The last 18 months or so have been a whirlwind for executive producer Jason Herbison.
First came the sad news in February 2022 that Channel 5 would be pulling out of Neighbours after 14 years, triggering a fan campaign to #SaveNeighbours and an online petition of over 50,000 signatures.
In March Network 10 sadly confirmed it had not found a broadcast partner and the show would end in late July after 37 years.
Filming concluded in June ’22, a tight buffer by any measure in drama, with speeches, tears, a full network send-off for press and cast and crew largely entering unemployment. There had also been secret cameos filmed with original cast members.
“It felt final… speeches, hugs, goodbyes”
“We shut the show down. We all said, goodbye,” he tells TV Tonight. “We tried very hard to find another broadcast partner in the UK. But we didn’t. So it felt final… speeches, hugs, goodbyes. I really wrote that finale thinking to myself, ‘This could be the last time anyone sees this show or these characters.’ So I put my heart and soul into it and tried to make it the best finale I possibly could, in the time that I had to do it. I do think it was pretty amazing.”
When the finale screened in September, to a rapturous applause from nostalgic fans, Herbison was already at work on his next miniseries projects Riptide and Heat, even utilising some defunct Neighbours sets.
There had been interest from other parties about continuing Neighbours, but nothing had been locked in…. until a call from Fremantle CEO Greg Woods.
“He called and said, ‘Are you sitting down?’”
Amazon had committed to reviving the show through Amazon Freevee internationally and 10 (Australia). Prime Video would also have ANZ rights.
“There was an awful lot to discuss. First questions were, could we bring the show back? We didn’t have the cast. We didn’t have the street (location deals with home owners at Pin Oak Court had lapsed). We were preparing to lose the studios. So there were a lot of questions about could we even do it? It took a fair amount of time to work through,” he recalls.
“I had days to think about some cast.”
“Once we worked through everything and realised we had a deal, I had days to think about some cast. I was very keen -and Amazon and 10 also agreed- that as a wonderful mark of respect, it would be terrific to have some of the key heritage cast onboard for the announcement.”
L to R: Jason Herbison, Guy Pearce, Annie Jones.
He immediately reached out to “the Big 4” – Jackie Woodburne, Alan Fletcher, Stefan Dennis and Ryan Moloney- in a surprise visit to their homes to secure them for an Amazon / 10 announcement in November.
“I went to all their houses, in person. I said ‘I’m in the neighborhood. Can I drop in?’ Jackie was first and I said, ‘Don’t say anything!’ But she couldn’t because her jaw was on the floor.
“Then Stefan, Alan and Ryan. It was like The Amazing Race. They were all home, which I felt was quite prophetic. Imagine if they hadn’t been!”
“I was very hurt and disappointed for the show”
Herbison still remembers sitting at the AWGIE Awards in November as the announcement went live through socials, timed for both UK and Australia.
“I was very upset at the AWGIEs because nobody mentioned the end of Neighbours. Not one word. I was very hurt and disappointed for the show that no one mentioned it. But the joyous end to the evening was that we announced that same night… that the show was coming back.”
Alan Fletcher, Ryan Moloney
But with only 4 cast confirmed, and no guarantee of securing the all-important streetscape, how would he approach the writing with script producer Shane Isheev?
The solution to his problem lay in a two year time leap.
“I thought, “Who do I think I’m going to get back?’ Then I just began thinking about the return of the show. We knew that time would have passed on air. We knew a transmission gap might be at least a year. Therefore time will have moved on in the lives of the audience,” he continues.
“It still needs to be the show that the audience loves and remembers.’
“The very first thing was, ‘I think it still needs to be the show that the audience loves and remembers.’ Obviously, we want to move it forward, make it even bigger and better, make it more progressive, make it all those things. But I wouldn’t want to change the DNA of the show. Nor do Amazon or 10.”
Xavier Molyneux, Mischa Barton
The time leap helps explain some of the new faces, who join familiar Ramsay Street residents, including Mischa Barton, best known for The OC and The Hills. Casting her was Herbison’s idea as the show forges into the US and Canada via Freevee, but also plays into Neighbours tradition of celebrity guest cast.
Barton plays US character Reece Sinclair who stays at Lassiters hotel and meets Byron Stone (Xavier Molyneux, replacing Joe Klocek).
“It’s always a great device to bring in a new character and see the world through their eyes,” he explains.
“(Mischa) hadn’t done a serial drama before, or done the pace of the serial drama. With anyone that comes to the show that hasn’t done a serial drama before we do tell them it’s going to be fast and different to how you’ve worked before. But there’s an adrenaline rush that comes with that.
“She doesn’t feel like a fish out of water”
“I have to say, I think her character arrives and feels very much part of the show. She doesn’t feel like a fish out of water. She feels so much straightaway, in my view, like she’s here in the world of Erinsborough.”
By far the biggest shift will be a soapie shocker, evident to fans in the very first episode…. say no more!
L to R : Naomi Rukavina., Marley Williams, Riley Bryant, Sara West.
Other new characters include the Varga-Murphy family, consisting of mums Remi (Naomi Rukavina) and Cara (Sara West) and teenage sons JJ (Riley Bryant) and Dex (Marley Williams) plus Harold’s Cafe manager Haz (Shiv Palekar) and new Labrador pooch Trevor.
“We’re part of the popular culture in two countries”
Herbison is hoping Neighbours 3.0 will please the loyal fanbase and win over some new ones in the process. It’s the passion for the show that drove Amazon’s desire to hitch itself to the show’s long history and repackage it for a digital audience. But can a soap work on a streaming platform?
“We’re part of the popular culture in two countries, and possibly more. People have grown up with us, they have a place in their hearts for us.
“It’s a brave new world and that makes it really exciting. We’re obviously thrilled to be working with them, we’re absolutely thrilled that they came to us. They know what a beloved brand it is, particularly in the UK. So they saw the value in that, and have been wonderfully respectful to the show.
“The show didn’t end because it wasn’t going well,” he insists.
“The show ended because Channel Five made an informed decision and they were incredibly respectful to us in that decision, and gave us a lot of notice on it. They just put their priorities elsewhere, which we had to understand.
“Amazon, rightly I believe, saw the potential in the show that still had a very strong audience. Content is everywhere. But you can’t buy brand loyalty.”
Neighbours returns 4:30pm Monday on 10 (6:30pm replay on 10 Peach / September 25 on Prime Video).
Monday: TV Tonight goes behind the scenes of Neighbours.