Inside the Cult Australian Soap’s Remarkable Journey From Emotional Farewell to the Emmys : How ‘Neighbours’ Came Back From the Dead

In June 2022, Jason Herbison was on set shooting what was to be the 8,903rd— and final — episode of “Neighbours,” an experience he admits was “very, very emotional

Published Time: 07.06.2024 - 14:31:30 Modified Time: 07.06.2024 - 14:31:30

In June 2022, Jason Herbison was on set shooting what was to be the 8,903rd— and final — episode of “Neighbours,” an experience he admits was “very, very emotional.” The cult Australian soap opera —a show he first starting writing for after leaving high school in 1990 and came to oversee as its top exec producer — was coming to a tearful end.

Two years on, almost to the day, and Herbison is now on a short trip to L.A. to see if “Neighbours” —which recently announced that “Selling Sunset” favorite Chrishell Stause is joining the cast —wins a daytime Emmy on Friday from its first-ever nomination.

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While the producer describes the remarkable turn of events as “really unexpected and amazing,” the story of how “Neighbours” was effectively brought back from the dead parodies the sort of wild plotline generally only conceived in a daytime drama writers’ room. Usually, it’s soap characters who are killed off only to miraculously return years later. This time, it’s the show itself, and in a far more dramatic timeframe.

When news broke in February 2022 that Channel 5 —the Paramount-owned U.K. network that had been the primary funder of “Neighbours” since 2008 (the show has long had it biggest fanbase in the U.K.) —wouldn’t be renewing it contract to focus instead on local originals, producers Fremantle were already in the process of trying to find another partner. But with the clock ticking and nothing formalized in time —despite an online petition that had amassed more than 67,000 signatures —the axe had to tragically come down on Ramsay Street, the fictional Melbourne cul-de-sac where most of the “Neighbours” characters have lived, laughed, loved and lost since the show first aired in 1985.

Herbison took on writing duties for the final episode, tasking himself with the challenge of not just winding up the show after four decades, but “bringing it home to everyone it had meant so much to,” including the many stars whose careers it had launched. To help matters, he asked several of them to take part. And so, alongside the latest ensemble of cast members, several of whom have been show regulars since the early 1990s, the finale featured a who’s who of “Neighbours” alumni dropping by to say “G’day.” Kylie Minogue and Jason Donavan appeared (but in scenes shot two weeks before it was even written due to scheduling commitments), as did Jesse Spencer, Holly Valance, Natalie Imbruglia, Guy Pearce and even Margot Robbie (although via a pre-recorded video message).

With loyal and lapsed fans —many of whom hadn’t watched “Neighbours” in decades —tuning in to hear the iconic yet undeniably cheesy theme tune recount how “Neighbours become good friends” one last time, the finale became a hit when it aired in late July 2022, the show’s best rated episode since 2009 in Australia and 2008 in the U.K.

But that, for most people involved and certainly for viewers at home, was it. The production moved off Pin Oak Court (the real-life Ramsay Street and a regular pilgrimage for overseas fans), sets were taken apart and re-jigged for use elsewhere (some by Herbison, who himself had lined up several new projects) and cast and crew moved on to other things. The backlot, home to legendary “Neighbours” locations such as Lassiters Hotel (the setting for many a melodramatic moment), became a ghost town.

Only that wasn’t it.

“’Neighbours’ is a beloved brand, so I always thought there might be a chance for it to return at some point in the future,” Herbison says. “But in my mind, that was years down the track. Would I be involved? I wouldn’t know. But it certainly wasn’t on my bingo card for it to come back four months later.”

In November 2022, the grand announcement was made that “Neighbours” was being resuscitated by Amazon. Its free streaming service, Freevee, would finance the show and have exclusive rights not just for the U.K., but the U.S.

As it happens, while the finale may have been created as a genuine finale, discussions with potential partners were still going on right up to —and after —its air date.

“But nothing was agreed or confirmed, so we had to proceed as such, because it was still 50/50 whether it was going to happen or not,” says Jamie Lynn, Fremantle’s executive vice president of co-production and distribution, EMEA, who was overseeing negotiations from London. “But the cast, the crew and the principle producers had no idea, so they were going into it with genuine tears.”

