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.
Bartley did audition for the first series of the soap for a character called Jack Flynn, but lost out to fellow actor Jim Reid. He got a call some weeks later from a producer offering him the part of loveable rogue Bela, and he jumped at the chance, as he thought the name was "magic".
"Fair City wasn't going all that well at the time," Bartley remembers. "There wasn't a big queue behind me. Do you remember the trouble?" he asks the other cast members.
"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.
"The overtime, not for the cast but for the crew, was through the roof, so it was too expensive and we thought it wasn't going to go on. It wasn't anything to do with the quality of the acting or anything like that. It was a decision on the price of it."
The mutual respect in the room is palpable. It's like a family, they tell me, and they are right. Charlie and Bela are the elders, and when they speak, even if they are interrupting one of the younger cast members -- which they do frequently, by the way -- the younger members respectfully fall silent. Sarah is the much-loved baby and Bartley's face visibly softens when he speaks of her early days on the soap.
"Suzanne would walk into the shop, when the Doyles had the local shop, and disappear from view when she walked behind the counter." The others laugh. "You know the way people have embarrassing photos of themselves as a kid?" asks Sarah, not long back on the show after the birth of her baby who is now six months old . "Well, I will have a whole showreel."
It is camaraderie, however, borne out of not just hours a week, weeks a year and year after year working hard together, but also of having faced Goliath and, if not won, reached a fairly decent compromise.
RTE decided after the first season that the show would go on, and as the years went by it seemed as if Fair City was finding its feet. By 1994, the voices in RTE calling for it to be axed had largely quietened. There were strong storylines centred around the Doyles and the Molloys (a tragic family if ever there was one -- only poor Dolores left, Harry dead, two dead daughters, infidelity, murder and so on), the programme was getting fairly good reviews and, for the first time, was challenging Glenroe in ratings.
However, behind the scenes, the cast was not so happy. And it wasn't just because, like any actors, they had to contend with the run-of-the-mill insecurities and uncertainties inherent in the profession, such as the 'Will I be working when I wake up tomorrow' question.
The wall of death
And that is a pertinent question. According to inside sources on the Fair City writing team, there is a 'wall of death' in the office where names go up and the team decides who lives and who dies. There is a hush in the room as Tormey tells a cautionary tale: "With a previous incumbent in the producer's job, a certain actor found out that he was being written out when he read it in the RTE Guide." He brightens up and adds that things are much better these days, and Sarah concurs. "I don't think that would happen now," she says. Then Tormey adds the caveat: "But it can be that callous."
It certainly can, and in more ways than just the killing of a character. An actor can be put in a storyline that he/she is uncomfortable with or finds compromising. Take the recent tale of Joe Gallagher, who plays wife-beater Dominic Kavanagh, married to Carol's best friend Tracy, played by Hilda Fay.
In April this year, Gallagher refused to play a rape scene written for his character. "Things spill over a bit into your private life," he told a national newspaper, "but you can deal with that. But a rape scene was bringing it to a different level, and I wanted to protect myself and my family." He told the newspaper that RTE informed him that he was in breach of his contract and he was worried about his future with the soap. His contract with RTE was for 10 weeks' work, and he was four weeks into it when the rape scene appeared in the script. RTE insisted at the time that Gallagher's contract would be honoured.
"He did object and refused to act in it," said an RTE spokesperson at the time, "and there was a rush to re-write the storyline. It meant that a lot of changes had to be made in later episodes and, because of this, the producers don't quite know where Dominic's story is going to go." He hasn't been seen in Carrigstown since, but, according to a Fair City publicist, he could reappear at any time.
Gallagher's story raises another point. Contracts with the soap are annual, and for limited blocks of work -- Gallagher's, for example, was for 10 weeks. As the actor is paid only for the days worked, it isn't very lucrative, despite the perceived glamour of the job. In 2007, figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed that some of the actors on the soap at the time were earning just €432 a day.
"We could be out for months" says Tormey. "I might do 10 weeks a year, I might do 20 weeks a year; it depends on the storylines. But I have no guarantee of how many weeks I work."
Anyway, back to 1995 and the unhappy cast. They were tired of living in the shadow of their favoured cousin Glenroe and frustrated with the fact that they seemed to be working harder and producing more for uncle RTE for a lot less pay. They'd had enough and they weren't going to take it anymore.
That summer, tensions between management and the cast came to a head and an industrial dispute followed, which delayed production on the sixth season by more than a month. It seemed to the outsider, and to the Fair City actors, that they were doing twice the amount of work -- then two shows a week to Glenroe's one -- for half the money. There was also an issue with the omnibus edition of Fair City, which was shown on a Sunday. This was the battle the cast members picked. They wanted 50pc repeat fees for the omnibus edition, as received by the cast of Glenroe.
"We could have asked to renegotiate the base rates, which are very low," Maureen McGlynn of First Call Management -- who then represented 10 of Fair City's 40-strong cast -- told a national newspaper at the time, "but we chose just to concentrate on re-establishing the principle of the repeat fee. RTE didn't want to know. They said it would establish a precedent, but we pointed out that the precedent was already there with Glenroe."
RTE's response was that "contracts for different programmes reflect the era and environment in which they were first negotiated, and it's in the nature of these things that changes take place".
"We just felt at the time that we were being pushed a bit far and we said we weren't having any more, and we meant it," says Jordan. "Management at the time didn't believe us. But we all stuck together. We refused to sign contracts. We never had a proper contract for this gig; we had a special agreement that was designed for the pilot episode (which was written by Peter Sheridan), and that was never really changed. Glenroe was the last one that had proper Equity contracts, where everything was in black and white and drawn out. We didn't have that and still don't have it, in fact."
The public rallied behind the cast. Tormey remembers: "We got great support. We were all standing outside with placards and people were behind us."
Jordan recalls how "people were behind us in the press also. We weren't exactly looking for the Earth and eventually we came to an agreement. Generally speaking, we get on pretty well with the management".
An agreement was reached in August 1995 -- the cast got 26.3pc repeat fees for the omnibus -- and production resumed, with the public feeling they knew the Fair City cast better and were fonder of them for it.
Things plodded along nicely for the next few years. In 2001, Glenroe was axed and Jordan, for one, wasn't surprised. "It had run its course," he sniffed. "It must have been hard for the writers to come up with stories for the same few characters all year round."
That same year, Brigie De Courcy, a then script editor, joined Fair City. She worked on the show for a couple of years then went to work for Emmerdale as a story producer for a year-and-a-half. After that, she went to work on Eastenders for a further year-and-a-half.
Meanwhile, back in Carrigstown, life continued as normal: abortion, murder, incest and whatever you're having yourself. In 2008, De Courcy, who has a PhD in Dramatic Tragedy, came back to Fair City as executive producer and, unlike the late Tony Holland, she was able to apply what she had learned on the English soaps and use it to, as Pat Nolan describes it, "take Fair City by the neck and gave it a shake".
All of the cast speak highly of DeCourcy and, though they are keen to point out that they always thought Fair City was good, it is clear that they love working under the new regime, which now features improved scripts and more credible, character-led stories. They have a new sense of pride in their job, as more people seem to be watching Fair City. According to Clelia Murphy, however, everybody always did.
"You are always going to get people telling you they never watch it," she says dismissively, "then a couple of minutes into the conversation they are telling you what you wore in it last week. They always know a lot about it.
"It's a guilty pleasure and I think people should stand up, cast off the robes and say, 'Do you know what? I watch Fair City and I'm proud'."