“The buzz is phenomenal,” says Stefan Dennis, one of the regulars of the Australian soap that ran for decades before it was cancelled last year.
“What I am getting is something that hasn’t happened since the Eigties. And that is I am being confronted by people on a daily basis, in the dozens, going, ‘I’m so excited.’ This is in Australia, where they’re very laid back and they don’t talk about stuff. And they say, ‘I’m so excited that you’re coming back, that Neighbours is coming back.’”
“Our impression of the show was this really beautiful but bittersweet period,” Georgie Stone, who plays Mackenzie Hargreaves, says. “It did feel like a celebration at the end, because we had all of those incredible people coming back. But at the same time, it did feel like a show ending, and it was quite emotional.”
The cast were devastated it had finished but had started moving on with their lives. So convinced were they that Neighbours had gone for good, in fact, that Rebekah Elmaloglou (who plays regular Terese) had actually moved house from Melbourne to the other side of the country.
“We decided to move up to a place called Wellington, which is on the mid coast of New South Wales,” she tells me. “I have to say, [it] was the most divine several months I’ve ever had… it was a really special, special time.
Then came the announcement: Neighbours was being rebooted on Amazon FreeVee for a brand-new season. Once she heard, Elmaloglou executed an about-turn without hesitation. “We were all moving up there for good and then all of a sudden, next minute, I’m packing my bags and packing up again and moving back to Victoria.”
This new version of Neighbours is more streamlined – as Dennis says, “we’ve had a massive change” – but familiar faces like Toadie, Terese and even Guy Pearce’s Mike will return to Ramsay Street alongside brand-new cast members like Mischa Barton, the former star of the OC, as mysterious American tourist Reece.
“Apparently they’d asked me to come on a few times in the past, but this is a whole new thing,” Barton says. “It’s a reboot. They needed a new character and some fresh stuff, and I read the role of Reese and actually thought she was a great character for me and something that I could sink my teeth into.”
That’s one word for it: many of Barton’s early scenes are decidedly steamy, as Reece embarks on an affair with Byron Stone (Xavier Molyneux) in the Lassiter hotel, where she’s staying. In an age of intimacy coordinators, how did Barton find filming these?
“Xavier is lovely,” she laughs. “He’s very new to the game though. We had an intimacy coach and everything now and I realised, ‘Man, I’ve been doing this for a long time because [it was] just like: get on with it.’
“I didn’t realise it was going to be that steamy to be honest – I was like, ‘Oh wow we’re doing this, okay’ – but I think it was more nerve wracking for him… I realised, ‘Okay, I’d better treat this with more care because he’s very uncomfortable, and now I’m slightly uncomfortable.’”
So does this mean that the reboot is a far cry from your garden-variety Neighbours episode? Far from it, the cast say: the upcoming season also features plenty of the show’s classic plot twists, new romances and appearances from fan favourites like Harold Bishop, Jane Harris and even (briefly) Lucy Robinson.
“At the end of the day, we wanted to bring back Neighbours,” says Elmaloglou. She pauses, searching for the right words. “We didn’t want to bring back a show that wasn’t…”
“Authentic,” Tim Kano, who plays Leo Tanaka, chimes in. “True to the fans.”
She agrees. “We needed to bring back [a] Neighbours that had the essence of Neighbours. So, you know, it’s back, it’s bigger and better. The production values are better. It’s got more of a filmic sort of feel. The storylines, and the scripts are amazing. I pretty much feel like it’s the same Neighbours, but a little bit more polished.”
“It’s still quintessential neighbours,” Georgie Stone, who plays Mackenzie Hargreaves, agrees. “But it has been updated in these little ways that I think are really exciting and fresh.”
Neighbours, and its eccentric cast of characters, boasts a devoted fan base, and for a generation of UK adults, it was the show they watched every day after school.
“I’ve heard other actors tell horror stories about how they’ve been accosted in the street or whatever,” Dennis, whose character Paul Robinson has caused his fair share of drama on the show, says.
“The worst I get is I was walking down the street [in the UK] a while ago, and this little old lady was walking past me… she stops and turns and she yells out and says ‘Paul!’ I stop and turn around. She comes marching back up to me. She whacked me on the arm and said, ‘You’re a very naughty boy.’ That’s about what I get.”
Neighbours: A New Chapter is streaming now on Amazon Freevee