Today marks 35 years since Neighbours first premiered on Australian television.
It was 18th March 1985 when the soap created by the late Reg Watson first debuted on Seven. It ran for just over six months, underperforming in Sydney, when programmers pulled the pin.
But 10 swooped on the series -forced to rebuild sets after Seven destroyed them- and from January 1986 the rest, as they say, is history.
The series is now the longest-running drama in Australian TV history, having launched thousands of careers both in front of and behind the cameras.
One who says she owes it all to the show, and famed casting director Jan Russ, is Stephanie McIntosh who returns to the show this week as part of 35th anniversary storylines under Executive Producer Jason Herbison.
McIntosh played Sky Mangel (the teen version of a former series infant) for just over 4 years from 2003. With a famous half-brother in Jason Donovan (Scott Robinson), and neighbour to Alan Fletcher (Dr. Karl Kennedy) she already had links to the show.
“When I became a teenager, I started babysitting for Alan Fletcher and I would come out to set with him,” she tells TV Tonight.
“I actually think I even said to him once ‘I’m going to come back as Sky Mangel.’
“Lo and behold a few years later, they wrote her in again as a teenager coming back to see Harold (Ian Smith).
“I got the call for the audition from the divine Jan Russ. She gave me that break, and I’ll be forever grateful. Neighbours changed my life, in all the best ways.”
“It felt like we were some sort of a platform”
Sky was portrayed as an alternative adolescent in a very vanilla street, having teen romances with Boyd Hoyland (Kyal Marsh), Dylan (Damien Bodie) and ‘Stingray’ (Ben Nicholas). But it was the crush from Lana (Bridget Neval) that drew wider attention, for portraying a same-sex teen romance in an early evening timeslot.
“That was really exciting and a privilege to go down that route at a time where maybe it wasn’t as socially accepted. I’m proud of Neighbours for grabbing onto something that should be so ‘normalised’ so early on,” she continues.
“I got a huge volume of extremely positive feedback and a lot of people coming out to me, wanting to say thank you for bringing attention to something that they feel they needed in the LGBT community.
“It felt like we were some sort of a platform for people that needed that.”
“Someone’s got to lead the way”
Any press controversy at the time was outweighed by the benefits.
“I understand that it wasn’t as socially accepted, so to speak, but I think that’s where Neighbours just did the right thing. Someone’s got to lead the way.”
McIntosh has been invited back to the show on previous occasions -she made an appearance by Skype for the 30th- but as a mother of 2, the timing was right to make it happen in 2020.
“It was like walking into a time machine”
Returning to the Nunawading set brought a rush of emotions.
“It was a really out of body experience. It was like walking into a time machine …but then not. I keep saying to everyone It’s ‘Same same but different,'” she explains.
“The drive here starts to become nostalgic, as you’re turning onto Hawthorn Road and then you come through those back doors and there’s a smell, a memory that’s triggered instantly every time you walk through the Cast backdoors. Everything just comes flooding back, and it’s a life that I know so well.
“In one breath it feels like there’s been no time gone at all, and then in the other it’s “Wow there’s so much history here!’
“Often you do a project and it wraps and that’s it. To come back to something I was so fond of, and so lucky to be a part of… it’s the best.”
“That was a major moment of feeling very nostalgic.”
Her return reunites her with her former castmates Alan Fletcher, Jackie Woodburne, Ryan Moloney and Stefan Dennis.
“It was really lovely seeing them. That was a major moment of feeling very nostalgic. But then, of course, you look around and you see all the new faces and you realise that time has moved on. Including my niece.”
Her niece, Jemma Donovan is now playing Harlow Robinson. McIntosh also feels the time away has given her added maturity to appreciate the experience more.
“It’s so beautiful coming back and having this hindsight this time around, and having a lot of growth. A maturity that I didn’t have back then, and an appreciation maybe that I didn’t have. I definitely knew how lucky I was landing the role initially, but there’s definitely a different sense of gratitude this time around.”
Neighbours 35th anniversary week includes a string of weddings, and Sky’s return will see her tie the knot with Lana.
“I find that this is very authentic and for Sky they’ve come full circle with a storyline that had a huge effect on a lot of people,” she hints.
“I’ve been focusing on playing mum”
And while family comes first, she is open to the idea of more acting work should it come her way again.
“I have two beautiful girls, a five and one year old. So that is always the focus personally, but I did step back for a little bit while I’ve been focusing on playing mum. So it feels so great coming back into work. and maybe seeing what’s out there again professionally for me.
“I’m excited and optimistic about going forward again.”
Neighbours airs 6:30pm weeknights on 10 Peach.