Thursday, 19 March 2015

Neighbours - Nostalgia Overload

I don't watch Neighbours. It's not really aimed at grumpy men approaching middle age. It's aimed at what I used to be, grumpy teens approaching whatever age comes before middle age. It hasn't always been this way though. For a surprisingly long time I was completely hooked on it. This was not only because teenage boys who didn't want to look at Natalie Imbruglia in a bikini are a figment of your imagination, but because I was genuinely absorbed in its crappy, cliched storylines.

Imagine my delight then when I stumbled across a special programme on Channel 5 last night celebrating 30 years of it. Is it really that long since I was consumed with the pointless non-existence of Mike, Scott, Jane and Charlene? If you think that my obsession with all things Ramsay Street in the late 80's is a little bit peculiar then I would ask you what else was there to do at that time anyway? When I wasn't watching Neighbours I was pushing (or being pushed by over-bearing friends whose only actual discourse with me was to ask me the time every twenty minutes) to the local shop for a packet of pickled onion Monster Munch and a Supercan of Coke. Or hanging around on street corners to absolutely no effect. People complain about the fact that children nowadays don't have any sense of adventure since the invention of the X-Box, but before the X-Box those same people were terrorised by young people with absolutely nothing to do except bully and grope each other while kicking footballs at the nearest window.

Anyway, back to the 30th Anniversary special. I wasn't expecting much in terms of production values so I wasn't disappointed when I was confronted by a rather tired format of interviews with stars of the show past and present, interspersed with classic clips and all linked together terribly by Stefan Dennis and some lad who now plays the son of Scott and Charlene. He's about 47 or something. I'm not sure what the casting director was up to with this lad. When you look at him you don't automatically think Kylie and Jason. You think Brad Willis or some other two-dimensional Aussie beach bum. Is that racist? Feck off.

Despite the lack of any real innovation in the format there was nostalgia quite literally dripping from every pore of this production. Impressively, they had managed to snare interviews with the really huge ex-Neighbours stars which gave it all that extra bit of gravitas. Where I was expecting the woman who played Mrs Mangel we actualy got Mike, subsequently known as film icon Guy Pearce. And Charlene, who still manages to get away with hot-pants and some increasingly dodgy pop music well into her 40's under the ludicrous pseudonym Kylie Minogue. Then there is Margot Robbie, last seen alongside Will Smith in Focus but perhaps even more famous for regularly showing her bits in God-Awful and offensive idiot-fest The Wolf Of Wall Street. They even got Delta Bloody Goodrem to say a few words. And of course Jason Donovan, although his star has fallen slightly to the point where a few short years ago he played some of his 80's hits at Chicago Rock in St.Helens and Emma complained because he only did a few songs. I would have thought that a short Jason Donovan gig was a merciful thing, but what do I know?

What pleased me most about the interviews is that Pearce,Donovan, Minogue and all are as enthusiastic about the show now as I was then. I had expected Pearce in particular to flatly refuse to appear, or if he had to then I had thought he would tut mournfully about what he'd had to do to make a name for himself in the manner that George Michael talks about Wham! But he only had good things to say about Neighbours, as did Kylie, Jason and Margot. Craig MacLachlan didn't appear to be taking it as seriously but when did Henry ever take anything seriously? No Neighbours anniversary show would be complete without several gut-twanging shots of Henry wearing nothing but those old dungarees or, in one or two clips, running around in nothing at all. And all set against the backdrop of a montage of clips in which Ian Smith (Harold Bishop) shouted 'Oh Henry, how could you?'

Disappointingly, there was no sign of Natalie Imbruglia. Not only that, but while the superstar careers of Pearce, Minogue and Donovan were celebrated there was no mention of the torrid pop ventures of Dennis and MacLachlan. Don't It Make You Feel Good? Mona? Eighties pop classics both, right? Maybe this where I should bow down to the producer's better judgement and admit that these abominations are better off left to old episodes of TOTP2 with a music Hell theme. Imagine the fun that bloke off the radio could have delivering whithering quips about them over the top of their videos...

