Friday 19 December 2014

All's Fair in love and war

Infidelity, betrayal, murder and incest is only the half of it ... the best stories were often off-set in the first 20 years of RTE's much loved and derided soap. Yvonne Hogan reports

Clelia Murphy is cleaning her house as we chat about the fact that our national soap, in which she plays feisty computer consultant Niamh Cassidy, is about to enter its 20th year.

"I've said it before and I'll say it again. I have never worked so hard but I have never been so happy -- do you know that kind of way?"

As the working mother of 11-year-old Clara, she is clearly a busy woman, yet she apologises for not giving me her undivided attention: "It's just that I have to go and collect my daughter and she would be waiting outside the school gates, and I don't want to be awarded 'Bad Mother of the Year'."

Those of you who haven't tuned into the once-monikered Fairly Shitty in the past year or so will find this hard to believe, but with her friendly charm and humour, Clelia, who has been with the show for 14 years, epitomises the current state of our national soap.

Yes, you read right. Over the past year and a half, Fair City has been pretty good. That's not to say that it doesn't still have the odd crazy storyline or occasional bad actor; it does. But, on the whole, it ticks most of the boxes. And as an avid soap fan, nay a connoisseur of soap with years of experience watching Eastenders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Hollyoaks, I feel quite confident in making that pronouncement.

Clelia's job satisfaction is shared by other principal cast members. Ciara O'Callaghan, who plays the film noir-esque Yvonne Doyle, was enticed back to the show after a couple of years pursuing other projects when she was approached with her current storyline, a brilliant treatment of the heady mix of love, jealousy and resentment that is having a sister with whom you share absolutely no common ground.

Aisling O'Neill, who plays Carol Meehan, Fair City's answer to Peggy Mitchell, currently finds coming to work a pleasure.

"I do believe that in the past couple of years, the standard has been better. The storylines have been consistently better. But I have always been lucky with my storylines. I have had very meaty ones and they keep coming," says Aisling.

Carol is undoubtedly Fair City's most iconic character, as evidenced by the fact that she has a catchphrase -- "You bleeeedin' toe-rag" -- which is down to the fact that she is parodied regularly by Mario Rosenstock on Today FM's Gift Grub. In fact, the whole soap features regularly, acting as a rather strange but compelling review and giving the show a profile boost that no amount of cover spreads in the RTE Guide ever could. Because being parodied on Gift Grub is a de facto rubber stamp on the fact that you have made it into the pop cultural canon. You are officially cool.

Until recently, Fair City was not so cool, and back in the early days of the soap, its actors were considered the poor cousins to their colleagues in rural drama Glenroe. Soap operas are crucial in maintaining audience share and, in 1989, RTE decided that it needed an urban soap to compete with Eastenders and Coronation Street.

They brought in script editor Tony Holland and some writers from Eastenders, which had then been running for almost five years, to give the soap its structure and storylines.

It failed to impress the critics and it was on shaky ground for the first couple of seasons. John Lynch, who worked as executive producer on the soap in the late 90s, recalled: "My impression of it at the time was of nothing happening very fast, then you'd cut to a scene where nothing happened even faster, then there would be a shot of somebody riding a bicycle stuck in between. They were trying to copy Eastenders, but Tony Holland didn't realise that the Irish are less direct than the English."

Tony Tormey, who plays Clelia's on-screen husband Paul, explains: "They were very nice people, but they just didn't get the Dublin thing. They didn't get the Dublin pace, the way we speak, the sense of humour -- they just didn't get the Dublin thing. So they only lasted a year."

I am sitting in a room at RTE with Tormey, Sarah MacDowall (who plays Suzanne Doyle, sister to the aforementioned Yvonne), Pat Nolan, who plays Barry O'Hanlon -- the unlucky in love ex-teacher who now runs the local paper and used to be involved with Niamh before Paul swept her off her feet (that's only the half of it) -- Tom Jordan, who plays Charlie, and Jim Bartley, who plays Bela Doyle -- father to Yvonne and Suzanne among other Doyles, and friend to most of Carrigstown. Aside from Bartley and MacDowall, the others have been in Fair City since the very first episode.

"It had been cancelled" says Nolan.

"We all got phone calls" says Tormey.

Jordan interjects and insists that the reasons for cancelling the show were purely financial. There was no Fair City studio at RTE until 1994, before which filming took place in Ardmore studios in Co Wicklow. The entire cast and crew were taken by bus to Co Wicklow every morning and often would not return until after 11pm.

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