According to Lynn, reports of Channel 5 ending its contract prompted an immediate influx of calls by potential interested parties from across the spectrum of TV, both non-traditional and traditional, many perplexed by the fate faced by such an iconic show. Some of those getting in touch didn’t even know much about “Neighbours,” but had simply seen the outpouring of emotion the news had sparked from the public and figured it was something worth investigating.

But “Neighbours” had a particular cost to keep going, one perhaps higher than many expected, so dozens of callers were quick -

ly whittled down to five keen to keep discussions going and with the numbers to make it work. For some, Lynn says the commitment just “wasn’t the right thing to do optically at the time,” so five became three. “And then, I was like, ‘Guys, this is real, we have to figure out what we’re doing here.’”

At this point, Lynn brought in Fremantle’s global CEO Jennifer Mullin for a series of Zoom calls with the actively interested networks. To them, it may have felt like Mullin was pitching the series, but Lynn says the exec was really “secretly interviewing them” for the “Neighbours” role.

“We’re so careful with our beloved franchises,” Lynn says. “If we came back and messed it up, you’d taint something. All the good will goes away if you don’t do it right.” For a show with 200 new episodes produced each year and an intensely devoted fanbase, finding a relationship that was going to work beyond the simple matter of financing was especially crucial. “So it absolutely does not become an auction, it doesn’t matter if somebody else pays more — it’s about what’s going to deliver for the show and deliver for the audience.”

Eventually, by around September 2022, Amazon’s Freevee — which Lynn admits wasn’t even the “most left field” of the interested parties —had emerged as the best fit, both in terms of its team’s passion for the show (Lynn says many discussed watching it in college) and the fact it could bring “Neighbours” to a whole new audience around the world.

For Freevee, a major part of the decision came from the fact it was wasn’t simply picking up a show that had been a TV staple in the U.K. for almost four decades, but one that had a devoted audience already in place. “The U.K. content team realized how impactful the show was to fans across the world and how much it would mean to the ‘Neighbours’ fans to keep the series going,” says Lauren Anderson,head of brand and content innovation, Amazon MGM Studios.

By the time the official news was revealed two months later, Herbison had already been in touch with the actors behind the show’s four “heritage characters” —Karl Kennedy (played by Alan Fletcher), Susan Kennedy (Jackie Woodburne), Toadfish Rebecchi (Ryan Maloney) and Paul Robinson (Stefan Dennis) —to check that they wanted back in. They did, and so an announcement video was shot on the hastily tidied-up backlot.

Filming on the revitalized “Neighbours” started up again in April 2023 and began airing on its new platform in September. Herbison and his writing team devised a two-year time jump from where the finale left viewers, a tactic that enabled them to explain why some interiors had been “renovated” (the ones where the sets had been wrecked beyond repair), why several characters hadn’t returned (some had moved onto other projects) and why new oneshad joined. Among the new arrivals — “The OC” starMischa Barton (playing a wealthy American who part-owns Lassiters and begins an immediate affair with one of her employees). Landing Barton was the sort of “noisy casting” Herbison said not only helped people “sit up and take notice of the show,” but also tapped into its new market in North America (and he expects “Selling Sunset’s” Stause will do the same when she joins in November).

But in the process of bringing “Neighbours” back from the dead, Herbison says absolutely nobody involved was thinking remotely about awards, especially the Daytime Emmys, something the show suddenly qualified for for the first time in its history thanks to now being a U.S. co-production and debuting on U.S. screens at the same time as overseas. Less than eight months after its grand revival, it goes into its debut awards competing for the best daytime drama series award, going up against long-running classics “The Bold and The Beautiful,” “Days of Our Lives,” “General Hospital” and “The Young and The Restless.” Pearce also has a nomination for guest performance in a daytime drama series, with his role in the finale later stretched out into several episodes of the new series.

“It was definitely a surprise —I don’t even think we entered every category,” claims Herbison. “It was such a last minute, unexpected opportunity. So I think it just makes us more ambitious for the future.”

“Neighbours” winning the best daytime drama award would surely mark the sort of fairytale ending to a storyline full of the sort of twists and cliffhangers worthy of any soap opera. But could this TV icon from down under break the dominance of the four long-running U.S. giants, shows which have effectively been divvying up the daytime drama honor amongst themselves for the last four decades?

As Lynn notes: “People love an outsider.”

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