It was must-see teatime viewing for generations, the home to Kylie Minogue and Margot Robbie before they became mega stars, the street that gave us Harold Bishop’s return from the dead and Bouncer’s dream, and where good Neighbours became good friends.
While the soap moved from the BBC to Channel 5 and lost UK viewers over the years, for those who grew up in the 1980s and ’90s it was always more than just a TV show.
From Paul’s affair with his wife’s twin sister – caught out by the baby monitor! – and Todd being killed on his way to stop Phoebe having an abortion, to the tornado and plane crash in more recent years, Neighbours brought typical soap melodrama, tragedy and sexy affairs, but as the sunnier, more glamorous Australian cousin of its British counterparts.
While the big screen and polished dramas get the critical acclaim, the vast majority will never see the love that soaps build with their audiences. The characters are a constant in our lives, the (mostly) friendly faces who invite us in to their highs and lows and provide hot topics for the school playground and, lets’s be honest, office catch-ups.
And none more so than Dr Karl Kennedy, played by Alan Fletcher. After 28 years in Erinsborough, he and his on-screen wife Susan (played by Jackie Woodburne) are officially Ramsay Street’s longest-serving residents.
Despite Dr Karl’s affairs – who can forget Susan’s slap? – and illegitimate child and recent questionable investment, he and Susan remain together and he is arguably Neighbours’ best-loved star. Not just beloved on screen, he has also built a fan base as a musician – first with his band Waiting Room and now as he prepares to release his debut solo album.
So as we prepare for the end (sob), who better to speak to about saying goodbye to Ramsay Street?
“We will finish filming the final scenes on 10 June,” says Fletcher (must remember to call him that, the urge to write Dr Karl is strong). “I’m on a break from Neighbours now until mid-May, so I will go back and do the last four weeks of the show, which promise to be – this is a big statement – possibly the best episodes of Neighbours ever made, because we have a lot of returning guests.
“It’s going to be an absolute hurricane of filming and I think the fans are going to love it.”
So far, Harold Bishop (played by Ian Smith) has been confirmed to return, he says, and there are many more. Can we expect the likes of Kylie and Jason bringing back Scott and Charlene, perhaps Margot Robbie or even Russell Crowe, too? And can Fletcher reveal anything about how it’s going to end? Surely it can’t all have been a dream, Dallas-style? Or could it end with a T-Rex attack, like Byker Grove? (Yes, really).
“Well, I would dearly love to [give a spoiler], if I knew,” says Fletcher. “Here’s the thing… I can’t tell you something I don’t know about. The ink is still drying on that last episode, they waited to write it for as long as possible because they didn’t know who was going to come back… and now they are keeping that so guarded.
“It’s such top secret stuff, I don’t know when I’ll find out. I guess… three weeks before it happens and my script lands in my inbox. So I could be sly and call you up then.” (Obviously Sky News is holding him to this).
“I’m assuming that whatever that last scene is, everyone will turn up and fill the studio,” he says. “This has happened before when actors have left the show, where they’re filming their last scene and it might just be two people on the set, you know, discussing their love, and there are 150 people in the studio, in the dark, waiting for the scene to finish.
“This will be extraordinary, I know it will be. It’ll be so emotional. I think a lot of people just won’t know what to say. They won’t know what to do. It’ll be like, what do we do now?”
Karl and Susan to move to the UK?
As such popular characters, has he ever considered pitching a Karl and Susan spin-off? “What would be fun would be Karl and Susan go travelling through the UK and just accidentally turn up in every UK soap as tourists,” he suggests.
“We could be in EastEnders and go for a pint at the pub and I could go on to the set of Doctors and be asked to help save a life in the street. We’d have a grand old time. Up to Corrie and then go across to Emmerdale. Brilliant.”
And if he could keep any Neighbours memorabilia? “There’s one piece of memorabilia that will be absolutely capital to get your hands on,” he says. “It’s the portrait of the three Kennedy children painted by Helen Daniels sitting over our fireplace. It’s been there for literally 27 years. That’s a cracker.
“There’s also a picture of me from back in the ’70s when I had a moustache and sort of semi-long hair, which was actually from a play, that belongs to me. So the first thing I’m going to do on the last day of filming is rush over and actually grab what belongs to me.
“But I don’t know there’s going to be any opportunity to try and slyly pinch anything because I believe it will go into storage as being historical. Basically, it’s history, it’ll be all going to a museum, I think.”
‘I’m not looking for pop stardom’
After Neighbours, Fletcher acknowledges acting could get “a bit tricky, because of course everyone associates me with Dr Karl”. For now, he has decided to concentrate on music.
After performing with rock band Waiting Room since 2004 – releasing two albums and touring the UK 10 times in eight years, as well as maintaining a weekly residency in Melbourne for 12 years – he began to realise his passion for Americana and folk music in 2020.
The resulting album, Dispatches, is set to be released later this year, with the first single – Sorry Is The Word, a duet with former Neighbours star Alyce Platt (Jen Handley and later Olivia Bell; swapping characters is allowed in soap) – released earlier in April.
“The music I’m very keen to really work hard on and I’m looking forward to having a little bit of a break so I can actually write music and record it,” Fletcher says. “At the moment, I’ve got 10 songs, but you know what? It’s very likely I’ll write another one that I like better and some stuff will end up getting the boot. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to the future.”
He later adds: “I’m not looking for any sort of pop stardom or anything. I’m just looking to play my music as honestly as I can, and I don’t care if there’s 10 people watching.”
Inspired by the likes of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton and Keith Urban, Fletcher says his solo shows will be very different to his appearances with Waiting Room back in the 2000s – which often took place at university nights as students turned out to see Dr Karl on stage.
“That was party time,” he says. “There’s lots of jumping around being silly, but this music is a little more subdued. And when I’m playing in the UK, I’ll be playing as a three-piece, so it’ll be more about the words and more about what I’m singing than the antics.”
What’s in the blue box?
Fletcher also has his “evening with” show, The Doctor Will See You Now, which after COVID cancellations is set to finally tour the UK in September. And of all the questions people want to ask about Dr Karl, it’s one about his sex life that comes up most.
“Everyone wants to know what’s in Karl and Susan’s blue box that they keep under their bed, because that’s their marital aid,” he says, laughing. “It’s basically implied that it forms a rather large part of their love life – but no one knows what’s in it.”
Like the ending of Neighbours, Fletcher is staying tight-lipped on this one, too. You’ll have to tune in at the end to see if a blue box reveal forms part of the final hurrah. Unlikely, perhaps – but stranger things have happened in soap.
The last episode of Neighbours is set to air in August. Alan Fletcher’s duet Sorry Is The Word is out now, with album Dispatches to follow later in 2022