Farewell to Neighbours: “It’s quite something to have started the whole thing off, I do feel proud”

For 26 years casting guru Jan Russ discovered the stars that would become household names and brought Ramsay Street to life.

Casting director Jan Russ was there at the beginning when Neighbours was merely a script idea.
For nearly 3 decades she helped make household names of its young cast.


Jan Russ had been casting the final years of Prisoner from a tiny terrace house in High Street, Prahran, when she got a call from writer Reg Watson in Sydney.

“My audition room was a tiny little room that had a window in it, right next door to a music room. So anytime I’d have someone in to audition I’d have to go into the music room and say ‘Can you please turn down the music?'” she tells TV Tonight.

“I received a phone call from Reg Watson who said to me, ‘We’re thinking about doing a new show. I’ll send you a couple of scripts down.’ The scripts were originally called Living Together. I read the scripts and started putting a cast together.”

The show, originally commissioned by Seven in 1984, was renamed Neighbours and would go on to create international household names -all of them from Kylie Minogue to Margot Robbie- under Russ’ eye for talent.

The original cast included Francis Bell, Dasha Blahova, Peter O’Brien, David Clencie, Stefan Dennis, Vikki Blanche, Darius Perkins, Kylie Flinker, Anne Haddy, Paul Keane, Elaine Smith -but it very nearly didn’t feature Alan Dale as Jim Robinson.

“We had a night of getting the cast together, socially, to see how they all mingled and worked off each other. So we’re watching them, and at the same time, the producer John Holmes and I just turned and said, ‘We’ve made a mistake. We’ve got to do something about it!'” she recalls.

“So we rang Reg Watson and said, ‘We’d like Alan Dale to be released to play Jim Robinson. We’ve made a mistake with a person we cast!’ I think Alan was doing Posession at the time.

“He said, ‘No, no’ but they allowed him to be released, and he came down to play Jim Robinson on Channel Seven. We did the show there for 4 months and then we were suddenly axed. I think I’ve got a copy of Truth saying ‘TV Soapie Axed!’ We were devastated. We thought, ‘That’s the end of it!’ There were fans outside the studio in South Melbourne wearing black armbands with red carnations.”

“Channel 10 have picked us up. Open the champagne.”

While the Melbourne-produced show worked with local viewers it had failed to resonate in Sydney, but Russ can still recall the day awaiting a history-making phone call.

“I remember we were in my office with John Holmes and I think the associate producer, waiting for that phone call to see if anybody had picked us up. We had a bottle of champagne. John answered the phone, and said ‘Yes, yes, okay. Channel 10 have picked us up. Open the champagne.’ That was it!

“But the sets at Channel Seven were suddenly ‘burnt down’. So they had to build new sets and at that time, it was Brian Walsh in the publicity department and Eileen O’Shea and their amazing ability …they really helped push the show to another level from when we were at Channel Seven. They had Kylie and Jason flying around Australia, giving TV sets away on the weekend.”

The show would go on to run for another 36 years, with Russ casting actors who became household names: Guy Pearce, Jason Donovan, Kylie Minogue, Natalie Imbruglia, Holly Valance, Jesse Spencer, Craig McLachlan, Annie Jones, Ryan Moloney, Rhada Mitchell, Delta Goodrem, Daniel MacPherson, alongside seasoned performers including Ian Smith, Anne Charleston, Jackie Woodburne, Alan Fletcher, Tom Oliver to name a few….

What does she recall of those early casting meetings?

“I’ll always remember Kylie was such a shy little thing when she walked into the audition room. But she got in front of the camera and I looked at the monitor and I went, ‘Oh, my God!’ It was just that ‘moment,’ when something special is there. She did a great audition and I said, ‘This is the girl. Nobody else has come up anywhere near her. She’s going to be perfect.'”

“His tie was all skew-whiff. He’d been at school all day, typical teenage boy”

Jason Donovan, son of TV actor Terrence Donovan, auditioned in his De La Salle school uniform.

“His tie was all skew-whiff. He’d been at school all day, typical teenage boy, but when he did his audition I thought, ‘Wow. Talent is certainly passed on in the family,’ so I offered him the role.”

Father Terry would insist on Jason completing his HSC and the offer was rejected. But when the show moved from Seven to 10 and actor Darius Perkins did not, Donovan was offered the role as the new Scott Robinson.

Guy Pearce was cast after an appearance in a Mars bar commercial mass, riding a water bike in Geelong.

“To me, Guy was always the dark horse. Because I always felt there was a lot more to Guy. That you were gonna get a lot more from him as an actor. And he’s proven that, he’s done some incredible work.

“You’ve got to look at it like a jigsaw puzzle”

“It was lovely putting that group together and seeing how they would work. Because they all seemed to be on the same page and I think that’s important when you’re casting.

