The final episode of Neighbours, an icon of Australian television for almost four decades, was broadcast this week.
- The National Film and Sound Archive has preserved Neighbors episodes as important cultural artifacts
- The magnetic tapes containing about 6,500 episodes are stored in Canberra
- Curator Chris Arneil says the show marked the zeitgeist
But before that last show went to air, archivists had already allotted the drama to a formal 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 changes in suburban life over its continuous 37-year run on TV screens in Australia and Britain.
Curator Chris Arneil said preserving that cultural record was a Herculean task.
“I think some people have the impression that TV just survives on its own, but that’s not the case,” he said.
During the show’s glory years in the 1990s and 2000s, episodes were filmed on magnetic tapes.
Those tapes — about 6,500 episodes — are now stored on an NFSA site in the industrial ACT suburb of Mitchell.
“We received 10 pallets of material to sort through,” Mr Arneil said.
“There was literally a working bee-type arrangement, day and night: people around the clock getting the tapes cataloged into 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 several ways — not least for starting the careers of some of the nation’s acting and music stars.
Even younger Australians — the generations who may be more Netflix and chill 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 serials have been a part of our culture for almost a century”, Mr Arneil said.
“If you enjoy a TV show like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones — that’s serialized television, [with] origins in soap operas.”
Neighbors and their other soap-opera cousins were also incredibly popular, with massive audiences that exceeded those of most TV shows today.
In Britain, the number of people tuning in to watch the antics on Ramsay Street was more than the entire Australian population.
At its peak, one in eight Australians also watched the show.
“Imagine the shared memory that Australians have of something like that,” Mr Arneil said.
“It’s incredible: 37 years of any TV show is a fantastic innings.”
Ratings have faded but superfans stay true
The mass audiences of the past are no longer there for Neighbours.
Britain’s Channel 5 — whose license fees largely funded its production — dropped the show from its line-up this year, leading to its end.
Modern viewing habits are changing, and Neighbors cannot compete with online streaming giants.
But one of the show’s superfans, Tony Hamlyn, said that it did not detract from its value.
“It’s not trying to be something that it’s not, it’s not trying to be premier television,” he said.
“It’s really sweet and it’s part of Australian history and culture.
“If the NFSA want me to go through all the footage and catalog it for them, I am willing to do that free of charge.”
Ramsay Street marked the nation’s zeitgeist
Soap operas might not be accurate chronicles of Australian life, but they can be places where the zeitgeist settles.
Mr Arneil said that when fashion, music, cultural trends or social changes ended up in a soap-opera script, the phenomenon was probably already mainstream.
“Writers always have one eye on what’s going on in the real world,” he said.
“Yo lo se [Neighbours] had the first gay wedding on Australian TV, which came soon after the [marriage equality] plebiscite decision.”
And if you watched Neighbours, especially as a teenager, then it was likely you had a crush or two with someone on the screen.
Mr Hamlyn said he was no exception.
“Oh, my God — you can’t go past Jason Donovan in the ’80s, he was my ultimate heart-throb!”