The final episode of Neighbors, an icon of Australian television for nearly four decades, aired this week.
- The National Film and Sound Archive has preserved the Neighbors episodes as important cultural artifacts
- The tapes containing approximately 6,500 episodes are stored in Canberra
- Curator Chris Arneil says the show marked the zeitgeist
But before this latest broadcast aired, archivists had already assigned the drama an official place in national history: on the shelves of a large warehouse in Canberra.
The National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) had recognized the unique value of the popular soap opera, which reflected the changes in suburban life during its 37 years of continuous broadcast on television screens in Australia and Britain.
Curator Chris Arneil said preserving this cultural record was a Herculean task.
“I think some people feel like television survives on its own, but it doesn’t,” he said.
During the show’s glory years in the 1990s and 2000s, episodes were filmed on magnetic tapes.
These tapes – approximately 6,500 episodes – are now stored at an NFSA site in the ACT industrial suburb of Mitchell.
“We received 10 pallets of material to be sorted,” Mr. Arneil said.
“There was literally a bee-like arrangement that worked, day and night: people around the clock were receiving the tapes cataloged in the collection.”
Do we really need to keep Neighbors?
In some ways, Neighbors episodes are like real-life neighbors: not everyone likes them.
But their impact on popular culture has been profound in many ways, including launching the careers of some of the nation’s theater and music stars.
Even younger Aussies – the generations that are perhaps more Netflix and cool than cold beer at Lassiters – may owe something to the fictional suburb of Erinsborough.
“People might scoff at the idea of a soap opera as cultural heritage, but soap operas and soap operas have been part of our culture for nearly a century,” Arneil said.
“If you like a TV show like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, it’s serialized TV, [with] origins in soap operas.”
Neighbors and its other soap opera cousins were also incredibly popular, with massive ratings that exceeded those of most TV shows today.
In Britain, the number of people tuning in to watch the antics of Ramsay Street was greater than the Australian population as a whole.
At its peak, one in eight Australians also watched the show.
“Imagine the shared memory Australians have of something like that,” Mr Arneil said.
“It’s amazing: 37 years of any TV show is a fantastic run.”
Ratings have faded but superfans remain loyal
The mass audiences of the past are no longer there for Neighbours.
Britain’s Channel 5 – whose licensing fees largely funded its production – pulled the show from its lineup this year, leading to its end.
Modern viewing habits are changing and Neighbors can’t compete with the online streaming giants.
But one of the show’s superfans, Tony Hamlyn, said that didn’t take away from its value.
“He’s not trying to be something he’s not, he’s not trying to be the first TV,” he said.
“It’s really adorable and it’s part of Australian history and culture.
“If the NFSA wants me to go through all the footage and catalog it for them, I’m willing to do that for free.”
Ramsay Street marked the nation’s zeitgeist
Soap operas may not be exact chronicles of Australian life, but they can be places where the zeitgeist sets in.
Mr. Arneil said that when fashion, music, cultural trends or social changes found their way into a soap opera scenario, the phenomenon was probably already common.
“Writers always have their eye on what’s going on in the real world,” he said.
“I say [Neighbours] had the first gay marriage on Australian television, shortly after the [marriage equality] plebiscite decision.
And if you watched Neighbors, especially as a teenager, chances are you had a crush or two with someone onscreen.
Mr Hamlyn said he was no exception.
“Oh my God, you can’t top Jason Donovan in the 80s, that was my ultimate crush!”