DON Battye, executive producer of Neighbours, quite likes the
temporary Grundy Organisation office in Artarmon. It's cosy, he says, with
everybody nestled close together.
The feeling is very much like that of his super-successful product, which
has been slapped with a "comfortable" sticker and put into the
Neighbours is 1,000 episodes old this week, a handsome age for a soap
guaranteed not to irritate the skin. But some are irritated. Despite the fact
that Neighbours occasionally rates its head off and always wins a healthy slice
of the market, it's often difficult to find anyone who'll admit they watch the
show. (Apart from the Queen Mum, of course.)
In the United Kingdom the show has become a phenomenon. It's watched by
more than 24 million people, and public appearances by cast members elicit
hysterical responses. But the program is still ritually roasted at home.
"It is without doubt the most successful television product ever to come
out of the country - by sheer numbers of viewers," Battye says of the show that
is seen also in France, Germany, Belgium, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Sweden,
Malaya, the Netherlands and Spain.
"That's got to say something for it, despite the knockers that we have
here. I think it's the tall poppy syndrome, which is unfortunately still typical
The knocker's view goes a little like this. The show is pap. It is as
bland as a lump of beancurd and just as difficult to swallow. It's Eastenders
without the bad weather and bad problems.
On the positive side, there's this: the show is pap. It is as bland as a
lump of beancurd and just as easy to swallow. Children under two can sing
snatches of the theme song and recognise the characters. It has the ability to
make addicts of the most unlikely people.
Battye looks like a TV exec, with his dark suit and overflowing ashtray.
With him in his office is Ray Kolle, the show's script supervisor since it began
on Channel Ten in 1986. The softly spoken Kolle has the obligatory writer's
cardigan covering his ample frame.
Talking about their famous product, they are relaxed and in complete
control. It wasn't always this easy.
Neighbours, the creation of soapie king Reg Watson, opened on Channel
Seven in 1985. After 171 episodes, running in an afternoon timeslot, the show
"Reg Watson and (Grundy chief executive) Ian Holmes had enormous faith in
it," says Battye. "They thought it would be a tragedy for it to cease to exist."
So Ten was approached and Neighbours got a pardon. But by April 1986, the
axe was again poised over Ramsay Street. It seemed that the Sydney market wasn't
interested in watching a program made in Melbourne.
For the first four months on Ten Neighbours failed to reach double figures
in ratings. It had moved into the 7pm timeslot vacated by old faithful M*A*S*H,
which had always pulled ratings in the high teens.
"I will never forget it," says Ten's former director of publicity Brian
Walsh. "It was April 1986. George Brown (then head of the network) called me
into his office and said, 'I hate to tell you this Walshie ... mate, I'm letting
Walsh pleaded for, and won, a four-week stay of execution and put the
publicity machine into overdrive. The cast members were flown to Sydney each
Friday to make shopping centre appearances in what the network considered was
the heartland of their audience - the western suburbs. It was mayhem.
Walsh then got front-page tabloid coverage for the filming of an episode
on Manly beach featuring a romantic kiss with "two kids who had just started on
The headlines screamed: "Steamy teen sex scene to rock Sydney" and went on
to describe the "sizzling on-screen affair" between - you guessed it - Jason
Donovan and Kylie Minogue. Neighbours had come in from the cold.
"We also had guest artists like Leanne Edelsten, who was in the news at
the time, and Warwick Capper, who we had to train for two days to say 'Yes,
thank you very much, I'll have a cup of coffee'."
By the end of May 1986, the ratings had reached 14 in Sydney, and they
just got better.
Battye maintains that the timeslot was the chief reason for the show's
failure on Seven.
"It was too early because it's a family show, not just a young person's
show," he says. "Seven o'clock was the secret. It's the sort of slot where mums
are still preparing the food but they're toward the end of it so they can hear
(the television) even if they can't see it, and the kids are watching. The show
doesn't put either group (parents or children) at ill-ease and they're able to
watch it together."
The hysteria that accompanied the popularity of Neighbours in England
surprised Grundy executives, but didn't influence the content of the
program(except that Nell Mangel left Ramsay Street to go to England and Harold
Bishop has apparently inherited property in Scotland).
"Absolutely not," says Battye. "That would kill it stone dead in all
markets. The reason the show's successful is because of what it is. If you start
fiddling it goes down the drain."
The soap's international success has somewhat opened up the market for
other Australian television products. These days, when flicking through copies
of the best-selling British teen magazine Smash Hits, the letters from readers
invariably speak of their "lerv for Kylie, Jason, Neighbours and Home and Away",
a soap Seven hasn't let slip out of its grasp.
Don Battye is more circumspect.
"While I suppose one has to say it's brought Australian productions more
into the limelight, I don't know that anything since Neighbours has taken off
overseas because of Neighbours ... yet. I would say that in general terms it
will have an effect. I know from Grundy's point of view, it's put the name of
the company in very high profile."
Television executives from Europe have visited Grundy, however, to study
the way the production is put together. They are impressed by the speed with
which the five half-hour shows are compiled each week.
"The method is an Australian thing and that goes right back to radio
drama," says Battye. "It was bound to the economy of doing things here. We
couldn't afford to take longer. The population was not big enough to pay for the
detailed production that overseas things had. Sadly, it's exactly the same with
"There are still only 16 million people and to make something that's going
to pay for itself here, you've got to be able to do it in the most efficient
Economy wasn't on anybody's mind last week at the lavish celebration bash
at Network Ten in Melbourne, which also served as a backdrop for a special
tribute to Neighbours that will be screened next week.
Between courses, young stars fought to get to the microphone to belt out a
song, perhaps with their minds bouncing with thoughts of being mobbed outside a
Stock Aitken and Waterman studio in London.
One has to admit that there is talent in this area. Linda Hartley (Kerry
Bishop) and Mark Stevens (Nick Page) are both strong singers. Stevens arrived at
Neighbours from Johnny Young's Young Talent Team, so his background is in
But it is more likely that Craig McLachlan will be the next on the Kylie
and Jason launch pad. McLachlan has the image - golden locks, blue eyes and
alarming pecs, which he displays in two out of every three of his scenes. He can
also play the guitar and is recording an album with his band, the Y-Fronts.
Battye and Kolle maintain that the loss of stars such as Donovan and
Minogue hasn't affected the show.
"I'm not putting Kylie and Jason down one scrap, but the secret of the
success of the show wasn't just them," says Battye. "As individuals they have
taken off, but I don't think Kylie and Jason were the reason for the show
working in the first place."
"The show is very much an ensemble piece," says Kolle. "The show adapts
(to the loss of stars)."
Neighbours hasn't stumbled. It has simply trudged along, following its
successful formula of presenting the average.
"This is an average family in an average street," says Battye. "Let's face
it, it's a court, a dead-end street, it doesn't go anywhere. It's very much a
community. Frankly, if you - in that one street - had somebody murdered,
somebody with AIDS, somebody was an alcoholic, and one of the kids on drugs,
you'd end up (with something) as outrageous as Peyton Place.
"That's not what you'd call an average court. Most people haven't got
AIDS, aren't alcoholics or use drugs. It would be ridiculous to have those
things because they don't reflect an average surburb. We don't want to offend
people, but we have dealt with issues ... moral issues, not the large social
Still, as bizarre as any Peyton Place plotline is the fact that on Ramsay
Street an incredibly average man with the proverbial face of a knee attracts all
the most gorgeous women. Perhaps we will learn the secret to Des Clarke (a
personal favourite played by Paul Keane) by episode 2,000.