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‘Neighbours’ soap lasts longest

Oz's sudser enters 20th year

SYDNEY — Australian skein “Neighbours” has reason to celebrate — it became Oz’s longest-running primetime soap at the end of July when it aired its 4,768th episode — passing that milestone in its 20th year.

It’s now the world’s second-oldest primetime soap after Blighty’s venerable “Coronation Street,” which has been on the tube since 1960. To celebrate, “Neighbours” created a show of special cameo segments.

However, “Neighbours,” about the residents of Ramsay Street, a quiet cul de sac in the fictitious Melbourne suburb of Erinsborough, was almost a TV footnote.

Skein kicked off on Seven on March 18, 1985, but it failed to take hold with viewers, and the impatient network dropped it after four months. Ten bought the unscreened episodes from production company Grundy Television and gave it a second chance.

Show recently inked to run on Ten for three more years.

One of “Neighbours’ ” biggest boasts is the start it has given over the years to some of Oz’s most famous exports in music and acting. Sudser has an enviable list of alum, including pop princesses Kylie Minogue and Holly Valance, Guy Pearce (“L.A. Confidential,” “Memento”), Alan Dale (“24,” “The OC”), Jason Donovan (“MDA”), Jesse Spencer (“House”), Natalie Imbruglia (“Johnny English”), Radha Mitchell (“Finding Neverland”) and even Russell Crowe — who was on the show for a blink-and-you’d-miss-it four episodes.

Executive producer Ric Pelizzeri says “Neighbours” is an excellent training ground for actors.

“They work in a daily environment focusing their craft, and they get to practice a huge variety of skills from comedy to tragedy, from high drama to farce. If you are not versatile, you just don’t last,” he says.

It has been one of the local industry’s most popular exports: It’s shipped to more than 55 territories, most notably Blighty, where the sudser has screened on pubcaster BBC for 19 years. During its U.K. peak, it reached up to 16 million viewers, beating homegrown soap stalwarts “East Enders” and “Coronation Street.”

Pelizzeri credited the show’s international appeal to good storytelling but says the Blighty auds particularly responded to it being different from local shows that were “too dour and gritty.”

So many Brits wanted to visit Ramsay Street, a “Neighbours” tour was set up, busing fans to the real exterior location of Pink Oak Court in the Melbourne suburb of Vermont.

To celebrate “Neighbours’ ” anniversary, the soap has developed a “show within a show” format, which sees the character of Annalise Hartman (Kimberley Davies) return to make a documentary about a “typical Australian street.” A range of thesps are back for cameos, including Valance, the latest to hope that the sudser translates to Stateside success after small roles in “CSI: Miami” and “Entourage.”

“We made a list of who was important to the show and we got 111 names, but after that we thought who is really important, and we got down to 22 names,” Pelizzeri says.

Cameos were shot in Oz, London and Los Angeles. Higher-profile alum such as Minogue, Pearce and Dale will not appear.

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