It’s been a very dramatic month for the Australian TV show, Neighbours. The usual sunny outlook has been replaced by a huge dark cloud, as reports of racism on set.
I started watching the show when it first aired in the eighties. It was my form of escapism. I loved the characters and the vision of what Australia was like. I read books, wrote to the actors, had posters of the cast covering my walls.
As part of my ChippyTuesday™ quizzes I did during the lockdown, the chances were that a Neighbours question would appear. I think it’s fair to say, that I may have a little obsession with the soap.
So hearing this news shocked me, but at the same time, didn’t really surprise me either. While I love Australia, I’ve learnt that it’s not exactly a diverse country. So having someone within the cast and crew who would be racist, wouldn’t surprise me.
For a TV show that promotes diversity, it’s shocking they don’t have the correct support mechanism in place for discrimination.
Historically, Neighbours was not known for its diversity. In fact, it’s fair to say a lot of Aussie shows were accused of white-washing Australia.
However, with over 25 years on television they were appearing to be more diverse. The Kapoors family was introduced in 2011. They were the first permanent POC family to join the show.
Next to be introduced was Vanessa Villante, who was played by Iranian-born Alin Sumerwata.
Nate Kinski was a First Nation character that was introduced to the show in 2014. Another first for Neighbours
LGBT+ representation started in 2004, when the first lesbian character, Lana Crawford was introduced to the show.
It wasn’t until 2010, where we had the first permanent gay character, Chris Pappas was introduced. Since then, we have always have LGBT+ representation within the show.
Talented actress Georgie Stone, approached Neighbours about a storyline for a trans character as she wanted representation on screen. In 2019, Georgie played Mackensie Hargreaves in a guest role, whom would later join the show as a permanent character.
It appears from the outside that Neighbours is a progressive place to be, although this doesn’t appear to be true. Shareena Clanton publicly stated that she would never work on the show, due to it’s toxicity working environment, and multiple racist traumas that she experienced while working on the show.
Additional cast members come forward
It wasn’t long after this announcement, that First Nation actor Meyne Wyatt also complained about racism. As well as sexism (something else that Shareena mentions) and homophobia!
Then Sharon Johal also confirmed that she didn’t feel supported in either online trolls or workplace harassment and racist comments.
This is a show that celebrates diversity, but in the background is anything but. What felt like a safe show, doesn’t anymore.
It is fair to say that Shareena’s statement lit a firework under the show’s ass, and caused the biggest disaster this show has seen. The clean up, makes “The Erinsborough Tornado” look like litter picking in comparison.
However, when the news broke, online trolls attacked Shareena for speaking out. It appears that she angered so many Australians for telling the truth.
Let’s be honest, the majority of the attackers probably don’t watch the show. Otherwise, Neighbours would be the #1 programme in Australia!
The Australian media, also shows how it still has a long way to go. This became apparent when one of their entertainment journalists went on air and try and defend the use of the ‘n’ word due to context. Spoiler…it isn’t!
For legal reasons Shareena never named anyone who she is talking about, so this kept a pool of culprits wide. However Peter Ford’s statement from their inside source stated that it was a POC actor who used the ‘n’ word.
This is more damaging, as the possible actors who said it drops to about three people. Potentially getting innocent people placed into the firing line for abuse.
Additionally, reading the recent reports that is coming out, it is safe to say that there could be more than one cast member that is a responsible for on set racism.
As more actors speak out about Neighbours’ workplace environment, I think it’s worthwhile looking back at some controversial history from the show
The Lim Family
Neighbours had been criticised of whitewashing Australia, so they introduced The Lims Family family in 1993.
This guest family lived on the street for a few weeks before being shipped to Eden Hills. The only thing that they’re remembered for is Julie Martin accusing them of eating the family dog!
At the time, I thought that this was them trying to deal with racism that happens in the country. However on reflection, it was poorly written and acted. It just missed the mark.
Nicola joined the show in 1996 as Sarah Beaumont. As a white British actress she experienced xenophobia from two cast members, which she has claimed in her latest book.
She found a letter from the two actors that was sent to the immigration department, trying to get her deported because she is taking roles from Australian actors.
This didn’t surprise me, as this is something that I was very much aware of this being an issue. Which was also confirmed to me lately by a friend who used to live in Australia.
The irony is these actors who complained, most likely travelled to another country for acting roles.
As mentioned previously, the Kapoors were written into the show in 2011 due to appease to a wider UK audience.
I remember this being announced on the Neighbours Facebook page, and witnessing the negative reaction that this received…mainly from Australians.
I, along with many other people, were disgusted with the outright racism that we were witnessing on the Neighbours page. This was never challenged from the Neighbours social team.
This is something that Menik Gooneratne, who played Priy, confirmed that they were just left to deal with it on their own.
Not long after the family had settled into the show, they were swiftly out. Neighbours stated that it was a decision of the actors, but Sachin Joab (Ajay Kapoor) confirmed that it wasn’t their decision.
Also, lets not talk about the fact that the characters were sent packing to India…even though they were Australian born!
Just like the Kapoors, Vanessa was in and out. 2013 also saw the only other POC character in the show swiftly removed.
I also remember Neighbours tried to communicate that it was the actors decisions but it soon got out it wasn’t. The viewers were angry that Vanessa & Lucas were being pushed out.
And people noted then that all POC actors were removed from the show. This is a legacy that the executive producer, Richard Jasek, has with him now. Taking into account that he had said prior to their axing that it was important “…It would be stupid to cast Anglo characters only…“.
Meyne Wyatt joined Neighbours in 2014 to play openly gay Nate. Along with the casting the PR promoted heavily, that Meyne was also the first Indigenous regular actor on the show. This was big news for the show.
