The Old Block

Ricky French takes the opportunity to do one of the final Neighbours tours of Vermont South.

Aaron has been a tour guide for just four weeks. He’s an affable chap, driving buses to Victoria’s hottest tourist destinations: the Great Ocean Road, Mornington Peninsula, Phillip Island’s Penguin Parade. And Vermont South.

For 21 years preceding Aaron’s mere four weeks, a white bus emblazoned with “Neighbours Tour” in the unmistakable font of the long-running soap has been plying this unlikely route, conveying fans to the Channel 10 studio where the action was filmed, and to the real but not real Ramsay Street itself. This would be one of the last ever tours.

There were 17 of us on the bus. At a rough guess I’d say around 16 were huge Neighbours fans. I’ve not watched the show since circa 1994, but for a few years I was as obsessed as my fellow passengers currently were. Around half were from interstate. Two were from England. Aaron told us a story about a couple from England who travelled to Melbourne the other week just to do the tour. “They flew in on the Friday, did the tour Saturday and Sunday, flew home on the Monday.” It would have been a good story even without the best part: the couple got engaged on the Sunday tour, at Ramsay Street. They waited two years during the pandemic to get engaged, because they wanted to do it in a cul-de-sac in Vermont South.

Our bus pulled into the studios in Nunawading. There was another much flasher bus already there, with a Manchester United logo on the side. England’s most loved/hated Premier League team was in town. Had the players really chosen an outing to Nunawading for fun on their day off? Short answer: no. A few team staff trundled out, and I asked if Harry Maguire and co were sitting on the bus, waiting for the rain to stop. No, I was told. The players were way too young for Neighbours.

Fair call, but there was definitely youthful blood in our group. One young pup wore a “Toadie” T-shirt – referencing the show’s troubled teen turned lawyer, thrice married – and I latched on to him as my interpreter as we drifted around the outdoor sets, pausing for photos at Sonya’s Nursery, the 82 tram, Grease Monkeys, Karl’s greenhouse and Harold’s Cafe.

Numerous Logie awards the show had won were displayed in a dusty glass cabinet flanked by a rubbish bin and a microwave, inside a donga-like building on a service road.

“Are these the actual Logies?” I asked Aaron.

“I think so,” he said.

We stood around in the backyard of married couple David and Aaron’s house as if invited to a barbecue where no‑one had remembered to bring any food or drink. “If you’re finished taking photos we’ll move on,” tour guide Aaron said, for the 67th time that day.

Tour company owner Terry Smit was there. He had a round, focused face and wore an oversized pirate earring in his left ear. Smit said the high point for these tours had been 2006, when the Commonwealth Games brought an influx of Brits to Melbourne. Tours used to run seven days a week. A woman handed him her phone to take a photo of her outside The Waterhole. He happily obliged, then turned back to me and shrugged. “Nothing lasts forever.”

A woman named Lisa had made the trip from Brisbane. She wasn’t trying to be melodramatic when she said it felt like someone was dying. “It’s really hard. This show has been a part of my life forever.” She described the viewing pleasure as a type of voyeurism, hooked by the heightened drama of other families’ lives. Many talked about how the show gave stability to their day, even if nothing else in their life was stable. “Neighbours was about two things,” Lisa said. “Love and family.”

A crack of thunder rang out and Aaron took it as a sign to herd us back on the bus. It was a four-minute drive to Ramsay Street (or Pin Oak Court as the real people who live there know it), enough time for Aaron to tell us about the time a couple of drunk guys rolled up one night and took nudie photos on a verandah. It must be nice living there.

The street looked so much smaller than anyone imagined, the houses stuck in a 1980s time warp. We milled around in the drizzle beside the Robinson house, the Ramsay house, Mrs Mangel’s house. Aaron wielded a prop “Ramsay St” street sign like a scythe, passing it around for photos under the garden arch at Karl and Susan’s place. We all agreed it was far too cold for nudie photos on the verandah of number 24.

Lisa looked round at the semi-circle of neat houses, symbols of a simple suburban dream. Thirty-seven years of heightened drama; of love; of family.

“These days people don’t know their neighbours,” she said. “So the show replaces that connection. I guess people don’t need to know their neighbours because they’re inside watching Neighbours.”

It started hailing. We made a dash for the bus and Aaron set course back to Flinders Street. The windows were steamed up. When you looked back you couldn’t see Ramsay Street at all.


By Ricky French
Ricky French is a Melbourne-based journalist and Big Issue columnist.

First published in ed#666