“You’ve got to look at it like a jigsaw puzzle and you’ve got to know if people are going to get on. That’s so important, because if they don’t it comes through on the screen.”

Years later Russ would cast a young Margot Robbie, following her debut in Jonathan M. Shiff drama The Elephant Princess.

“I thought, ‘We’ve got someone really great here, we’re going to have to use her. She’s going to be fantastic.’ I remember looking up and seeing her coming towards me. ‘There’s something about this girl….’

“All the ones who have gone on, were very intelligent, prepared to work hard”

“But all the ones who have gone on, were very intelligent, prepared to work hard, to work on their craft, learn, listen and absorb. And that was important. Whereas I don’t think a lot of them these days want to do that.”

Russell Crowe only appeared in the show briefly during his Melbourne run of a stage musical, with Russ pushed to consider him by his agent.

“He was a very intense young man, but he was an interesting, so I said to him, ‘What’s your time frame?’ We had him on for about six weeks, because that’s all he could do with Rocky Horror.”

But there were also difficult times, including when Russ was asked to testify for actor Shane Connor in his case against producers Fremantle over his dismissal.

“I was being pulled in two ways and it was a really hard time. But I had to state the truth. That’s what I did.”

There were frequent criticisms that Ramsay Street lacked diversity, despite Russ casting several multicultural actors. But she concedes research indicated the audience did not respond.

“They did a lot of research ….into popular characters, what they wanted to see and what they didn’t want to see. So that had a lot to do with it.”

“‘You’ve got four weeks notice…. absolutely devastated”

The biggest challenge came around 2009 when then-producers called her into what she understood was a casting meeting. But she was met by a HR representative in what would become her official notice from Fremantle.

“They said, ‘This has come from elsewhere. It’s not from us.’ And I said, ‘What’s going on?'” she recalls.

“‘You’ve got four weeks notice.’

“I said, ‘Thank you,’ went back to my office and that was it. The cast were told that I had wanted to leave.

“I didn’t talk to anyone. The press were ringing me and I was just saying, ‘No comment.’

“So I just sat there for a month, absolutely devastated. Totally devastated. I couldn’t believe that after 26 years that’s what I was given. I think they probably felt ‘She’s a bit old now, we want young blood.’ But you can’t replace experience and knowledge.”

Thankfully a role in City Homicide and a Comedy Festival show helped ease the pain. But Russ admits she found it too difficult to watch the show after that.

“I still think I’m not fully over it. I did have a bit of a breakdown after it, I had five months of help after that. It was absolute hell.”

“It’s fabulous that so many of them have come back”

But the show’s historic ending, with producer Jason Herbison immersing nostalgia, has Russ pleased to see heritage stars returning.

“It’s amazing. It’s fabulous that so many of them have come back. And I think ‘Well they should have come back’ because the show has set them up. If they hadn’t been on Neighbours, would they be where they are now?” she asks.

“I feel very sorry that the show’s ending, because I don’t like seeing people lose their jobs. That’s the hardest part, I think. But I think everything has to come to an end. I’m surprised the show has lasted 37 years.

“But I think it’s made history in more ways than one in Australia. That in itself is phenomenal. And it’s sort of quite something to have started the whole thing off and I do feel proud of that.

“You do feel some ownership of it.”

Neighbours Finale Week:
Tuesday July 26 6:30pm – 8pm 10 Peach
Wednesday July 27 6:30pm – 8pm 10 Peach
Thursday July 28 7.30pm – 9pm on 10 and 10 Peach

Attention British fans: TV Tonight will be filing a finale story following the Australian broadcast.

11 Responses

  1. Another genuinely insightful, original piece, David.
    You treat TV with the respect it deserves and it shows. Also unsurprising that so many of your features get picked up by national media outlets – thankfully you seem to be getting some credits for your work when they use it (which is how it should be of course, too!)

  2. Great to read the daily Neighbours stories each day, they are really interesting and cover information and personal stories from different points of view that have not been in the public domain before. Thanks David for spending the time to give this show a respectful farewell.

  3. Outside of the industry, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who could name the casting director of a TV show. But many people know the name Jan Russ and it’s a testimony to her that Neighbours has been such a long running success.
    David, thanks for your celebration of Neighbours.

  4. A wonderful interview David – I’ve always admired Jan Russ, she certainly has an incredible track record for discovering talent.
    It sounds like Jan wasn’t treated well towards the end – you certainly can’t replace experience – she will always be a huge part of Neighbours & it’s incredible track record.

  5. I hope that Rosetta Cammeniti , Pepper Steiger , Janae Timmins return for the finale. I haven’t read your post about returning characters to avoid sppilers. But these 3 characters were mu favourites from 2006

  6. Thankk you david what a great interview Jan Russ was the missing link in the neighbours story what a shame fremantle got rid of her who knows who she could have discovered
    Regards Leo

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