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Australian Soap Comes to U.S. . . . : Television: Renowned Down Under and in Britain, mild-mannered 'Neighbours' premieres in L.A. today.

June 03, 1991|JEFF KAYE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON — Mel Gibson and Paul Hogan overcame the obstacle of being from Australia and became stars in the United States.

Sure, it was a little tough for them, starting out. Gibson suffered the indignation of having his voice dubbed with an American accent when the first "Mad Max" movie was released in the United States. And didn't Hogan launch his Stateside career flogging Aussie barbecues and whatnot?

But they made it.

So certainly there is hope for "Neighbours," the Australian soap that already has conquered much of the English-speaking world and is about to debut in the United States via syndication. It premieres at 5:30 p.m. today on KCOP Channel 13 in Los Angeles.

Don't think "Dallas." Don't think "Dynasty." Don't even think "Days of Our Lives." Think of a pleasant suburban street in Melbourne, where the sun shines, the pool filter is always running and even tragic car accidents and ill-fated love affairs can't mar the optimism that permeates the neatly clipped lawns and dull split-levels.

The series, which is approaching episode No. 1,500 in Australia, follows the daily dramas of the residents of Ramsay Street--particularly the younger ones, as this is a show dripping in kid appeal. For its U.S. debut, "Neighbours" will start all the way back with episode No. 1.

Viewers will meet self-employed plumber Max Ramsay, whose grandfather gave the street its name; his wife, Maria; and their sons, Shane and Danny. Next door is widower Jim Robinson, who is raising four kids with the help of his mother-in-law. As the series opens, however, it is a third house on the street that draws most of the attention.

That's the home of 28-year-old bachelor Des Clarke, who has decided to rent a room to a young woman named Daphne Lawrence. Daphne, as it turns out, is a stripper.

Reg Watson, the Australian TV executive who created "Neighbours" in 1985 and continues to produce it, said that he started with the idea of making a series that would forgo the kinky and violent plot twists commonly used to propel soaps across their five-day-a-week schedules. Instead, he wanted to create something that would focus on more realistic tales and portray "the common ground between teens and adults," who talk openly to each other and solve their problems together. In other words, wholesome antipodeans.

"Is the drug scene entertaining?" asks Watson. "No. Swearing? What does it do? Smoking? Drinking? We swept it all to one side." (Actually, people do drink on the show. It's Australia, after all--but his point about clean-living characters is essentially accurate.)

There is one potentially unnerving aspect to the show. Faithful viewers will discover that an inordinate number of characters seem to "go to Brisbane" and are never heard from, or mentioned, again. It's not a Stephen Kingish subplot of banishment to a horrible nether world. It's merely one of the show's more common methods of shedding actors, rivaling car crashes as the top send-off device.

Still, the strange role that Brisbane plays may cause amateur Freudians to suspect that someone on the "Neighbours" staff has underlying negative feelings about the city.

Watson seems slightly defensive when asked if there is a deeper meaning. "We've had people go there and come back," he says. "It's a really lovely place to go. Brisbane is my hometown."

The show began airing on the BBC in Great Britain in 1986 and became a surprise smash. The tabloid newspapers constantly write inane stories about the stars and everybody knows the theme song: "Neighbors, everybody needs good neighbors. . . . Next door is only a footstep away. . . ."

Two "Neighbours" stars, Kylie Minogue (who first appears in Episode 234) and Jason Donovan (who joins in Episode 188) became preteen pop stars in the United Kingdom. The romance between their characters, Charlene and Scott, kept millions of prepubescent girls enthralled.

Of course, nothing is forever, and Charlene and Scott eventually married and moved--one at a time--to Brisbane.

The show has persevered without them, although there have been suggestions that, after all these years, the popularity of "Neighbours" may be starting to wane. Fortunately, Britain's minister for schools, Michael Fallon, has come to the rescue, helping to boost the program's profile with his timely appraisal of its merits. "I would like to see 'Neighbours' banned," he told a British newspaper earlier this month. "Children learn nothing from these junk programs, which dull their senses, making teachers' jobs even harder."

"Neighbours" turning kids into dunces? Even the highbrow press rushed to the defense of the Down Under drama.

"On first glance--and it has to be said, on many other glances--this daily soap seems to offer nothing more than an unlikely plot, bad acting and a set that shakes when anybody shuts a door," said Frank Barrett, writing in the ever-thoughtful Independent. "But children recognize 'Neighbours' for what it is: modern-day Shakespeare."

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