The DVD Neighbours – The Iconic Episodes: Volume 1 isn’t the first place you’d look for Australian comedy, even if you’re the sort of person who finds late 80s fashions and mildly crap acting a cack. It’s more a DVD you’d buy if you have an interest in either Neighbours (obviously) or Australian social history – the sort of social history you won’t be reading about in the history textbooks of the future, the sort of social history that shows us what people did at a point in time simply because it was how things were.
And so, we draw your attention to the weird time capsule that is the Neighbours 1000th Episode Special, one of the special features on Neighbours – The Iconic Episodes: Volume 1, and one we can assure you is far more enticing than the non-special features, even the one entitled Naked Henry episode.
The Neighbours 1000th Episode Special was a tribute show made in 1989 for Network 10. It looks every bit like a miniature Logies, from the opening shots of a hired limo pulling up in front of a red carpet, to the auditorium (or more accurately, the Channel 10 studios) filled with heavily decorated tables populated by B-list personalities. But being 1989 and a Channel 10 production this is no ordinary tribute show – it’s hosted by The Comedy Company’s Mark Mitchell, high on his success as one of the leading lights of the “Comedy Boom” and happy to demonstrate that it’s comedy, not soap opera, that Australians of that era really wanted to see.
What follows seems somewhat strange to contemporary eyes. If someone working in TV right now did a tribute show to Packed to the Rafters it would be a largely serious affair, with cast and crew lining up to give their memories of making the show, montages of classic moments and a couple of special live performances. It’d be light-hearted, of course, but ultimately quite dull. The Neighbours 1000th Episode Special is all that, but for every tedious reminiscence from Ian Smith (Harold) or bland video message from Kylie or Jason (who are both, separately, sorry they can’t attend, but they’re in London recording an album) there’s an appearance from some “leading light” of Australian comedy, or a stack of lame gags from Mitchell.
Rather than be content with a serious segment on Neighbours as an international phenomenon (although there’s one of those too, complete with Brits gushing about what a positive show Neighbours is unlike their depressing Eastenders), the producers, in their wisdom, have booked impressionist Gerry Connolly to give a speech, as the Queen, on the impact of the show in the UK. It goes down well (well, one of the child stars of Neighbours is seen shaking his head and pretending to cry with laughter) but it seems kind of out of context. Similarly, there’s a cameo from Col’n Carpenter (Kym Gyngell’s popular bogan character of the period) who’s accidentally left his car in the producer of Neighbours’ parking space. It’s presumably some kind of in-joke, and it’s about as funny as it sounds.
At the end of the show it almost felt as if The Comedy Company or comedy in general had been celebrated, not one of Australia’s most successful drama programmes ever – and it says a lot about Australia in the late 1980s that this seems perfectly normal to everyone involved.
The Neighbours 1000th Episode Special isn’t really that funny, more interesting, in the way that the Don Lane Show boxsets are and Myf Warhurst recreating aspects of the past in Nice isn’t – it’s about seeing the attitude of the time in context. It shows a period in history when TV fluff got the treatment it deserved instead of slavish, irony-free devotion, and it’s from an era where comedy wasn’t necessarily funnier than it is now, but was at least understood by producers and audiences as an important, even necessary, ingredient of light entertainment, nay life.
Compare this to today’s television. When was the last time you saw a serious TV show invite some comedians on and give them free reign to take the piss? The best we can come up with is Dame Edna’s recent appearance as a special judge on Dancing with the Stars. Compared to Barry Humphries’ usual antics Edna’s comments on the contestants’ performances were pretty mild, but host Daniel McPherson made it sound like the comedy equivalent of a nuclear meltdown was occurring in the studio. Perhaps by the standards of Dancing with the Stars it was? Similarly, Shaun Micallef’s celebrated appearance on Channel 10’s Breakfast a few months back was a wonderful moment of live television, but one which those involved in the production of Breakfast are supposed to have not enjoyed quite so much.
Here’s an idea: why don’t we all relax a bit? It’s only comedy, and comedy’s hardly the most destructive of weapons. Hell, if we sit back and let it happen we might even find that it’s fun. And it’s gotta be more interesting than watching B-list celebrities trundle round some fake ballroom, or Paul Henry get on his high horse? Or would being the topic of a few gags be too much for the egos of today’s stars to handle?