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Soap Day: A Year of Neighbours – Killer Castles, Doggy Daydreams & Blasts From the Past

Neighbours turned 30 this year with the same soapy melodrama and sense of humour that have been the show’s hallmarks since 1985. Ethan Sills wouldn’t have it any other way.

Anniversaries are a big deal for soap operas. When Coronation Street turned 50, a tram crashed into the street. When Shortland Street turned 20, a helicopter crashed into the carpark. So when Neighbours turned 30 this year, Harold Bishop drove his motor home into a fruit and vegetable stand, mildly inconveniencing the Erinsborough Festival for about five minutes.

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That event was the pinnacle moment of Neighbours’ 30th anniversary: a dazed Harold Bishop, the show’s god-fearing, tuba-playing version of Alf Stewart, sitting dazed and confused in his motor home. The ghost of long-dead wife Madge scolded him from the passenger’s seat, while the rest of the cast did their best shocked faces. No explosions. No murders. No dramatic revelations. And that’s just the way Neighbours likes it.

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The anniversary dominated the first few months of the year. Asides from Harold’s prang, the biggest part of the celebration week was Delta Goodrem’s extended cameo. Returning to the show that helped launch her career, Goodrem reprised her role as Nina Tucker less in celebration of the soap’s anniversary and more to plug her latest song. Her appearance was mostly spent dressed as a maid and writing her song on napkins, which she then performed in her final episode, a week after the song had been released in Australia.

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Goodrem’s obvious publicity grab was actually the least awkward of the cameo appearances. A random selection of characters from the show’s past dropped by for shoehorned cameos. Noughties favourite Janelle Collins just happened to be in the area with a cake when there was a baking competition, recently departed cast members Lucas and Vanessa popped in with cupcakes and then as quickly disappeared, while Lauren Turner’s rarely spoken about brother showed up for five minutes for his niece’s wedding. He somehow didn’t make it to the church and wasn’t spoken of again. At least they showed up to set; a very pregnant Sky Mangel filmed her cameo over Skype. It was so brief and awkward it almost made you wish the rest of them had been webcam.

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And who can forget the old classic ‘I fell down a well and missed my wedding’ plotline, versions of which I’m pretty sure most soaps did away with in the early noughties. It’s not exactly a glowing sign of Neighbours modernity that they are still mining well-based stories in 2015 (four characters ended up stuck down there within only a few weeks of each other – throw in a  cappuccino machine and you’ve got the new hangout.)

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There were attempts at ‘getting with the times’. The always delightful Sheila temporarily became local internet sensation ‘Cranky Granny’ after yelling at a homophobe. Having crossed off alcoholism and bulimia from the list of topical teenage issues in recent years, Neighbours tackled the perils of nude selfies before introducing the teenaged Piper, a middle aged person’s idea of what a vlogger is.

Elsewhere, the show appeared to play homage to its most infamous scene, the 1990 plot that saw Bouncer the golden retriever dream about marrying the Border Collie next door. Twenty-five years later, Bossy the red kelpie, who appears in the opening credits alongside all the show’s other stars, finally got her own storyline, unmasked after weeks of mystery and suspense as Ramsay Streets local underwear thief.

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By normal soap standards, Neighbours had a fairly undramatic year in terms of big plot twists. Only one character, perpetually mopey cop Matt Turner, died, in his case after being hit by a car. The big set piece of the year, a fire at the local high school, failed to kill anyone off, despite five characters being trapped and multiple other characters casually running in and out through the CGI flames.

It seems the days of using the yearly disaster to get rid of multiple characters are behind us. Instead Neighbours turned the fire into the most quintessentially soapy storyline possible: teacher Brad having to choose whether to save his wife or his current lover; Amber going into labour while trapped in a burning classroom; Tyler confessing his love for Paige as they sat trapped in the school’s elevator, which appeared for the first and only time during the fire. It was deliciously ludicrous, pure melodrama at its finest.

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Of the six characters to have departed Ramsay Street this year, I will only mourn the loss of Naomi Canning, one of the best characters the show has produced in recent years. Played to perfection by Kiwi Morgana O’Reilly (of Housebound fame), the unlucky-in-love event planner was always effortlessly entertaining and one of the few characters to be both a consistent source of drama and comedy, though the latter came largely from the increasingly large folders she was given to hold as the show tried to disguise O’Reilly’s real-life pregnancy.

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The show managed to make headlines this year after they introduced a gay stripper to the main cast. Aaron was one of the Brennan brothers trio, the soap’s biggest sex symbols. The choice of job raised eyebrows and gained approval around the world, though the hype proved somewhat undeserved. Aaron ended the year having given up the job several months ago, and, like literally every other character on the show, fell into a relationship with someone next door.

It’s worth mentioning that this year saw the first Aboriginal character and a former stripper enter into a gay relationship, which may suggest that Ramsay Street is making a much-needed move towards shaking off the ‘whitest street in Australia’ comments that have dogged its entire history.

Other attempts at drama have been more laughable. When veteran character Toadie broke his back halfway through the year, you couldn’t help but snigger as the writer’s choice of accident was him tripping while trying to grab hold of a bouncy castle. The year’s token pregnancy was given an extra bout of drama when mum-to-be Amber skidded on a grape and fell into a table. Again, dramatic enough incident, unintentionally hilarious execution.

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But these failed attempts at tension really define everything that makes Neighbours great to watch. It’s a silly soap opera that fully embraces the fact it’s a silly soap opera, and the fact it doesn’t take itself too seriously for 90% of the year makes it all the more enjoyable to watch. If Shortland Street added a few more fruit-based cliffhangers to their never ending gang storylines, I might have kept watching.

Neighbours refuses to take itself seriously, a refreshing break from basically every other soap out there. In the documentary The Stars Reunite, which featured appearances from former stars Kylie Minogue, Margot Robbie and Guy Pearce (I imagine the money they didn’t spend on Harold’s crash went towards getting them all to appear), there were plenty of times former and current cast members laughed about how ridiculous certain storylines had been. I found it particularly hilarious that they weren’t allowed to say the word ‘pregnant’ in a storyline involving Donna (Robbie) and friends. I mean, sure, show people getting strangled and shot, but don’t let the kids know about making babies.

It’s a sign that the show knows how to laugh at itself, but keeps on doing what it’s doing whilst giving as few fucks as possible.

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Neighbours produced the best finale last week that I’ve seen on the show. No cataclysmic disasters, just tying up storylines from throughout the year. We saw villain/former mayor/hotelier/sole surviving original character Paul Robinson, get his comeuppance for attempting to close the school as part of a dodgy development deal. The finale ended with him losing all his money, his hotel and his home in a karmic fall from grace. Meanwhile, Paige, probably the show’s best character right now and most likely to leave next year for Hollywood, ended up kidnapped by an unknown assailant in a continuation of the gang storyline she’d been involved with earlier this year.

As the show reminds us at the end of every episode, this really is ‘unmissable drama’. The final shot of the year saw Toadie going into surgery so he could walk again post-bouncy castle. Who should be staring at his anaesthetised body than his best friend’s ex-lesbian lover? The episode ends with his fate unknown: will Toadie walk again? Will Paul get his money back? Will the show finally convince Kylie to return? Will they have to resort to Bossy dreaming about lingerie?

So many questions, so little sense, but I will be tuning in next year all the same – all the bouncy castles in the world couldn’t stop me.

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