Wednesday 18 October 2017

25 years and 3,600 episodes: the soap that still cleans up

Silver screen: Fair City entered the 21st century with its own Spar as part of a product placement deal in 2011.
Silver screen: Fair City entered the 21st century with its own Spar as part of a product placement deal in 2011.
Roy and Hayley Cropper face Hayley’s cancer diagnosis in Coronation Street.
The Doyle Family in Fair City in 1995.
Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad
Deirdre Reynolds

Deirdre Reynolds

It had a ropey start in 1989 and critics never really warmed to it, but Fair City has defied the odds to survive, seeing off many rivals in that time. But how has it endured and why are viewers so devoted to a genre that has often been written off?

It doesn't have a Hollywood leading man like True Detective, or Breaking Bad's record haul of Emmys, but Fair City still has every reason to celebrate this week.

Ireland's longest-running soap opera toasts 25 years on the small screen on Thursday night.

And no one is more surprised than the residents of Carrigstown themselves.

"When Fair City started, it wasn't expected to last more than one or two seasons," Brigie de Courcy, executive producer of the popular RTÉ series tells Weekend Review.

"There were some wobbly moments in the beginning, and it did take a while to settle down, but we have a very loyal audience.

"Just this morning we had an email from a fan who has watched every single episode," she says. "He let us know that we've shot almost 3,600 episodes."

When the instantly recognisable theme tune first blared from TV sets here on September 18 1989, Fair City's original cast members including Tom Jordan - who plays Charlie Murphy - only graced viewers with their presence once a week.

Today, despite fierce competition from satellite channels like Sky Atlantic and streaming services such as Netflix, around half a million people tune in four times a week to find out what's going on in the fictional Dublin suburb.

"I think the big thing that Fair City does that the other soaps don't quite do is that it's really rooted in community," reckons de Courcy.

"Breaking Bad and True Detective are fantastic, and everybody loves those, but they are a very different market.

"That's all very living on the edge, whereas the stories we're telling on Fair City actually could happen to any single one of us.

"They are the day-to-day struggles of your neighbours that you're watching being played out, and I think that's what makes it so attractive."

Over in Albert Square, it's no different, with the average UK resident spending one year of their life watching soaps such as EastEnders and Coronation Street, according to research by Dalepak.

Despite originally being targeted at 1950s housewives, and accordingly getting their name from the soap companies that sponsored them, a quarter of men even confessed they prefer watching the overwrought dramas to spending time with their partner or kids, compared to just 15pc of modern women.

As the TV editor of Entertainment.ie, Fiona Flynn admits to being a soap addict, and surmises that the format's enduring popularity is all down to nosey neighbourism: "Irish people have an innate curiosity about the lives of others.

"In the absence of any juicy neighbourhood gossip, I think people turn to the soaps to feed this curiosity.

"Fair City, Coronation Street, EastEnders - I watch most of them, really. I suppose there is a certain comfort to be had in coming home, putting on the kettle and switching off for a while in front of the soaps.

"Sure, there are some fantastic TV shows these days, but with characters people often don't relate to.

"With soaps, there is a character and a storyline for everybody, whether you're a 16-year-old watching with your parents or a 65-year-old facing retirement."

For Fair City star Liana O'Cleirigh - who joined the cast as lesbian fitness instructor Laura Halpin four years ago - soaps offer something else entirely: steady work.

"Fair City is the only relatively full-time acting work in the country, so we're really lucky in that respect," says the 27-year-old Dubliner. "You get to really know the character and constantly act.

"With Fair City, you just know it by osmosis, even if you don't consciously sit down and watch it," adds Liana. "It's just there on the screen all the time.

"Anyway, if my family weren't Fair City fans before, they are now!"

From super-soap Dallas in the 80s to homegrown drama Glenroe in the 90s, for Generation X Factor, there's an element of nostalgia too, explains Fiona Flynn: "Growing up, I would have watched all the big soaps.

"Everyone remembers the panic caused by the Glenroe theme tune on Sunday nights if you hadn't finished your homework; while Home and Away had my whole family racing to get a good spot on the couch.

"I've been following some of the characters since I was a child - you can't help but be invested in their lives."

Stateside, however, not even big-name stars can help stop some soaps going down the drain.

In 2009, the world's longest-running soap opera, Guiding Light - which launched the career of Kevin Bacon - was cancelled by CBS after 72 years on air.

"Networks are looking to get out of the soap opera business," argues Abigail De Kosnik, co-editor of The Survival of the Soap Opera.

"The old model of soap opera was built around an ideal viewer who no longer exists: the bored housewife.

"But since the 1950s, women have entered the workplace in droves."

In a back-from-the-dead plot twist worthy of the best sudser though, earlier this year, all four of America's surviving soap operas including The Young and the Restless were thrown a lifeline after being renewed for another season.

So, home and away, can the format that Time magazine once called "television's richest market" survive - and even thrive - in the face of an apparent reality TV takeover?

Luring Ireland's own young and restless is the key to guiding a genre that grew up alongside the Great Depression through the Great Recession, according to Fair City's Brigie de Courcy: "You can tell when a story's going down really well by how the audience shifts. At the moment, we have a lot of young men in Dublin."

Predicts Entertainment.ie's Fiona Flynn: "I have no doubt that soaps will survive for a long time to come.

"Yes, there are reality shows about everything and anything now, and TV is probably the most diverse and best it's ever been, but the soap will always hold a significant place in pop culture''.

Fair City is like a family:

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