Why Ireland has needed good Neighbours

Many of us were shocked to learn that Channel 5 has recently axed Neighbours, the juggernaut that has captivated millions of viewers worldwide for almost 40 years and that catapulted Kylie Minogue and countless others to global stardom. Much has been written about why Neighbours was (and remains) so popular in Britain, yet little has been written about its popularity in Ireland, North and South.

In the 1980s, Ireland was a fairly bleak place to be. The Republic was in a deep recession with mass unemployment, was among the poorest states in Europe, and was an insular, stifling society under the thumb of the Catholic hierarchy. Things were so shite that Irish musicians were inspired by Live Aid to hold a similar event for Ireland in 1986. Meanwhile, the Troubles were raging throughout Northern Ireland, with brutal bloodshed forming the backdrop to everyday life: over 300 people were killed in the last four years of the 1980s alone. As such, citizens of the island were leaving in their droves.

Amid this misery, Neighbours burst on to British and Irish screens in October 1986 (bear in mind that almost everybody in the Republic could receive BBC One through signal overspill from Northern Ireland and Wales). It showcased an idyllic view of suburban Aussie life, complete with comedic characters and attractive actors. The bright blue skies under which Erinsborough lay couldn’t have been further removed from the doom and gloom that permeated life in Ireland.

Yet, the characters were so everyday that any Irish viewer could see parallels between them and the characters in their own locale, be they the warm, wise Helen Daniels, or the cranky, churlish Mrs. Mangel. Moreover, the close-knit community of Ramsay Street was similar to any estate or small community in Ireland.

Neighbours gave Irish viewers an escape from the drudgery of daily life. Yet, it was also something they could relate to. Moreover, it may have made people in Ireland feel closer to loved ones who had departed for far-flung places like Australia.

My journey with Neighbours started in the late 1990s. I vividly remember coming home from school, longing to catch up with the latest drama that Susan Kennedy (played by Carrickfergus-born Jackie Woodburne), Lou Carpenter, Flick Scully, Toadie Rebecchi etc. had got themselves embroiled in. Erinsborough seemed like a more accepting and diverse place than the homogeneous and somewhat homophobic Donegal of my younger years. We were especially lucky in Ireland, as we could watch Neighbours both on BBC One and RTÉ Two (the latter being handiest because the ad break allowed for making a cuppa or going for a leak).

As life changed throughout my teens and early adulthood, Neighbours was always there. And, as Ireland developed into a much more diverse and accepting place, so too did Erinsborough. Around the same time as Republic’s same-sex marriage referendum in May 2015, Neighbours introduced Aaron Brennan and David Tanaka who, while not the first gay guys to reside on Ramsay Street, would become the show’s first regular gay couple. More recently came Mackenzie Hargreaves, the show’s first regular transgender character. To top it all off, occasional heavy rain was introduced to Ramsay Street in recent years, something else that people in Ireland could relate to!

Neighbours remains my weekday indulgence and that of many other people in Ireland, who still identify with it, not only because the diversity embraced is very much in keeping with life and public opinion in Ireland today, but because literally everybody in Ireland has friends and loved ones Down Under. Watching Neighbours may make them seem closer. It thus remains “the perfect blend” for many Irish soap fans.

With Channel 5 axing the show, fans have been fervently campaigning to persuade another British broadcaster to pick it up. As yet, that hasn’t happened, despite the fact the show still attracts well over a million viewers every day in the UK. If another broadcaster can’t be found, it will mean the end of Neighbours in Ireland too because, despite its popularity here, Channel 5 fund the bulk of the production costs. Thus, if another UK broadcaster can’t be found, Neighbours will end this year.

The end of Neighbours would be a source of great sadness not only to UK fans, but to the show’s loyal army of Irish viewers. Fans are desperately hoping another UK home will materialise, but these hopes are diminishing. It may thus be the end of the road for Neighbours. Yet, I’m thankful for the happiness the show has given me and so many other Irish people for decades. To all who have kept Neighbours going, míle buíochas.

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