I have what they call in showbiz a "day gig": I work at BehaviourWorks Australia, which is part of Monash University’s Sustainable Development Institute. I help to create content that translates and shares the work of behavioural scientists and researchers trying to solve the big social and economic problems facing us.
Part of our work involves identifying social norms, the often unspoken signals we send to each other about what’s acceptable or not. Although some norms change over time, many are so deeply embedded that even profound social change cannot shake them. That thought hit home when I came across an old document from my other day job, as a sometime actor on Neighbours.
It’s script number 172, all the way from the 1980s, and it’s a bona fide cultural artefact.
I have a unique connection to Neighbours. I was in the show a year after it started, playing Dr Clive Gibbons in 1986. Clive had a mullet, a comic style and a secret – his backstory was that he was a gifted doctor who had been pushed into medicine against his will, and who wanted to "find his childhood" by running a Gorrillagram agency.
I stayed for a year, then headed off to become a jobbing actor in different shows and developing what they now call a "portfolio career": performing, writing and directing shows, producing videos, doing whatever you can to make a living.
When I left the show in 1986, they gave me a leather-bound copy of Clive’s first episode, Number 172. Clive then disappeared for more than 30 years – until 2016, when the same character returned to the show as an occasional guest, with less hair and more wrinkles.
Episode 172 is not only full of soap characters, plots and intrigues but it also touches on the language, technologies and social norms that defined our behaviour in this Australian street in the mid-'80s. By comparing it to another script involving Clive – Number 8215 (yes, you read that correctly) from earlier in 2019 – we can get a glimpse of how aspects of Australian life have changed and stayed the same.
In the 1980s, Neighbours was classified as "G", which meant that the content had to be "very mild in impact and suitable for everyone". This placed some interesting limits on what could be portrayed at 7pm on a weeknight.
The writers had to avoid any issue that might cause awkward questions from the kids when it came to sex, coarse language, adult themes and drug use, while at the same time keeping adults involved in the plot. The censors were ever vigilant and to get past them, storylines involving sex and pregnancy had to be spoken in euphemisms. Dr Clive diagnosed Daphne as "expecting a baby" without once uttering the word "pregnant".
The classification also limited how much blood or violence could be shown. One of Clive’s most impressive medical interventions was to perform a tracheotomy on a kitchen table (making an incision in the windpipe to allow someone to breathe), all without a drop of blood.
This year, the show was re-classified in Australia as "PG" – Parental Guidance – which means it “may contain content that children find confusing or upsetting and may require the guidance of parents and guardians". That simple change has altered the tone of the show.
Now, the writers are a little more daring: characters are shown bleeding, sex and even erectile dysfunction are openly discussed, and there is nudity (usually limited to fleeting glimpses of men’s naked butts).
In 1986, most Ramsay Street houses had one landline phone, usually in the kitchen or hallway, with a cord so you couldn’t walk around with it. Confidential conversations were almost impossible if someone else was in the house, and lots of things were overheard and gossiped about.
People also had to write to each other. In Episode 172, Max Ramsay (the original Aussie battler) tells Madge he’s going to write her a long letter, and that he’ll communicate with her "by post".
By the time of Episode 8215, everyone has a mobile phone. Characters can’t do without them. They say, “give me my phone back”, or “put that on silent". People use text to break up and make up (although for dramatic reasons, this often happens face to face).
After crashing a car while joy-riding, Hendrix asks for his phone back in order to “set people straight if they’re talking crap about me online". Terese replies: "It’s all over the internet anyway." Paul Robinson (the one original character still going strong) tells an angry teenager to go to her room, adding: “There’s Wi-Fi. You’ll survive.”
Some things just don’t happen anymore. In 1986, Gorillagrams were a thing. You could pay someone in a costume to deliver a singing telegram or hand over flowers at someone’s workplace or home. Clive burst onto the scene dressed as a gorilla (I can still smell that rubber mask).
In 1986, sandwiches in Daphne’s café made by Mike (played by a young Guy Pearce, no less) cost $1.85. Today, you’d be lucky to get a wrap under $8 – and hold the quinoa.
Then – women jumped out of cakes, which was as close to stripping as Neighbours could get. Now, men are strippers. Aaron, an openly gay character, started out as an exotic dancer on the show.
This brings us to perhaps the biggest change. In 1986, everyone presented as white and straight. Today, people of colour have finally broken the all-white barrier and diversity is a pillar of the show. Some current characters have Indian or Japanese heritage without this being worth commenting on.
In 1986, sandwiches in Daphne’s café cost $1.85. Today, you’d be lucky to get a wrap under $8 – and hold the quinoa.
Two of the main characters are gay and married (a first for Australian TV), and one of the newest characters is transgender. Neighbours prides itself on keeping up with and even overtaking social norms.
Yet as Neighbours approaches its 35th anniversary next year, what is striking is how tenaciously it holds to its faith in family values. From day one, the show had blended families – single parents raising kids, in and out of relationships, with friends and relatives who move in for a while. What counted was a character’s capacity for honesty, decency, forgiveness and care. The cavalcade of characters who broke these norms came to a sticky end or were written out.
Today, characters may have experienced a traumatic childhood, mental illness or even prison, but when they move into Ramsay Street, they will be absorbed into the wider family and expected to be caring, honest and loyal. Bad people will continue to test the street’s inhabitants – until they, too, end up dead or written out.
In episode 172, Madge called her blokey brother, Max, an “ocker”. Who remembers the last time they used or even heard that word? Yet Ramsay Street remains a bright, sunny, mythical Australian world, still watched avidly (twice a day) by millions of British viewers, who far outnumber the Australian audience. It’s still a show that just about anyone can watch, with their children.
Drinking and swearing might be seen as typical Aussie behaviour, but not on Ramsay Street. In 1986, Zoe sipped champagne on a special occasion, but almost no one got intoxicated. In 2019, Sheila gets "tipsy" but only to the point of being comically rude. Down the years, characters who get drunk usually get help.
As for bad language, in the '80s, an idiot was a “drongo”, at worst a “flamin’ drongo”, who might be told to “rack off”. The strongest language today? “Hussy”, “psycho” and “shrivelled-up mung bean”.
We Aussies and our cultural artefacts, eh? We’ll continue to influence and change each other, inventing new norms, holding on to some and quietly letting others go. Crikey.
Neighbours airs weeknights on 10 Peach at 6.30pm.