Cancellation of soap Neighbours and the love of dramas ‘down-under’

The cancellation of the hit Australian soap, Neighbours, came as a blow to fans of the show both down-under and in the UK. Bidding a fond farewell to the residents of Ramsay Street may be such sweet sorrow but, as Steve Cain discovers, we were hooked on Antipodean antics long before those Neighbours became good friends.

By Nigel Booth
Saturday, 6th August 2022, 12:45 pm
Cast members from the series  Neighbours, which has just ended after many years on TV (photo: Getty Images)
Cast members from the series Neighbours, which has just ended after many years on TV (photo: Getty Images)

After nearly 37 years and almost 9,000 episodes, longest-running drama series in Australian TV history, Neighbours was cancelled in July. It was one of the most popular and enduring in a long line of dramas from down-under. Here are some other memorable Aussie hits.

The Young Doctors, 1976-83

Romance, comedy and melodrama was injected to ensure longevity of this drama, set in the Albert Memorial Hospital. It followed goings-on among a group of young (and not so young) doctors and nurses and their families, friends and patients. In Australia, it ran five nights a week (clocking up almost 1,400 episodes) before being shown weekday afternoons in UK. Popular characters included Ada Simmonds, the hospital’s gossipy kiosk lady (played by Gwen Plumb, a veteran TV, theatre and radio actress) and Sister Grace Scott (played by Cornelia Frances, who also had starring roles in Sons and Daughters and Home and Away).

Home and Away cast members (photo: Getty Images)

Ratings success in Australia and also hugely popular in the UK, the Republic of Ireland, the Netherlands, Gibraltar, Greece and New Zealand, The Sullivans was a period drama series that told the story of a fictional middle-class Melbourne family and the effect that the events of World War Two had on their lives. Although it could often be slow and sentimental, it provided romance, conflict and characters that viewers cared about deeply, against the backdrop of the morality of the 1940s. When the adored star of the show, Grace Sullivan (played by Lorraine Bayly) was killed by a V1 bomb, mass mourning ensued.

Prisoner: Cell Block H, 1979-86

Deemed as ‘heavyweight and harrowing’ when it debuted in Australia, the series became a late-night cult classic in the UK, attracting millions of viewers, largely due to the wobbly scenery and sometimes hammy acting. Set in Wentworth Detention Centre, a fictional women’s prison, it was loosely based on the British drama Within These Walls. The cast of predominantly female characters comprised colourful criminals and sadistic warders such as top dog ‘Queen’ Bea Smith, aged poisoner Lizzie Birdsworth, firm but fair governor Erica Davidson and the terrifying Officer Joan Ferguson. The show’s theme tune, On The Inside (performed by Lynne Hamilton), reached number three in the UK singles charts in 1989.

A Country Practice, 1981-94

English cricketer Mike Atherton visited the set of TV soap 'Neighbours' during the Ashes tour of Australia, circa 1994 (photo: Getty Images)

Set around a small community hospital in Wandin Valley, New South Wales, run by Dr Elliott and Dr Brown, this warm-hearted (and occasionally corny) drama was a cosy favourite with audiences in Australia and here. Created as an antidote to the often violent police dramas that were extremely popular in 1970s Australia, it focused on people who were trying to help each other rather than those who were trying to hurt each other. Dominated by strong female characters including an independent vet, an ambitious doctor and the local busybody, and punctuated with contentious medical issues and romance in equal measure, the show successfully appealed to its target audience of housewives, stay-at-home mums and elderly widows.

Sons and Daughters, 1982-86

This feuding-families saga focused on the rivalry between the wealthier middle-class Hamilton family from Sydney and the poorer Palmers of Melbourne. A pair of long-lost separated twins, who later met and – unaware of the fact that they were actually brother and sister – fell in love, bridged the link between the two families. The undoubted star of the show was Patricia Hamilton (nicknamed Pat the Rat by viewers and portrayed with ruthless relish by Rowena Wallace) who ranted, raved, blackmailed and bitched her way through three sensational years on the soap.

Return to Eden, 1983 & 1986

Cast members from the Home & Away television show celebrating its 21st birthday (photo: Getty Images)

When Stephanie Harper, a plain-looking heiress, married Greg Marsden a former tennis champion several years her junior, she was unaware that he was involved in a torrid affair with her best friend, Jilly Stewart. During their honeymoon Greg pushed Stephanie into a crocodile infested river and she was subsequently attacked by one of the reptiles and presumed dead. Although severely disfigured, Stephanie survived and underwent extensive plastic surgery. Unrecognisable, she returned to Sydney as a changed woman with a completely new identity – Tara Welles – and made a return to Eden, the family home, where a fatal confrontation was played out. Originally broadcast as a three part mini-series, Return to Eden was such a triumph that it was resurrected as a fully-blown sensational soap opera to rival the likes of US super-soaps Dallas and Dynasty. It was cancelled after 22 episodes.

The Flying Doctors, 1986-93

Initially a mini-series, The Flying Doctors returned as an ongoing serial the following year. Revolving around the lifesaving efforts of the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia, based in the fictional town of Cooper’s Crossing, the drama was a success in several European countries including the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden. Here in the UK, it was aired on Saturday evenings and gained a loyal audience of 6 to 8 million viewers per episode. It was also repeated in its entirety on the satellite and cable channel, UK Gold.

Home and Away, 1988 onwards

Set in the fictional seaside town of Summer Bay, the series initially focused on Tom and Pippa Fletcher and their five foster children. It is the second longest-running Australian drama series, after Neighbours, and has been sold to more than eighty countries around the world. Not without controversy, Home and Away has featured many adult-themed storylines which have been criticised as inappropriate for its viewing demographic, which largely comprises teenagers. Nevertheless, it is the most awarded drama series at the Logie Awards in Australia, with a total of forty-six wins from 153 nominations. It has also won twelve Australian Writers’ Guild Awards and five Australian Directors Guild Awards. Only one original cast member remains in the show – Ray Meagher, who plays Alf Stewart, and holds the Guinness World Record for being the longest-serving actor in an Australian serial.