The phrase 'rocking the mullet' inevitably cropped up as Pearce and Donovan reminisced about their characters Mike and Scott, while Anne Charleston (Madge Bishop) rightly pointed out that Henry's was the worst because it was curly. You can have a mullet, and you can have curly hair, but even in the 80's I'm not sure that both at the same time was a good idea. Oh Henry, how could you? The girls didn't fare much better in the hair stakes though, with Daphne Clarke's short spikey number and Charlene's blonde frizzy effort. Did my sister and her friends genuinely try to copy this or was it just the case that any female with blonde hair in the 80's was inexorably doomed to have it frizz up like that? Either way it was no barnet for a self-respecting car mechanic.

One of the things about nostalgia like this is that it plays havoc with your memory. The clips were littered with characters who I recognised in some dark recess of my mind but couldn't bring fully to mind. Who was that best man at Joe Mangel's wedding? The female doctor who gave Des Clarke the awful news about Daphne's death (at which you cried, you baby). And who was that young lad who was the first person to bump into Harold in Ramsay Street when he returned from the dead? 'It was a little bit stretched' understated Smith by way of explanation of that particular storyline. On further inspection I discovered that it was Brett Stark who first met Harold. Stark is notable only for being a Stark long before Game Of Thrones' creator George RR Martin got the idea, and for having a sister called Danni who, for a time during the mid 90's, was in my opinion the only reason to watch television at all. If all you wanted from your youth was a pointless crush on someone unobtainable, Neighbours was your first stop. The actress who played her (Eliza Szonert) has faded into obscurity now, which might be a good thing. She couldn't possibly have retained such paralysing beauty and I'm not sure I could have coped with the shock of her deterioration. Annie Jones (Plain Jane Superbrain) hasn't aged all that well as evidenced here and in a recent episode of raucously stupid but brilliant Aussie drama Wentworth Prison based on the even more raucously stupid but brilliant Aussie drama Prisoner Cell Block H.

If you had asked me before last night's show how long I had been an avid Neighbours fan I would have probably estimated something around the five year mark. That just about covers my teenage years, taking me to the point where I'm too old for it and it is all a bit silly. Yet a segment on the unlikely affair between Doctor Karl Fletcher and a character called Sarah revealed that I had been a fan well into my 20's. Sarah, another classic and unrealistic megababe in the greatest of Neighbours traditions, appeared in the show between 1996 and 1999. Or to put it another way, her affair with the Doc took place somewhere between my 21st and 24th years on Earth. All of which means that I was a fan of Neighbours for something north of a decade. I took GCSE's, A-Levels, passed my driving test and represented my country at wheelchair basketball at junior level while all the while fretting about whether Susan would find out and what would happen if she did. Terrifyingly, Neighbours was the background noise to an alarmingly large chunk of my life! At least I stopped before Margot Robbie got involved in 2008. I had to be told by a bloke on the radio a few days before this show that she used to be in Neighbours. Does that mean I'm cured?

So what, other than babes in bikinis, held my interest for such a preposterously long time? It was alluded to on the show that Neighbours is a good deal less depressing than the English soaps. A few weeks ago I sat down to watch an episode of Eastenders to see if I could catch up with the storyline after several years of completely ignoring its existence. I thought it might make an interesting blog. But frankly 1,000 words on the inactivity of Danny Dyer's hugely punchable face and an absurd death scene by the previously excellent Timothy West was beyond me. I just couldn't do it, not if I wanted to avoid jumping in the bath and cutting up every major artery immediately afterwards. Neighbours was never like that. Nobody ever moped around wondering why their brother had slept with their mother's dog at The Arches. They talked of barbies, yewts (check spelling) and Bouncer (pronounced bee-ann-sah).

A staggering 20 million people in the UK alone watched Scott and Charlene get hitched in 1987 or 1988. Now the show attracts only 250,000 to 350,000 viewers which is either because my generation were freaks and the show was doomed when we became old freaks, or because of the invention of the X-Box again. Several million rubbish television channels showing a variety of boiled reality shite don't help either. Then there is the fact that nobody watches anything that isn't live at the time it is broadcast any more. It's all in the planner. Even suicide-fest Eastenders has suffered a dramatic drop in ratings in the Sky+ age.

If young people aren't watching in the same numbers now then it is probably their loss, but on the flip side of that they will never reach 39 and develop a headache trying to remember the name of Joe Mangel's best man at his wedding.

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