Ask just about any Neighbours fan when the soap’s golden era was, and they’ll get all misty eyed as they reminisce about that first flush of mainstream success the show enjoyed in the late 80s.
It’s when we met the Ramsays and Robinsons, got whipped up in the romance of Scott and Charlene, hated Mrs Mangel but fancied her dowdy granddaughter Jane, and laughed along to the “larrikin” japes of Des and Clive.
Some might even fondly remember Jim dying while upending a bowl of fruit, one solitary orange falling onto his limp torso (just me then).
But I actually think the real golden era of Neighbours came a few years later, about 1994 to 1996 in UK terms, when Neighbours was still pretty big but already way past its peak, no longer pumping out future pop stars and instead beginning the slow descent into unfeasible suburban banality with aplomb. Just look at these credits and see how warm they make you feel.
This was the era of truly ridiculous Neighbours, where a man could go from school janitor to head of an international hotel corporation in an instant (Phil Martin), where a man’s grief over his wife’s death led to full blown alcoholism in about a day and was cured a day later (Phil Martin), where a man could live a mysterious double life as a leading author of romantic novels under a female alias (Phil Martin) and start a barbershop quartet in his newsagent (yep, Phil Martin).
Religious conversions, bizarre cults, lame teen rebellion and secret pasta sauce recipes; Neighbours wanted to be sensational but it was always just silly instead.
But who were the memorable characters in this forgotten era?
Colin Taylor (and twin brother Alf):
Came into the show working in Phil’s newsagent, which was a natural career progression for Phil after running Lassiters. Colin was pompous and irritating, a pastiche of a middle class bore who looked a lot like a paedophile. Colin actor Frank Bren also played his identical twin Alf, the more go-getting, handsome one, who turned out to be gay.
It’s a dubious testament to Neighbours’ multiculturalism that this bitpart Hindu character, who also worked in Phil’s newsagent (the Westfield of Erinsborough), was probably Neighbours’ most rounded ever ethnic character. Nevertheless, he didn’t do much more than perform in Phil’s barbershop quartet and have a few fish out of water misunderstandings that might have made it into Short Circuit 2.
Played by one of Pugwall’s band, Michael Martin was nothing short of pure evil, playing the angelic son on his return from boarding school, while simultaneously turning hated stepmum (and weird guilty pleasure) Julie into an alcoholic, and convincing everyone she had gone mad. Michael was one of Neighbours’ few convincing bad guys, who probably arbitrarily converted to being good at a later date (can’t remember).
Luke was actually a total dweeb who postured around the soap doing nothing, living in that weird house all the young randoms seem to be put in when they don’t know what else to do with them. Luke had a cancer scare but even that didn’t make him interesting. His only decent moment was when he ‘haunted’ the recreation centre, on a secret return from his apparent new life in Japan. Appearing at the end of an episode, when the haunting was supposed to be terrifying us, Luke stood on the roof of the rec’s old open top bus and smoked a cigar nonchalantly, for no apparent reason.
Joined the soap pretending to be a French chef to get a job at the coffee shop, Marcel Amadeu “a votre service”. Mark had a religious conversion after nearly been killed by a kitchen knife accident, and in the end jilted strumpet Annalise to become a priest. He also changed the name of the café to The Holy Roll.
Wayne Duncan: The aforementioned Wayne was a hunky teacher at Erinsborough High, who was notable for having a top lip that never moved when he spoke. This always made you think of that other long haired titan of the era, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder.
One word: eyebrows
Lou is still in Neighbours now, doing nothing and wearing a tea towel over his shoulder, a sad, overweight shadow of his former self. When Lou first arrived he was an Australian Burt Reynolds, all cigars and smarm and charm. He dated Madge and was revealed to have been the school bully who made Harold Bishop’s life hell, prompting the end of his amnesia as he suddenly recalled Lou calling him “jelly belly”. Also noteworthy for looking exactly like Hoggle from Labyrinth.
But the creepiest thing of all about early Lou was that he dated…
Annalise arrived as Lou’s slutty schoolgirl girlfriend and was an immediate hit, for obvious reasons. Over the years she dated a lot of characters and got everyone a little hot and steamy under the collar, in Erinsborough and at home. One episode featured a wacky Ramsay Street party where all the characters had to go as each other, which seemed to have been included just to get Annalise into Hannah’s tight school uniform. To whoever it was who sorted that out, I salute you.
Annalise’s mental, annoying sister had really strange facial features and once lived under her desk in Lassiters, like George Costanza in Seinfeld. Later got her baps out in Loaded and was surprisingly attractive.
Young, handsome, dynamic; Karl had it all. They first introduced Karl’s wacky nature through Karl hiding garden gnomes from elderly Marlene. Karl was that kind of creepy uncle who makes everyone feel uncomfortable by his overly sexual relationship with his wife Susan (whose growing physical lesbianity year on year has obviously caused a few headaches for the script writers). Karl later had an affair with sexy PA Sarah in about 1999, but he always had a mischievous glint in his eyes. A prankster, a singer, a cantankerous but cool dad, Karl was and probably still is an all round good egg.
With a cleft chin of glory and a more intelligent persona than the average Ramsay Street resident (read: geek), Brett was old beyond his years. With naughty twin Dani, the two were like the ying and yang of youth, with boring Brett constantly getting pulled into trouble by his sister. Brett lusted after Libby Kennedy but announced that she kissed like a wet fish, and then had not one but two kind of creepy non-sexual relationships with older women – first Helen Daniels, who he practiced tai chi with, and then the far more attractive Susan Kennedy, who he seemed to spend about a month with in Africa, in one of the soap’s most pointless ever storylines.
Phil was a behemoth of mid 90s Neighbours. He was played by Ian Rawlings, who just five years earlier had glowered with raw sexual energy as Sons and Daughters’ bad boy Wayne Hamilton. Well, those five years must have been pretty tough and involved a lot of comfort eating, because by the time Phil arrived in Neighbours with his annoying wife Julie and even more annoying daughters Hannah and Debbie, he looked fat, balding and very cuddly. As already mentioned, Phil’s career took many strange twists and turns, from janitor to CEO to newsagent to romance novelist (Philippa Martinez), garage owner and many more. Phil was genial and amiable and a bit of a comedy character, as evidenced by storylines based around him trying to lose weight in a bacofoil tracksuit.
However, to make his character edgier he was once caught up in a road rage incident that made no sense. Good old Neighbours, and its total lack of sensible character development.
This ws a guest blog by the worryingly encyclopaedic Matthew Clifton from Dark Beige. We’re as scared of him as you are.