Liz Giuffre’s earlier blog ‘From Ramsay Street, With Love’ starts with an apology and ends with an assurance that Australians know that long-running soap Neighbours is ‘a bit embarrassing and a bit backward’. As a Scottish fan of the soap, I read her blog with fascination. Giuffre’s response resonates with my own experience of speaking with Australian friends (not just friends – anyone I encounter that has spent time in Australia really) about the programme – there’s often a hint of fondness there, but this tends to be nostalgic fondness for the soap in the 1980s, rather than an interest in it now. There’s also often a lot of eye-rolling, as if they get asked about it all the time, reinforcing Giuffre’s argument that the programme is culturally embarrassing.
This idea of Neighbours as an embarrassing ‘guilty pleasure’ is something that I frequently encounter. As a new-semester ice-breaker, I often ask students what their favourite television programmes are, starting by telling them that mine is Neighbours. This disclosure commonly prompts giggling and groans. In part, I do this because it is the truth – I absolutely love Neighbours – but also because I find it useful to emphasise to students from the outset that I am no TV snob and that there is more to television studies than discussing ‘quality’ (often male-centred, HBO) shows.
My fandom meant that I read Giuffre’s blog rather defensively. It is a defensiveness I feel regularly when I sit down to watch Neighbours and the subtitler gets the main characters’ names wrong, calling Toadie ‘Tony’ and Amber ‘Emma’ (I watch a lot of TV with subtitles and no sound these days in the futile hope that my young children won’t notice and ask to change the channel, but that’s a whole other blog), or when the continuity announcer interrupts the credits with a cheery and flippant remark after a particularly sad episode ending.
So my first instinct was to defend the show. And I do think Neighbours has done some interesting things. Giuffre herself notes Charlene’s occupation in the 80s as a tomboy mechanic. More recently, the show has introduced core gay characters who live on the street and function as more than just side-kicks to their heterosexual friends, and in keeping with the soap tradition of tackling topical social issues, there have been storylines about public breast-feeding, sexual assault and PTSD. At the moment, there is interesting narrative about a young dad experiencing post-natal depression. There are also some great performances. When discussing performance, the tendency is often to focus on actors who have moved from Neighbours into high profile US television or film roles (Guy Pearce, for example, or more recently Margot Robbie), but I’d argue that Susan and Karl Kennedy are just as note-worthy for over two-decades’ worth of seemingly effortless on-screen intimacy as husband and wife.
However, I’m aware that this defensiveness isn’t really useful or interesting. In many ways, Giuffre’s blog is spot on. One of the things I like most about Neighbours (and often soaps more widely) is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously and is frequently self-aware. The 30th Anniversary TV Special, for example, featured actors laughing at some of their particularly sloppy acting moments as well as mocking their more hardcore fans (something I’ll admit that I found a bit uncomfortable). As feminist scholars of soap opera in the 1980s importantly argued, it is possible for viewers to be both emotionally involved with a programme and able to critique it at the same time. Moreover, the very fact that I am writing this blog as a Scottish television scholar reinforces Giuffre’s bemusement relating to the UK’s love of the soap.
But rather than focusing on Neighbours as a source of cultural embarrassment, recently I’ve been thinking about its possibilities as a source of cultural value, particularly in relation to TV tourism. As I noted in a previous blog, footage of Scott and Charlene’s wedding occupies a prominent space in the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne and tourists can go on guided tours of the set, meet members of the cast at official “Neighbours Nights” held in local pubs and visit the real Ramsay Street (Pin Oak Court in the suburb of Vermont). The majority of my British friends have taken the time to engage with some aspect of Neighbours culture when visiting Melbourne, regardless of whether they actively watch the soap. Making this connection to tourism explicit, episodes of Neighbours frequently end with the direct address of cast members, inviting viewers to enter competitions to win trips to Melbourne and meet the cast.
There is a growing body of literature on television tourism, such as Joanne Connell’s (2005) research into the impact of Balamory on tourism in the Isle of Mull, Scotland and the Screening the Nation: Landmark Television in Wales project (Blandford, Lacey, McElroy, Williams, 2009 – 2010) which explored, among other things, discourses of tourism around programmes including Doctor Who and Torchwood. I’ve also come across several articles on tourism in relation to film lately, especially in a Scottish context in which current discussions about the establishment of a local film and television studio have led to wider debates about the cultural and economic impact of the Scottish screen industries. While these articles focus predominantly on tourism in relation to film, they often also include examples from television but with little consideration of medium specificity. This is what I’m interested in looking at further. There is arguably something very different about visiting the site in which a film was made to visiting the location of a long-running television series. These series have the potential to offer a much stronger sense of place. Indeed, speaking to the importance of place, in a previous blog on Scandinavian crime drama, Ruth McElroy (2013) comments upon the ‘palpable sense of place which suffuses the narrative and which goes well beyond being a context for the plot’s action to become more of a character in itself’.
These research ideas are at a very early stage, but I am interested in looking further at the impact of medium specificity on experiences of television tourism. How does TV tourism (and I’m thinking specifically about tourism connected to long-form narratives, such as soaps and drama series) differ from film tourism? How does medium specificity intersect with the viewer/tourist’s engagement with a place? My own experience of visiting film locations has mainly been about trying to recall a few key scenes. In contrast, my experience of visiting TV locations was much more about trying to tap into an abstract and yet more powerful feeling and sense of place conveyed by particular shows. To return to the discussion of Neighbours, when visiting Melbourne I declined the opportunity to visit the studio sets or meet the cast as I didn’t want to be made aware of the soap’s artifice. My main pleasure on visiting Pin Oak Court, the real Ramsay Street, was precisely the ability to suspend my disbelief and imagine that the characters were really in the houses, the only major give-away being the lone security car in the driveway. It was an overwhelming experience that speaks to the intensity of viewer engagement that can be enabled by long-running narratives on television and it is this that I want to get to grips with further in relation to TV tourism.
Susan Berridge is Lecturer in Film and Media and a member of the Centre for Gender and Feminist Studies at the University of Stirling. Her research focuses on representations of age, gender, sexuality and sexual violence in popular culture. She has published on these themes in journals including Feminist Media Studies, The Journal of British Cinema and Television and New Review of Film and Television Studies. Susan is also the co-editor of the Commentary and Criticism section of Feminist Media Studies.