 1987. It cemented Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue's position as bona fide stars.

* Bouncer's wedding. The infamous dream sequence had the show's most famous pet reminiscing about Kerry and Joe's wedding before wondering what it would be like to marry his dog neighbour Rosie.

* Kerry's death. One of the most unexpected deaths the show has ever had. Kerry, daughter of Harold and wife of Joe Mangle, was shot by a poacher's stray bullet when the family went for a country walk. She also lost the baby she was carrying.

* Dr Karl and Susan split. Even the most solid couples aren't safe in soapland and Karl and Susan Kennedy were no exception. In 1998 their son Bill discovered his father was having an affair with his secretary. Karl got an impressive slap from Susan.

* Paul Robinson's return. At the beginning of 2005 Paul Robinson, played by Stefan Dennis, returned to Ramsay Street after 11 years. A stint in prison seemed to have left him a changed man but he was soon up to his old tricks.

What do you think?

WE asked shoppers at The Bridges for their favourite Neighbours' moments of the last 20 years.

Jan Madge, Downhill:

"I love Neighbours, I can still remember the episode when Scott and Charlene got married and the song they played. Mark Little who played Joe Mangle is also a family friend, we got to know him when he was performing at the Empire."

Joe Madge, Downhill:

"I love all of the soaps, especially Neighbours. I've been watching it since it first started but it is funny to think that it has been going for 20 years."

Dave Common, Pennywell:

"Everyone remembers Scott and Charlene's wedding, that was a real Neighbours moment!"

Paul and Claire Edmed, Whitburn:

"I can remember Susan's breakdown and when Karl had the affair," says Claire, "I don't really have time to watch it these days but I certainly tuned in when I was younger."

Paul added: "I grew up in South Africa so I didn't see Neighbours until I moved over here, it's a really British thing, I think it's more popular in the UK than it is in Australia."

Karen Diamond, South Shields:

"I can't believe it has lasted 20 years, I hate it. I'm much more into British soaps like Hollyoaks."

Neighbours who became good friends

Alan Dale

Made Neighbours' Jim Robinson one of the best-known soap characters of all time during his eight years there. When he left the show in 1993 he became a jobbing actor in America before landing another memorable role as Caleb Nichol in hit teen drama The OC.

Jason Donovan

Played Scott Robinson for three years until 1989 when he launched a successful pop career. Also began an auspicious theatre career, with his role in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which continues to this day.

Delta Goodrem

Joined Neighbours having already signed a record deal – the role of Nina Tucker was written especially to promote her debut single Born To Try which featured heavily in the show. Delta went on to have two hit albums and embark on a high profile relationship with Brian McFadden.

Natalie Imbruglia

Played Beth Brennan for five years before launching a pop career. Natalie has only released three albums during what's been a slow but steady eight-year music career. She returned to acting briefly in 2003 to star opposite Rowan Atkinson in the film Johnny English.

Daniel Macpherson

After playing surfing hunk Joel Samuels for four years Daniel came to the UK where he trod the boards opposite Jonathan Wilkes in Godspell. Then he began a successful year-long run in The Bill as PC Cameron Tait. Returned to Australia this year to host their version of The X Factor.

Kylie Minogue

After making her name playing Charlene Mitchell for two years, Kylie went on to a so-so acting career in movies such as The Delinquents, Street Fighter and Moulin Rouge. Better known for her 17-year pop career.

Guy Pearce

Guy played Mike Young for three years before briefly joining rival soap Home & Away in 1991. His role as a drag queen in The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert kick-started a career in Hollywood which has included the films LA Confidential, Memento and the forthcoming Death Defying Acts.

Jesse Spencer

Jesse became a heart-throb to millions as Billy Kennedy but left in 2000 after six years to pursue varying roles in film and TV. He's now based in LA where he is starring in the hit Hugh Laurie drama House, currently showing on Five.

Holly Valance

Holly had a brief flirtation with a pop career after playing Flick Scully for three years. Kiss Kiss was a big hit but her two albums failed to make much of an impression and she's now returned to acting. Can currently be seen in the 0800 Reverse adverts but also has two films coming out.

Russell Crowe

Russell appeared in Neighbours for four episodes in 1987 playing Kenny Larkin. Like many Neighbours stars he went on to a music career with his band 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts, but he also became one of the biggest film stars in the world, most recently starring in Ron Howard's Cinderella Man.