A tale of two soaps
On the same day RTE chief Cathal Goan axed Glenroe, other executives were informing advertisers that Fair City would be extended from three to four weekly episodes. JOHN MEAGHER on the contrasting fortunes of RTE's top soaps
The idea of actors from Glenroe and Fair City making guest appearances on The Late Late Show would normally be as riveting as re-runs of the Angelus. After all, RTE's prime chat show should have its sights set on A-list international stars, not fresh-from-the-Abbey thesps you might bump into on the 46A.
Yet consecutive editions of the Late Late featured actors from both RTE's native soaps, and few viewers were reaching for the zapper.
Last Friday week, Sheila McWade (Fair City's Kay) spoke about a plotline that had gripped soap fans: her decision to have an abortion despite screen husband Malachy's wishes because her baby was diagnosed as severely handicapped.
Then, last Friday, Glenroe's Geraldine Plunkett (Mary), Robert Carrickford (Stephen) and Isobel Mahon (Michelle), confronted RTE chief Cathal Goan about his decision to axe the rural soap.
A clearer example of the differing fortunes of the two shows would be hard to find. Fair City is celebrating high ratings and critical acclaim; Glenroe, the longer-running of the two, has suffered the ignominy of being given the chop, with the message that it is no longer seen to reflect Irish life.
At lunchtime on Friday, when the shaken cast of Glenroe were being told the end was nigh, RTE executives were phoning advertisers to let them know that Fair City would be running four nights a week, rather than three.
Glenroe may have topped the ratings some 200 times, but lately the Dublin-based soap was pulling in more viewers. RTE insists that declining ratings did not influence the decision to scrap Glenroe. So what were the real reasons?
GLENROE: Too little, too sedate
It took RTE's director of television Cathal Goan just nine words to justify the axing of Glenroe: "We felt it was coming to a natural end."
After 18 seasons of Glenroe, many may have felt it had gone on long enough; but, in fact, Glenroe was part of a drama sequence that has run since 1965.
Glenroe evolved directly from the short-lived, but highly-regarded, Bracken, the series which launched actor Gabriel Byrne. Byrne's Bracken character, Pat Barry, had in turn started life in The Riordans, the groundbreaking portrayal of a Kilkenny farming family which was itself an RTE staple for 14 years, until 1979.
Cathal Goan also felt Glenroe no longer accurately portrayed modern Irish life. "Some of the reference points in terms of the rural-urban divide have disappeared," he said on Friday.
The series has been filmed in Kilcoole, north Co Wicklow, for its duration, but Kilcoole has changed enormously since RTE cameras first arrived there in 1983.
Its population has increased dramatically due to an influx of Dubliners, many of them first-time house-buyers who can't afford to live in the Capital, keen to escape city life.
Like Bray, Kilcoole has effectively become a satellite town (some would even suggest suburb) of Dublin. That seismic demographic change was rarely captured by Glenroe.
The RTE chief insisted that Middle Ireland was no longer represented by Glenroe. "It may have been at one stage, my belief is that over the years that has been less the case."
Irish Independent TV critic John Boland feels Glenroe was in terminal decline before the departure of Joe Lynch and Mary McEvoy; but, he says, the departure of two of the three central characters accelerated the programme's demise.
"The Dinny, Miley and Biddy characters were central to Glenroe.
They were the best-developed characters in the soap, while others could be one-dimensional.
Once they were gone it would be hard to sustain interest."
Robert Carrickford, who has played Stephen since Glenroe started, is angry that RTE didn't pump more money into the soap. And Wesley Burrows, the show's creator and chief writer up to 1997, believes Glenroe could have been saved if it was aired twice or three times a week, all year round. Each season there were only 36 half-hour episodes.
Former series producer Tom McArdle once said of Glenroe: "My mission in life is to make slurry sexy." This laudable aim will pass to a new team in the autumn for the rural soap RTE promises will replace Glenroe.
FAIR CITY: Holding a mirror up to Dublin life
Dreadful acting, egregious scripts, phoney sets and dull-as-bogwater plots welcome to Fair City circa 1990. But in the space of a decade, the Dublin-based drama has evolved from an industry joke to a soap that can hold its own with Coronation Street and EastEnders.
Like Glenroe, it started life as a once-weekly affair. Now it's on three times every week, 52 weeks a year, and is about to be stretched to four nights a week. Set in the fictional suburb of Carrigstown, Fair City regularly pulls in 650,000 viewers an episode not bad in a multi-channel land on the verge of digital revolution, where the million-plus rating is fast becoming history.
Series producer Niall Mathews believes Fair City holds a mirror up to Dublin life in the 21st century. Jim Bartley, who plays Bella, says McCoys' pub (the soap's meeting point) is not dissimilar to his local in Firhouse.
Niall Mathews believes the soap's success is down to the large cast some 40 actors and the fact that no single character or group of characters dominates. "Difficulties are inherent if you are dealing with just one family," he says. "Look at Dallas and Dynasty: both did well at the beginning, but because all the action was centred on a single family, the writers ran out of things to say."
There are two central families in Fair City the Doyles and the Phelans and a host of ancillary characters.
Jim Bartley agrees: "No one actor should overshadow a soap. I've always been a great fan of Glenroe I know many of the actors personally but Joe Lynch, Mary McEvoy and Mick Lally dominated. With two of those gone, it is hard to maintain interest.
"Sure, there are central characters in Fair City Barry Hanlon and Bella Doyle, for instance but if either character was written out the soap wouldn't suffer, because there are plenty of other strong characters."
Bartley doesn't believe location is that important a factor. "I'm a Dubliner and I enjoy Glenroe; rural people love Fair City. I can watch Coronation Street and forget that it's set in Manchester. The only thing a good soap needs is good characters, and I think we've got fine, well-rounded characters in Fair City."
Scriptwriter Mary Halpin believes a comparison between Glenroe and Fair City is unfair. "Glenroe more closely resembles a series like Ballykissangel, which ran once a week for a limited time each year," she says, adding that a soap which runs three or four times a week can allow stories to develop more naturally, rather than trying to cram as much drama into a single half-hour as possible.
Jim Bartley who was among the cast of RTE's first soap opera, Tolka Row says a major part of the success of Fair City is that it is logistically easier to produce than Glenroe. "The Fair City lot is in Montrose. The studio for all the interior work is just five minutes' walk away. Glenroe, on the other hand, had to shoot out of doors a lot, and that involved an RTE outside broadcast unit, which costs money."
Ultimately, though, Fair City's strength lies in fine acting and strong storylines. The evil Dr Jack Shanahan, Harry Molloy's infidelity and Kay McCoy's abortion gripped fans, encouraged thousands of others to tune in and caught the attention of the media.
The death of Biddy apart, the same can hardly be said of Glenroe lately.