“I’ve watched it my whole life, 23 years,” says UK fan Lily.
“I’m studying here for a year, so I thought ‘I have to come!’”
Lily is one of thousands of fans who “have to come” to the ‘Ramsay Street’ location, taking the official Neighbours tour bus operating in Melbourne.
On this Spring day, boyfriend Henry is along for the ride, even if he isn’t especially a fan of TEN’s long-running soap. What is it about the show that compels devoted fans, mostly from the UK, to make the pilgrimage to Pin Oak Court, Vermont South?
“It’s quite fast-paced, but it’s funny and dramatic as well. So it’s not too serious,” Lily continues.
“I watch Home and Away as well. But the British soaps are more serious, and I like Neighbours because it’s sunny.”
On the day that TV Tonight joins a three hour tour a grey chill lingers. But it doesn’t deter around a dozen fans eager to see the houses and ‘backlot’ of the famed ‘Erinsborough.’ They age in range from early 20s to the other side of 50, most admitting to being lifelong fans.
Their tour guide Gerry Austin, is just as much a fan as they are.
Alison, from London, has been watching the show since it began in 1985, now screening twice-daily in the UK on Channel 5.
“There’s half one in the afternoon and half five, so you can choose. I used to watch the afternoon one while I was cooking dinner. Nowadays I tape it and catch up with it in the afternoon,” she says.
“It’s nice watching their lives. You can just there and you don’t have to think about anything, so it’s escapism, I suppose.
“I Like Toadie (Ryan Moloney). But Paul (Stefan Dennis) is starting to grow on me. I never used to like him but he’s got a softer side and you can start to see it a bit.”
Neighbours and Coronation Street are the only soaps she views.
“I never thought I would get over here, but as soon as I knew we were coming to Melbourne I had to book the tour.
“It feels a bit surreal actually. You know the houses because you see them on TV all the time. But it’s very surreal.”
The bus tour visits ‘Ramsay Street’ daily for photo opportunities. The tour is licensed by producers FremantleMedia, allowing access beyond daily security and barricades that guard the location. The households, one of which has residents who have lived on the street across the show’s entire duration, enjoy a location fee for the use of their front yards.
Fans Rebecca and Pippa, also from the UK, concur that the experience of standing on the street is hard to comprehend.
“It’s a bit surreal. It feels a lot smaller than when you see it on the TV. But I can’t actually believe that we’re actually standing on Ramsay Street,” they say.
“We’ve watched it for as long as we can remember with our mum. So when we were coming to Australia it was one of the things we had to do. We couldn’t come all this way and not come see it.
“We have it set up to record every day on our digital box. So we just watch it whenever. It’s a nice wind down after work.
They nominate Karl (Alan Fletcher) and Susan (Jackie Woodburne) as amongst their favourite characters.
“We’re quite loyal, so when other characters are killed off and new characters come in, you’re always a bit sceptical about whether you will like them or not.
“I like Paul as well. He’s not really that much of a villain. There’s a fun side to him as well. And you know that for every bad thing he does he will redeem himself. So he’s not really that bad.”
On weekends the show enjoys access to the ‘backlot’ at the nearby NEP studios (formerly Channel TEN, Nunawading) where Gerry escorts them to the “Lassiters” exteriors, including Harold’s Cafe, police station, lake, university courtyard, hotel, garage and Grease Monkeys. They also peek over the fence of recently-replicated backyards (although Fremantle should really build a viewing deck for better access). Some older fans recognise the exterior wall of Prisoner’s original Wentworth Detention Centre, still with its fake windows hanging outside.
But it’s Neighbours they are here to see.
Jenny, also from the UK, is another who has been watching since the show first started. She sometimes watches Coronation Street and Eastenders, but isn’t a fan of occasional language. Standing on Ramsay Street she wonders why it took her so long to visit.
“It’s fantastic. I wish I’d done it years ago. I came over 15 years ago with my husband before he died, but we never even though about it. It would have been lovely,” she says.
“Funnily enough I like Paul Robinson. He just fascinates me. And I loved Madge (Anne Charleston).”
Karen, from Ireland, is a policewoman who catches the afternoon show on RT1.
“During lunch we see the show in the kitchen,” she says.
“I’m not watching it as frequently as I would have done. I’m in and out of the show the whole time. But I suppose Scott (Jason Donovan) & Charlene (Kylie Minogue) were my favourites. They were iconic. And Madge as well. I think she bought property in Ireland.”
Gerry, who has been driving the bus tour for 8 years says 90% of his customers are from overseas, and of that about 80% are UK and Ireland.
“But in the last 5 years the Australian contingent has boosted. It’s almost like it’s ok to do ‘tourist-y’ stuff in your own backyard. Most people would have driven out themselves, but now they will jump on the tour bus. It’s a different experience because there’s the knowledge from the drivers and the group atmosphere,” he says.
“We give them access to the street and sometimes access to the studio –you can only do that on the weekend, during the week they’re filming.
“They are a bit excited if they see a bit of filming or if they meet an actor for selfies and autographs.
“Most people just want to have a cheesy day. They know Neighbours is not too serious, and the actors are quite approachable.”
Austin fills the tour with an excess of trivia, happily admitting to watching the show daily as a die-hard fan.
“It’s the only show I know that tells dramatic storylines but always has a bit of humour somewhere –because life is not that serious all the time.”
Proving there are also locals on board are Trish and daughter Melissa, both from Melbourne.
“There’s not as many characters as Home and Away, and a lot of young people. This has older people so it’s more family oriented,” says Trish.
“My son booked the bus tour for my birthday.
“I never miss it unless I’m away and then we tape it.”
“I’ve been watching it since I was a young kid. Since I was 5. I’m 27 now so it’s part of the family,” adds Melissa.
Like it or not, Erinsborough’s portrayal of suburban domesticity is also doing its bit for Australian culture.
“Ramsay Street is what we think of when we think of Australia,” admit Brits Rebecca and Pippa.
“It’s what we’ve seen the most of. When people tell me things I think, ‘Oh yes I’ve seen that on Neighbours.‘”
Official Neighbours Tours are $55 weekdays and $75 weekends.
Neighbours airs 6:30pm weeknights on ELEVEN.