The West

Alan Fletcher stars as Dr Karl Kennedy in Neighbours.

It is estimated that more than 120 million people watch Neighbours around the world each day in more than 50 different countries. Seems like something you would want to invest in if you were a producer.

That's exactly what FremantleMedia has done.

The production company has forked out $1 million to create three purpose-built outdoor sets boasting pools, spas, entertainment areas and the rear facades of numbers 22, 26 and 32 Ramsay Street, which hit the small screen from tonight. The first backyard set to be put on display is Sheila Canning's (Colette Mann) modest yard which now boasts a spa and vege patch.

The Neighbours back lot in Nunawading, Melbourne, is the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere and, up until this year, was just a big patch of grass.

Have you ever noticed it rarely rains in Erinsborough? Well, expect even less wet weather in the coming episodes because the weather-proof sets mean filming can take place rain, hail or shine and Australians' love affair with the outdoors can be on display even more.

"It means that we don't have to travel anywhere to get to the backyards, they're literally just out the door," says Perth-raised actor Alan Fletcher aka Dr Karl Kennedy.

"We can completely control the environment because we're not actually in someone else's backyard so we can actually make it look and feel however we want.

"It gives us an opportunity to work outdoors more often because that's what the audiences want, they want to see the Australian outdoors, the blue sky, they want to see the backyards where people live.

"We were able to make them look really modern and flash with beautiful swimming pools and spa baths and things that the actual backyards don't necessarily have down on Ramsay Street."

The development has been a long time coming for the show, which airs on Eleven and is the number-one rating digital show.

It is now in its 28th season and the team on Australia's longest-running soap produces 150 minutes of drama a week.

"FremantleMedia came to the cast and crew about two years ago with their commitment to improve the show," Fletcher says.

"Because it's an international program and popular all around the world - particularly in Australia and the UK - they wanted to ensure the longevity of Neighbours well into the future.

"They recognised quite sensibly that the way to do that was to invest a lot of money into the show so they completely revamped Lassiter's so there's a lake area, they built these backyards and there was millions of dollars involved there.

"They revamped the sets in the studio, we've had the transition to HD and the look of Neighbours now compared to even three, four years ago, it's like a different show.

"It's got filmic quality, it's beautifully lit, the revamp wasn't just in the way it looked either, they've spent a lot of money in the script area, changing the way the scripts are generated and the number of people who work on scripts and things like that."

The former Wesley college student and father of two started on Neighbours in 1994 and will celebrate 20 years on the show next year.

"I am planning to hang around for quite a while longer because I do love it too much, we're talking at the moment about a continuation," he says.

While most of us will remember him for his role as Dr Karl, Neighbours has provided Fletcher with numerous opportunities.

He has appeared in countless theatrical productions and several television shows - including Embassy, for which he was nominated for an AFI award for best actor, Sword of Honour, the Flying Doctors, the Love Boat, the Young Doctors - and performs in Melbourne band Waiting Room and covers ensemble UBERsavvy.

Next month Fletcher and fellow Neighbours star Saskia Hampele will be presenters at the British Soap Awards in London.

"I've had the opportunity to do other things, it's not as though I'm just doing Neighbours," he says.

"I've got a rock'n'roll band, I tour and do all that sort of thing but every day you turn up on Neighbours it's like you're doing a new job. One week you're doing high drama, you're in the hospital, people are dying and then one week you're having a comedy argument with your neighbour about who's putting whose rubbish in whose bins.

"Your character changes over time anyway.

"I'm sure a lot of people think I am Karl. There's surely an element of typecasting in my life now."

Proud father to Malcolm, Libby and Billy and grandfather to Ben, Karl is a trusted member of the community and a doctor at Erinsborough Hospital. Karl and Susan's marriage has endured a lot over the years, including Karl's infidelity issues which were recently explored with the brief return of Sarah Beaumont (Nicola Charles).

"The great irony was that Sarah's return actually acted as a catalyst for Susan to get back together with Karl which I think was a nice little twist," Fletcher says.

"Certainly the flame never went out for Karl, he never really imagined a life without Susan."

Neighbours airs on Monday to Friday at 6.30pm on Eleven.

The West Australian

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