But after, Shareena’s post Meyne aired his frustration that this is still an issue 5 years after leaving the show.
In Meyne’s posts, he highlighted the issue for the show isn’t just about racism, but sexism and homophobia on set. This is a show that has had LGBT+ representation for years, and has since taken part in Sydney Mardi Gras.
However, behind the scenes homophobia is rife. I know many-a-gay, myself included, that love watching Neighbours, so to see the representation now feels like an empty barrel. I’m sure there are many minorities viewers feeling the same way.
Matt plays Aaron Brennan who is one of the current LGBT+ characters. He got himself in trouble back in 2017, due to some of the terminology used while discussing his character on The Wright Stuff.
When asked about being a straight actor playing a gay role, he said he didn’t have an issue because they wanted to Aaron to be straight acting and normal.
At the time that this happened, I purely put this down to ignorance and not homophobia. Which is something that I still believe. Matt did go on to apologise for what he said.
I have openly said at times I have struggled with Matt playing a gay role as he came off uncomfortable at times. Of recent, I feel like he has taken on the importance of the characters role within the LGBT+ community.
However, the underlying issue for me was that the Neighbours team wanted straight-acting gays on the show. It feels that we can’t see the true community on the show.
To be honest, when Sharon Johal (Dipi Rebecchi) stated that she experienced racism while working on Neighbours. I wasn’t surprised…unfortunately. Not after everything else that I have been reading.
I was fully aware that Sharon was a victim of online racist trolling. I became aware of it due to one of the recent storylines where Dipi had an affair. Sharon called it out, and had the support of a number of actors.
In one of her final interviews for Neighbours socials, she discussed a number of things including being the victim of online trolls. This really stuck out to me as raising this topic, it was clear that it affected her and her time on the show. Yet Digital Spy preferred to concentrate on a flippant remark and make that news.
Not long after leaving the show, and prior to returning for a guest appearance, Sharon confirmed and shared some of the racist abuse she received on the Neighbours’ set.
Additionally, the lack of support she received from the production company, and how reporting any issues in return created workplace bullying.
I think it is fair to say that Neighbours and its producer’s Freemantle have handled this whole situation badly.
When Shareena first spoke out, there was only silence from the Neighbours’ camp. It’s as if they thought that they could keep quiet and it would just be swept under the carpet.
When Meyne threw fuel on the fire, so they had to go into damage control.
In return they released a statement, that felt empty and full of PR jargon to try and minimise the issue. I and many people didn’t buy this response from Freemantle or Neighbours
There have been significant and lengthy discussions with Shareena during her time on Neighbours and we will continue to work with all cast and crew to ensure Neighbours continues to be a fully inclusive environmentNeighbours (via BBC website)
The original statement from the show did not really respond to the allegations that were being put forward, instead they listened to what Shareena was complaining about. Fact is, they didn’t really “listen”!
It wasn’t long after this bad statement, that another Freemantle/Neighbours statement was issued confirming that independent review to be completed.
Fremantle is committed to providing an environment where employees and others in the workplace are treated fairly and with respect, and are free from unlawful discrimination, harassment, victimisation and bullying. We do not tolerate behaviour that does not align to our Anti-Discrimination, Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO), Harassment & Bullying Policy and take all complaints very seriously, investigating all allegations fairly and thoroughly. We have asked Campfire X, creative leaders in Indigenous Cultural Protocols, to conduct an independent review of Neighbours and the production process.Neighbours (via Facebook)
Additionally since the revelations from Sharon, they have employed lawyers as well to help with the investigation.
It now feels like they are finally taking it the issue seriously.
It’s not just a Neighbours issue
All these revelations, the one thing that I noticed, is that while Neighbours is a toxic environment and needs to change, this just isn’t a show issue. This is an industry and a country issue, and it needs to change everywhere.
I used to have this assumption that Australia was such a laid back and liberal country. Turns out I was wrong!
Remember, as well as abuse within the workplace for some, all the actors experienced racism from “viewers”. And for speaking out, they have received more abuse.
It should be highlighted that there are other shows, for example Home & Away, that still have very little (if any) representation for minorites.
This is not a Neighbours issue, per-say, but one for the industry. Neighbours production team have to deal with the toxicity that they have within the team, but this also needs to be a wider discussion throughout the country/industry.
Let’s not forget that this is not just an Aussie issue. Last year, the UK has also been in the news because of racism on the set of Hollyoaks.
What the future holds?
Neighbours is Australia’s longest running show, and there is a lot of sentiment and history about it. While it may not be popular in Aus, it is in other parts of the world.
However, just because of how long it’s been going doesn’t mean that it should continue production. The News of the World was nearly 170 years old before it was closed down as it couldn’t survive it’s own scandals. But that toxicity runs deep.
How deep into Neighbours organisation does this issue lie, and can it be fixed? If not, then the show has to end.
I am struggling to watch the show, because I am concentrating more on the which actors are the racists. I have my suspicions on who some of the actors are, so I actually what those characters gone.
The independent investigation needs to be completed quickly and efficiently with clear outcomes and goals. These targets also need to be checked regularly to see they are achieving them.
There needs to be changes within the management of Neighbours. At the end of the day, this happened on their watch. They failed to support their staff.
All cast and crew need to go through diversity training. The severe allegations investigated and cast/crew removed from the show immediately.
There needs to also be more collaborations with minorities when you’re telling their stories. That way, you tel their stories authentically and without offence. Like they did with Georgie Stone and Mackensie.
I don’t want Neighbours to end, but I also understand that if it can’t change then it should.
Everybody needs good Neighbours…it appears that they just aren’t on Ramsay Street!