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The Sydney Morning Herald

WHAT A SOAP BUSTER |

Author: By TONY SQUIRES
Date: 02/07/1989
Words: 1612
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: The Guide
Page: 1
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 simple-but-satisfying basket.

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 of Australia."

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 was canned.

"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 Neighbours go'."

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 show".

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 television.

"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 way possible."

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 music.

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 ones."

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.

 
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