They’ve been married for more than 30 years, but Neighbours lovebirds Scott and Charlene still sing along to their romantic theme song.
As Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan return to Ramsay Street for the last time in tonight’s schmaltzy finale, their car stereo is blasting out Especially For You — the duo’s Christmas No1 hit from 1988.
That was the year the 19.6million British viewers tuned in to see tomboy mechanic Charlene Mitchell marry cub reporter and boy-next-door Scott Robinson — two million more than watched the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
If those numbers seem mind-boggling, the show’s popularity was even harder to fathom at the time. Britain loved it and we just couldn’t say why. Perhaps it was the contrast to the rainy reality of Coronation Street and the sheer shoutiness of EastEnders. Neighbours was not so much a soap, more a frothy bubble bath in the sunshine.
It arrived at the right time for BBC1, where controller Michael Grade was looking for low-budget content to fill daytime schedules that, until 1986, showed mainly the testcard.
Kylie and Jason won our hearts with a wedding watched by 19.6million viewers in 1988… and they’re reunited for the finale, playing the same characters married for over 30 years
Neighbours made perfect fare to fill a slot after the lunchtime news. When Grade’s teenage daughter told him that her classmates were bunking off lessons to watch it, he had a brainwave: repeat each day’s episode at 5.35pm, before the Six O’Clock News. A phenomenon was born.
As the show became a national obsession, my wife and I, like millions of other fans, would watch both daily episodes whenever possible — the lunchtime instalment and the teatime repeat. It was even more fun the second time. The craze for Neighbours was like the popularity of Sudoku in the 2010s. Trivial as it might seem now, for a few years life didn’t seem complete without it.
The theme tune by Tony Hatch was so pervasive and catchy that psychologists at Queen’s University, Belfast, carried out an experiment to see if babies in the womb recognised it. Researchers picked 70 expectant mums at the city’s maternity hospital, half of them avid fans of Neighbours. When the show’s sugary song was played, the babies whose mothers watched the show became more active, kicking and wriggling with recognition. Professor Peter Hopper claimed, ‘This is the first evidence we have of learning in a foetus.’
The double-bill finale today pays tribute to that song, playing the original recording by Barry Crocker in full with snatches of the eight other versions.
Future movie star: Guy Pearce, as MIke Young, with Annie Jones, who played his girlfriend Jane Harris
If you haven’t been following recent events in the fictional Melbourne suburb of Erinsborough, the swiftest of recaps will suffice. In a fit of wanderlust, most of the residents have decided to move and put their homes up for sale.
This provokes a fit of nostalgia in many former Neighbours, who flock back to see the old place for the last time and attend the wedding of lovable Toadie (Ryan Moloney) and his kooky bride Melanie (Lucinda Cowen, who has been in the show since 1987). One of those returning is cool dude Mike Young (Guy Pearce, one of many Neighbours debutants who went on to a stellar acting career).
Mike once had a crush on Charlene’s best friend, bespectacled ‘plain Jane super-brain’, Jane Harris (Annie Jones). Naturally the couple bump into each other and, naturally, Jane happens to have all the keys to the houses, so the duo embark on a nostalgia trip — sneaking through each front door in turn. Cue a cavalcade of clips.
Strangely, Neighbours was never that popular in Oz. Launched on the Seven Network in 1985 as a cosy alternative to the brutal drama of Prisoner: Cell Block H, it failed to find an audience and was axed after six months.
The rival Ten Network picked it up but had to rebuild the set — the old one had been torn down. The revived version was a modest hit but if it hadn’t been for the show’s explosive popularity overseas, it would have been cancelled long ago.
Heading for Hollywood: Margot played teenager Donna Freedman from 2008 to 2010 (left) and returned for the finale (right)
Instead, it proved so successful that a strictly-for-teens rival show, Home And Away, was born in 1989. Neighbours ran on BBC1 till 2007 when it was poached in a £300million deal by Channel 5 — where Home And Away also now airs.
Whichever era of Neighbours is your favourite, you’ll see it celebrated in the finale. Two of the series’ many pop stars, Natalie Imbruglia (Beth Brennan from 1992 to 1994) and Holly Valance (Flick Scully from 1999 to 2002), share memories on a park bench.
A less successful chart act was Stefan Dennis (who has been villainous Paul Robinson, six times married since appearing in the very first episode). Stefan recorded Don’t It Make You Feel Good in 1989. It reached No 16 in the UK — well done if you’ve forgotten it. I should be so lucky, lucky-lucky-lucky…
Watch out for cameos from Margot Robbie (Donna 2008-11) and a lovely moment in which Madge Bishop (Anne Charleston) reappears as a ghost. Her husband Harold Bishop (Ian Smith) was first written out in 1991 after being washed away at sea, and has made multiple returns since — not so much a ghost as undead.
A touching scene unfolds as Harold Bishop (Ian Smith) is visited by the ghost of his late wife Madge (Anne Charleston)
Natalie Imbruglia (left) and Holly Valance (right) played Beth and Flick in the soap before finding pop stardom
Many other Neighbours alumni sadly don’t appear, including Craig McLachlan, who played Charlene’s brother Henry. Hollywood A-listers Chris Hemsworth and Russell Crowe can’t make it either. But it’s Scott and Charlene we really want to see, and they don’t disappoint. She’s still wearing those dungarees. His hairline has receded so far, it’s almost reached his mullet.
In a delicious documentary after the final credits, casting director Jan Russ remembers how she first set eyes on the duo. ‘Jason first came in to audition and he came in his school uniform,’ she says. ‘The tie was a-squiff, it was a hot day, so it was that teenage boy, hot, smelly, you know!’
There was nothing whiffy about Miss Minogue. ‘She came in, she was a quiet little thing, she was like a little mouse. I looked at the monitor — oh, wow, there really is something special here.’
It really was special. We get to relive their chemistry one last time. Especially for us, you might say!
- Neighbours: The Finale, 9pm tonight, C5