River City

Tuesday, September 24, 2002 by

“Worse than Eldorado” was the proclamation in the office. Inevitably, the first episode of BBC Scotland’s new soap opera River City has been poorly received by the soap watching public (at least where I work). Until they come to know Tommy and Eileen a bit better, this latest arrival will remain an intrusion and an irritant for those used to segueing straight from Albert Square to Holby City.

The arrival of River City, pretty much unnoticed in the rest of the British Isles, has been a big event in Scotland, with a billboard campaign in city centres and blanket coverage in the Scottish press. If nothing else, its arrival has been an interesting demonstration of the full weight of the BBC’s publicity machines in these Greg Dyke days. Radio Scotland DJs have urged us to lend the programme our support, whilst Scottish personalities are keen for us to wish all at River City well. Although I didn’t catch it, I bet Reporting Scotland covered the new soap’s arrival too.

The television trailers have eschewed the piece to camera format that was used for both EastEnders and Crossroads and instead have attempted to reveal something about each of the characters by having them recite a verse from a pertinent song. The trailer featuring embittered Raymond Henderson coveting his ex-wife, has him reciting the words to the Police’s Every Breath You Take. As first exposure to this new soap, the omens are not good.

For those who know little about River City, it is set in a fictional West End area of Glasgow called “Shieldinch” that whilst looking authentically Glaswegian, follows the template of Albert Square, complete with local shop, cafĂ© and pub. The cast contains the usual mixture of good and bad, young and old making it abundantly clear that there is to be nothing startlingly original about this soap. “Scotland has been crying out for a mainstream soap … that reflects the way we live in a multi-cultural, urban Scotland” assert Paul Samson (who plays the aforementioned Henderson). River City looks to be the most concerted effort yet by BBC Scotland to satisfy this requirement.

Without a significant quirk of its own, River City will have to stand or fall on whether or not Scotland actually needs a mainstream, primetime soap opera of its own; and whether it’s any good or not. It is far too early to answer the second question yet. One should not really expect anything out of a new soap until it’s had at least three months to bed in. The early indications though are not great. Colloquialisms appear regularly throughout the first episode, yet never sound truly accurate. It’s as if BBC Scotland have a big book of “Scottishisms” from which all representations of Scotland have to be drawn. Characters can never be allowed to tell another to “go away” when the expression “beat it” exists.

Language aside, both the direction and the acting need to be improved if River City is to gain the respectability of EastEnders fans. The first episode is slow and sparsely populated, the decision to include footage from the camcorder of one of the characters at the wedding is corny, one expects subsequent episodes to improve on this. The cast are made up largely of unknowns, and so below par acting is to be unexpected. However, in River City we get none of the freshness of performance that is usually associated with new blood. In fact there is something curiously outdated about most of the performances, particularly Libby McArthur (playing Gina Rossi) who in the space of 30 minutes reveals herself as the kind of good-time-girl-with-tragic-past-always-the-bridesmaid-never-the-bride that we have seen portrayed on television countless times before.

What the programme makers have got right though, is the plotline that opens episode one. The marriage of Tommy and Eileen (who look to be the series’ matriarch and patriarch figures) allows River City to make explicit the familial connections between each of the characters, as well as give them all a legitimate opportunity to talk of past events (imparting vital information to the viewer). The series opens nicely too, with a mock declaration that the wedding is to be abandoned – indication that the production team recognise the requirement to grab viewers’ attention quickly.

In case it isn’t obvious, BBC Scotland have put a lot of eggs into this particular basket, and one wonders what the ramifications will be should River City end up being a spectacular failure. Trailing the programme during the end credits of EastEnders and then cutting straight to it suggest that no one at Queen Margaret Drive is taking anything for granted right now.

The jury – quite rightly – has only just begun to hear the first pieces of evidence. It will be some time before the adjudication is made. For those of you, not yet exposed to River City, a word of warning: if the series makes the grade up North one can only assume that the residents of Shieldinch will soon be welcoming themselves into your lives too. Are you ready for another primetime soap opera?


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