Channel Five’s online catch-up service, Demand Five, describes Neighbours as ‘an essential part of student life’. Whilst this bold assertion could be nothing but a marketing ploy, for me (and a large number of my friends), it couldn’t be more accurate. So what makes a soap set in suburban Australia so irresistible to university students in the UK?
The overwhelming British success the show has enjoyed is no secret. Since its arrival on the BBC in 1986, just a year after its Australian debut, Neighbours has drawn a consistently impressive audience. Staying on the BBC for 22 years, the series moved to Five in 2008, in a deal reportedly worth close to £300 million. The channel’s new acquisition was responsible for a large boost in its ratings, and the daily episodes of Neighbours consistently make appearances in Five’s ten most watched programmes every week, with an average of around 1.6 million viewers per episode.
Whilst it is notoriously difficult to calculate actual viewing figures for the student population, especially given the widespread use of online catch-up services amongst this group, many articles written about the British popularity of Neighbours acknowledge its large student following. However, more difficult to find are any particularly detailed explanations as to why this should be the case. Evidently, the daytime scheduling for Neighbours fits in to the student lifestyle well. Those of us with just a few lectures to attend are more likely to be at home in the middle of the day than those trying to hold down a full-time job; even the teatime showing at 5:30 would be a push for most non-students.
Yet I can’t help but think it must be more than just a question of timing. There is clearly a lot of love for Neighbours amongst students – and not even the often questionable acting, or equally unconvincing storylines, can put us off. Indeed, based on my own views and those of my friends, it is the classic Neighbours combination of blatant predictability, mixed with impressive levels of implausibility, which makes the programme such compulsive viewing. We moan about the writers’ seemingly non-existent grip on reality, we shout at the screen as yet another dark secret is discovered when someone eavesdrops through a wide-open door, but really, we’re loving every second.
Maybe it’s that unswerving predictability which makes Neighbours so endlessly appealing; it is consistently unrealistic. It’s good to know that no matter what else is going on in your life, the Kennedys will still somehow be fitting a ridiculous number of teenagers into their modestly-sized home, Toadie will be balancing a very successful law career with a large number of daytime social events, and Paul Robinson will be making millions, yet apparently not considering a move to a larger house. No matter what disaster has just hit Ramsey Street, you know that it will all be worked out in the end; no matter how serious that last argument was, you can guarantee it won’t be long before they’ve put it all behind them, and are back to being ‘good friends’, as promised in the opening credits.
Perhaps we are sometimes willing to sacrifice realism for a more interesting plotline, even if it is wildly far-fetched. Whilst such plotlines are of course a common trait to all soaps, those produced in Britain tend to be decidedly grittier, often dealing with far darker content. Neighbours is gloriously idealistic and, aside from the occasional villain thrown in for good measure, is unashamedly optimistic about human nature.
It seems to me that it is this stubbornly positive outlook on life, contained in the views of the characters of Neighbours, which keeps us students coming back for more. There is just something about the constant sunshine – and almost constantly smiling faces – which provides a great release from all degree-related stress. There’s nothing like a bit of escapism to make you forget about that impending deadline, and where better to do it than on the most friendly, cheerful and community-spirited street in Australia?