Sunday 17 December 2017

Why it's success in the city for RTE's soap

John Meagher

John Meagher

When it started, Fair City was one of the funniest programmes on RTE. It was difficult not to laugh at the dreadful acting, the appalling scripts, the ludicrous plots and the flimsy sets.

In 1989, when the soap first aired, it was widely assumed that it would be canned, condemned to fester in the Montrose archives alongside such rubbish as The Spike and Leave It To Mrs O'Brien.

Few would have imagined that Fair City would not only survive but would outlive country rival Glenroe and would go on to achieve the sort of critical acclaim enjoyed by cross-channel giants EastEnders and Coronation Street.

The "gritty urban drama", as it is described on the RTE website, started life as a once-a-week affair. Now it's on four nights a week, throughout the year, with the exception of the summer months when it airs twice weekly.

Fair City regularly sits near the top of the ratings, attracting an average 650,000 viewers per episode keen to discover the latest goings-on in the fictional northside Dublin suburb of Carrigstown. That figure is considered healthy in a multichannel, digital era.

In fact, last year's November 21 episode attracted one of 2001's biggest audiences; over 800,000 viewers tuned in to see the wife-beating pimp, Billy Meehan, being killed in the climax of a particularly gripping storyline.

And to crown its success, the show's 1,000th episode will be screened on January 17, making Fair City the longest running home-made soap by some distance. Although The Riordans and Glenroe ran over a longer period of years, their once-a-week outings resulted in fewer episodes.

The soap can count actor and director Alan Stanford among its admirers. Stanford, who came to national prominence as George in Glenroe, says soaps like Fair City should not be regarded as low-brow entertainment. "People may look down their noses at soaps, but they are important culturally. Good soap operas reflect society as it is." He notes that as The Riordans reflected the Lemass years, Fair City represented the 1990s boom.

That's just the kind of sentiment that Fair City's series producer Niall Matthews wants to hear. Fair City, he says, holds a mirror up to Dublin life in the 21st century. He feels it successfully reflects the economy and the changing mores of society.

Niall Matthews 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, who plays amiable rogue Bela Doyle, agrees: "No one actor should overshadow a soap. Sure there are central characters in Fair City Barry Hanlon and Bela Doyle, for instance but if either was written out the soap wouldn't suffer, because there are plenty of other strong characters."

Alan Stanford says this is one of the main reasons why Fair City has thrived and Glenroe was axed. "Glenroe was too dependent on the Byrnes. It didn't move on enough to other characters."

Another key factor in Fair City's success was the introduction of multiple weekly episodes. All of the successful soaps Australia's youth-orientated Home and Away, Channel 4's Liverpool-set Brookside among them are screened three or more times every week. Fair City moved with the times.

"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," says show scriptwriter of five years Brian Gallagher.

Filling the best part of two hours' screen time every week is an arduous task and means six-day weeks for many of the cast and crew. Most of the people who work on Fair City, both behind and in front of the camera, won't be back at work until next week. The Christmas holidays offer many of them the most time they can get away from the Carrigstown lot at Montrose. The 1,000th episode was filmed in mid-December.

Jim Bartley, who was among the cast of RTE's first soap Tolka Row, ultimately believes that the success of Fair City lies with strong stories. Initially, there were just a handful of writers, including Peter Sheridan, but now over 30 people are involved in script writing. This breaks into the three-group model used on most soaps: the story creators, those who take that story and fashion it into blocks for episodes and the scriptwriters who actually pen the dialogue eventually screened.

And Fair City has had its fair share of good stories lately: Kay McCoy's abortion, Harry and Dolores Molloy's marital misdemeanors and the death of Billy Meehan became the fodder of water-cooler talk and attracted the attention of a media obsessed with real life shows like Big Brother and Popstars.

Of course, good stories would be nothing without first-rate performances. Fair City has become a showcase for the country's finest young talent. It has come a long way from the days when it was a by-word for risible acting.

Brian Gallagher believes the true strength of Fair City lies with its characters. "It has never been an issues-driven soap. It's always been about characters." However, in recent years, Fair City has also tackled euthanasia, abortion, homosexuality and domestic violence.

So what now for one of RTE's most lauded programmes? The series has been sold to ITV, but many associated with the show are privately angry that RTE don't market the programme better abroad. For the short term, at least, the future is looking bright for RTE's flagship drama. "I hope Fair City runs for another 1,000 episodes," says Alan Stanford. "I'd hate to see the mandarins of RTE killing off another series."

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