I’ve been a Neighbours fan since the first episode. In fact, it was my love of the show that shaped my career as journalist. Over the years, I must have written hundreds of thousands of words about it and interviewed dozens of its stars.
So flying to Oz to visit the set of the soap is a dream come true. Especially as this shouldn’t actually be happening at all. After all, we all said goodbye to Neighbours last year, didn’t we?
But in a bigger soap resurrection than Cindy Beale, Kathy Beale and Dirty Den put together, Neighbours is coming back to our screens with brand new episodes, streaming on Amazon Freevee from September 18. And as I set off to visit the set of the revamped show, I couldn’t wait to get all the gossip!
The road to Erinsborough
The road to Erinsborough involves a 45-minute journey east from the centre of Melbourne into the suburbs. Towards the end of our journey, something starts to feel a little familiar in the style of the houses we pass. Bigger than your traditional UK home, mainly detached, with more garden and bigger driveways, we are definitely in Ramsay Street country now.
The actual road to Erinsborough is a rather inconspicuous one. Especially considering there’s a whole world which lives beyond at the end of it.
A turn off from the main highway then another down a narrow tree-shrouded road bring you out at a familiar and exciting sight for soap fans.
No, it’s not Ramsay Street or Lassiters. But old-school soapies will immediately recognise its red brick walls .
Before Neighbours, this studio building doubled up as the exterior of Wentworth Detention Centre in classic 80s Aussie soap Prisoner: Cell Block H. Many a denim-clad drama took place in these grounds. But since then, this building has housed the more domestic goings-on of the residents of Erinsborough..
As we enter through reception, there’s a bustling canteen and people heading down various corridors to go about their business of making the Neighbours magic happen. Some 450 people work here most days. Strange to think that just months ago, the studios were almost deserted.
Stefan Dennis on the new Neighbours
“I had to come in here before we started filming again and It felt like tumbleweeds going down the corridors,” Stefan Dennis – aka Paul Robinson – tells us later. “Lassiters had all become so overgrown. Seeing it in such a dilapidated state was very weird.”
With the show now back filming for several months, they are currently shooting episodes due to screen in the weeks leading up to Christmas. So, we are firmly instructed any spoilers we may come across as we wander around were for our eyes only for the moment (sorry, folks).
We enter one of the warehouse-like filming studios at the centre of the complex. Studio A. contains four permanent sets – The Waterhole, Harold’s coffee shop, no.22, which is Terese’s house, and no. 24, now home to Mike and Jane in the new episodes.
Studio B has room for four more sets, but these switch around with regularity depending on which houses or locations are the centre of the action in that week’s scripts.
New Neighbours moves two years on
We discover all the interior sets on the show have had some revamps and tweaks for the new series. This reflects the fact that the new episodes are set two years on from the last episode we saw.
“This was Chloe’s house, but now Jane’s given it more of a country cottage sort of look, it’s a bit chintzy,” Annie Jones, who is back as Jane Harris, tells us about her character’s house. “And of course, Mrs Mangel’s painting follows Jane everywhere she goes!”
When the show ended, the scenery was taken down. Some of it was revamped and redecorated to use on Channel 5 dramas such as Heat (starring Danny Dyer) and Riptide (with his fellow ex-EastEnder Jo Joyner), which filmed here afterwards.
So, when Neighbours returned, the design team found themselves trying to put together and rebuild the famous living rooms and kitchens again!
“We had to locate every wall of the houses in our scenery warehouse,” Ash Cotterill, Art Director on the show tells us. “We had go, ‘That’s one of Harold’s walls, so where’s the other one?’ It was like a big Jigsaw puzzle! Then gaps had to be filled if things had been damaged or so changed that we had to recreate them from scratch.”
New Neighbours has not changed – much!
Notable set revamps include a fresh look for Harold’s – under a new owner, Haz – as well as a new feel for an old home as new family the Varga-Murphys move in. But it’s still very much Ramsay Street of old. The Kennedy kids’ pic is still above their fireplace. The portrait of Mrs Mangel has pride of place in Jane’s new abode.
In fact, it’s clear the whole show is very much the Neighbours we know and love. There were fears from long terms fans that with the show being backed by international streamer Amazon and being available in the USA, that it might become Americanised. However, we’re quickly reassured.
“We want all those viewers that love the show and missed the show to feel like they’ve got their show back,” says Jason Herbison, the show’s executive producer. “We do want new people to come in as well. Even if you haven’t watched it for a few years, you’ll be able to pick it up straightaway. But it’s still definitely Neighbours.”
And the show certainly looks like it means business on its return. The opening episodes feature a wedding with a twist, kicking off the most intriguing storyline of the first few months.
Faces new and old
We’ll also see the arrival of US actress and The O.C. star Mishca Barton as Reece, a mysterious guest as Lassiters. Plus, there will be an appearance by Hollywood star Guy Pearce as Mike and the return of other favourites including Harold Bishop and Lucy Robinson. And we’re promised some blockbusting stories on the way.
“I was reading some of the first episodes and I immediately had to email the producers to say, ‘I think this is the best script I’ve ever read!’” says Alan Fletcher aka show stalwart Karl Kennedy tells us when we meet him. “It was so incredible, the way it was put together was amazing. I was just thinking, ‘How do they think this stuff?’”
And the drama doesn’t stop. On our tour we witnessed the filming of a joyous event involving almost the entire cast. We also spotted several returning characters, and the recast of another, as well an intriguing new character.
The real sense of excitement from all about the new Neighbours episodes is clear. At the Lassiter’s complex, we meet Stefan Dennis along with on-screen son Tim Kano (Leo).
“It was kind of a shock when the news came about the return. We were going through this massive grieving process, for the show,” says Tim. “But coming back to Neigbbours? It was a no-brainer for me!”
‘Once in a lifetime opportunity’
We finish our tour in backyards of the houses. These are actually outdoor sets here at the studio. Here Ryan Moloney (Toadie) sums up the feeling of the cast.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity – for an iconic show to first of all wrap up and then to get a re-birth, and on Amazon,” he raves. “I’m really, really excited about it all.”
Not as excited as Neighbours fans are, Ryan, we can assure you. Bring on the new era of Ramsay Street drama!
Read more: 10 big secrets from the new Neighbours
Neighbours begins on Amazon Freevee on Monday September 18 and airs Monday to Thursday, with new episodes dropping every morning at 7am.
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