The end of Neighbours has unleashed lashings of nostalgia amongst people of a certain age. Most of them, naturally, won’t have watched it for years but it is a harmless reminder of more carefree times.
Yet during its days on BBC One, Neighbours was certainly not without its critics.
The first episode was shown on the day a full daytime service launched, on 27th October 1986.
It was derided by some who missed the point – it was sunny escapism for people at home all day. It never claimed to be high-end drama with a social purpose.
However a more significant criticism came from some of those the new daytime service was intended for.
The axing of Pebble Mill at One had disappointed its loyal viewers. It was still popular but ended to help release resources for the all-day service. Those who complained were assured it was making way for something better overall.
Initially some simply looked to what had happened to the lunchtime schedule – a revamped news and an Australian soap opera hardly seemed to fit that promise.
Soon though Neighbours won fans and the following summer it became an unlikely hit during the school holidays.
Once the holidays were over, many teenagers missed their daily dose of life down under. This led to Michael Grade’s last masterstroke before he left the BBC for Channel 4 – Neighbours filled what was often the twilight zone between Children’s BBC and the Six o’Clock News and gained truly massive ratings.
But there was criticism too. Should the public service broadcaster really be showing a bought-in soap opera twice a day? Especially in peak?
The fact that the slot had usually been home to The Flintstones, The Muppet Babies and fillers hardly mattered – in the eyes of critics, it was the BBC going downmarket.
Its huge popularity though silenced the critics – to condemn Neighbours out of hand seemed churlish.
It was obvious the BBC didn’t take it seriously – the 5.35pm link was still performed by the CBBC presenter behind the globe but they increasingly stopped any attempt at reading a straight announcer’s script. Edd the Duck was even known to quack the syllables of the script.
An odd problem though arose in Wales and Northern Ireland.
In Wales, Wales Today was shown at 5.35pm so the studio could also be used for the news on S4C. This problem was soon solved.
But in Northern Ireland, Inside Ulster was shown at 5.35pm to steal a march on UTV while some popular local programmes were then shown at 6.35pm.
BBC Northern Ireland soon abandoned its plan to keep on doing this but it led to a situation where Neighbours was being shown at 6.35pm – imagine the row if this happened across the network?
Later in the 90s, Neighbours was seen as a possible casualty of John Brit’s drive to make the BBC more distinctive. It survived – nobody would dare axe something so popular – but it seemed to no longer be cherished.
The data geeks of Birt’s BBC would call up numbers to show that BBC One was different to ITV in peak.
The data would define peak as starting at 6pm – conveniently excluding Neighbours but including its rival Home and Away, shown at 6pm in many ITV regions.
By the noughties, Neighbours was falling in the ratings – although still popular, the 5.35pm screening was sometimes beaten by The Weakest Link on BBC Two.
When the distributor asked for significantly more money, it was perfectly sensible for the BBC to refuse to pay up. It was no longer the cheap, but remarkably popular, show that freed up resources for other things.
On Channel 5 Neighbours was clearly valued and promoted but was its steep ratings decline inevitable on a channel with a lower profile?
It’s amazing to think now that such a harmless programme which provided many with innocent pleasure on a dark winter day could ever have been controversial. But the days when 20 million people could watch a sunny soap from down under really do now seem like half a world away.