I WAS speaking to ex-Neighbours actor Elaine Smith the other day. Yes,
Daphne. ``Ask them what happened to my pink velor couch," she commanded. ``I
miss it." So I do. I ask Neighbors' publicist, Heather Nette. She stalls for
time, pulling out some archival photographs.
The school teacher, Dorothy Burke, had a home like my aunt and uncle's. Mrs
Mangles could have borrowed her faux antique furniture and lace tablecloths from
my grandmother. I suppose that is the point.
As Bill Searle, the executive producer of Neighbours, says later: ``The whole
show is familiar to the viewer, including the sets. And that is a large part of
why it has endured."
The attention to detail in these old sets is haunting. Wedding photographs on
white doilies, Italianate portraits in oval gold frames, and cream lamp shades
with scalloped rims are suburban icons that lend Neighbours its authenticity.
Scott Bird, set designer for the show, says: ``It can be very rewarding to come
up with something that personally you might find very ugly but is appropriate
to the character. That is the challenge."
Dorothy Burke (Maggie Dence) was a well-travelled school teacher. Her Ramsay
Street home was a perfect example of the character-driven interior. Tribal
masks and kilims were the backdrop for an eclectic mix of terracotta pots, gold
Buddhas and Oriental statues.
Scott explains that the set was designed to ``give the impression that she
was a classically educated traveller. The artefacts act as flags for the
audience, to flesh out the character". As for interior trends, it was way ahead
of its time.
Scott is currently working on new sets for Neighbours, updating the
interiors. ``The producers would like to see a lot more color in the show," he
says. ``It has started to become a bit too beige. We have new cameras.
Previously bright colors would either bleed or reflect off people's faces.
They'd look like aliens. Now I can use virtually any color I like."
We have a look over one such set, with its burnt yellow walls, mauve trim and
butterfly print door. The Mexican candlestick and mirror, and stainless steel
cone vase are artefacts that the resident, Mark, brought home with him from
Mexico. The contemporary feel of this set is again related to the characters,
Ren (Raelee Hill) and Mark (Bruce Samazan). They are younger, less conservative,
and Ren is ``a hippy fashion designer".
But Scott stresses that much of the show's appeal lies in the sets being the
types of houses that the audience are familiar with, and so ``are not the type
you are going to find in interior magazines. It is not a fantasy show". Bill
Searle says: ``The show has to update itself as it goes along, not
dramatically, but as a response to a changing audience" and this new set
reflects that outlook.
Things have not changed too much in Ramsay Street in the past 10 years. Kylie
and Jason have moved out. Melissa and Bruce have moved in. But the homes
themselves have altered very little. Scott shares a trade secret.
``Sometimes new producers come in. They have their ideas and they'd like to
change something. If there is no screen or scripted reason for change, then it
can just happen overnight. The home is repainted and refurnished and everybody
walks in the next day as if nothing happened."
Enough stalling Heather. ``Where's the couch?" She smiles and nods to Scott.
``Follow me," he says. We go upstairs to the general props store. No couch.
The outside broadcast prop cage. No couch. We call in the props manager. Still
no couch! Tragically, it seems the pink couch is lost; auctioned off or
Whatever its present state, it will remain a cultural icon to all those who
have seen it sat upon. It represents an Australian dream; to own your own home,
on your own block of land. The barbeque flame still flickers in Ramsay Street.