When Soaps Die

Ian Jones exhumes the corpses of fallen soap operas

First published August 2006

For a country where more people read about the mercurial fortunes of their TV favourites than actually watch them on the box, it’s still the case there’s little which sets the pulses racing faster than the whiff of an impending national execution. And there’s no greater quarry than an ailing soap opera.

Corrie in Crisis”; “EastEnders Faces Axe”; “Dozen Street Favourites to Go” “Albert Square Faces Clearout” – already your blood is up and you want to know more. You can’t help it. The bigger the story, the higher the body count and the more grisly the consequences for household names only too happy to go on record to express their “total disgust” and “utter outrage” at the latest round of speculation. Or recrimination. Or, more likely, annihilation.

Yet when the axe does finally fall, it’s often the case, especially of late, that the crowd has already dispersed. The mourning – what there was of it – is already over. Sure, it was once the case that, when soaps die, everybody went to the funeral. It was the biggest thing in the land. But no more. Nowadays soaps can slink off like an unloved cat bowing out unnoticed under a nearby bush.

What’s changed? How do soaps actually die? And what, if anything, ought today’s survivors learn from yesterday’s fatalities?

“Painstaking research went into getting the right blend of paint”

On a hot day in August 1985 a battery of TV critics and columnists heard Granada Television’s Managing Director David Plowright make a prediction of quite remarkable dizzying optimism. He invited his audience to join him 25 years from now, in 2010, to celebrate the silver jubilee of Granada’s great new show. Its name? Albion Market. Its expected audience? 18 million. And its nearest rival, EastEnders? “No competition”.

One year and precisely 100 episodes later, Albion Market died. Yes, it had boasted a fantastic theme tune; yes, if you watched closely sometimes you could see the back of Granada’s actual studios; and yes, David Hargreaves off Science Workshop was in it. But apart from that, Albion Market was, from the start, a one-dimensional, poorly acted and singularly confusing affair that couldn’t disguise the fact it’d been created for the sake of it – as a spoiler for EastEnders – and that, because the people behind it were the same as those who made Coronation Street, it was thought it couldn’t fail.

The roll call of luminaries entrusted to get it off the ground was meant to sound impressive, but couldn’t help but smack of Granada at its “will this do?” worst. Bill Podmore and Peter Whalley were hugely respected Coronation Street masterminds; Andy Lynch had penned some of the finest episodes of Brookside; David Liddiment was one of Granada’s brightest rising stars.

But throwing a gallon of talent at a flimsy concept – the lives and loves of employees in a covered market in Manchester – only meant expectations were raised that much higher, and accordingly fell that much further. It was the same problem that was to afflict the BBC’s Eldorado seven years later. “Look”, the thinking went, “it’s being done by the same people who created a hit, therefore it’s bound to be smashing. Be sure to anticipate only the best.”

Hence this kind of flannel, from Albion Market‘s designer Denis Parkin: “A long time went into the planning. We toured Northern markets like those in Blackburn, Bolton and Burnley to get the character of ours correct. Painstaking research went into getting the right blend of paint.” A shame, then, that what did turn up on screen looked like a dingy warehouse – which should’ve been no surprise, really, given that it was actually Granada’s old prop store.

Where Albion Market‘s problems really stacked up, though, was over its scheduling. Granada insisted the show would be perfect to kick start the weekend. London Weekend Television, who ostensibly “ran” Friday nights and preferred more traditional light entertainment and comedy, disagreed. Granada won, only to find its show directly up against Wogan on BBC1. It then discovered the second weekly episode on Sundays was competing for viewers with Open All Hours.

Humiliation was swift. Viewing figures for both episodes quickly sunk to around three and a half million, the same as Brookside on Channel 4, and within two months the Sunday night episode had been shuttled back to 6pm. A further two months later, a desperate TV Times devoted pages to plugging the characters, profiling them as if no one had heard of them before, which was to a degree completely true. Soon other ITV companies began rescheduling both episodes out of peaktime, LWT and TVS (incidentally the two richest regional broadcasters) leading the charge.

But nothing, not even the enlistment of self-conscious “names” Tony Booth and Helen Shapiro to join the cast, worked. And so the plug was pulled, the last episode – boasting both a wedding and a birth – airing with absolutely no publicity whatsoever on Sunday 24 August 1986.

Ironically it came only a few months after the failure of another Granada soap, The Practice, again launched to steal EastEnders‘ thunder, again boasting Coronation Street alumni among its on and off-screen ranks, but again cursed by wretched scheduling (Fridays and Sundays), see-sawing ratings and a less than dynamic location (an NHS clinic).

Here, over-the-top plots tried to compensate for the pedestrian set-up. One character reacted to his wife’s insistence he have a vasectomy by repeatedly bolting from the surgery to set up home in his own garden. Yet genuinely dramatic storylines involving cancer and cot death were dropped for fear of causing distress. The entire format was revamped after 12 months as an hour-long once-a-week affair later on Fridays, with more comedy, romance and “happy” medical cases. Yet this too was deemed a failure, despite ratings of around eight million and a phalanx of Coronation Street faces turning up in the waiting room. So once again the axe fell.

“She was a monster; we despaired of ever changing things”

The passing of both Albion Market and The Practice was scarcely lamented. Tenacity can never win when received wisdom says your time is up, and in both cases the writing was on the wall mere weeks after the curtain went up.

Public opinion, however, doesn’t necessarily flow the way putative axe-wielding executives would like. Eldorado, for instance, saw an about turn in its fortunes once it received the death sentence, with viewers growing, if not in number, then certainly in regard for the series. It meant there was just as much outcry at the show’s end as there was at its beginning, albeit of a somewhat different hue.

On the other hand, received wisdom dictated Crossroads should have bowed out at the start of the 1980s. Its boss Charles Denton, the Director of Programmes at Central Television, certainly thought so. Yet despite the jibes, despite the creaking cast, despite the wayward storylines, he didn’t dare pull the plug.

The reason was pragmatism. In 1979 the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) had doled out a harsh assessment of Crossroads, in the process ordering its number of weekly episodes to be cut from four to three per week. The decision sent the show’s makers into a flap. Denton felt compelled to make some kind of gesture to demonstrate he knew what he was doing. Except what he wanted to do, kill the whole programme, would have fatally wounded the reputation of a TV company barely 12 months old.

So instead he axed the show’s most-loved character, Meg Richardson (Noele Gordon) – “She was a monster; we despaired of ever changing things” – and burned down the motel. Of course, such actions as good as killed the soap anyway, yet somehow through momentum, inertia, blind panic or for want of anything else to do, Central carried on making Crossroads for a further seven years.

A new look motel and a new look producer, the Australian Phillip Bowman, presaged the first in a seemingly non-stop round of sackings, beginning with the show’s second most-loved character, David Hunter (Ronald Allen). But Bowman soon followed much of his cast out of the door when his affair with the programme’s script editor generated bad publicity.

So in came a former producer of The Archers, William Smethurst, nicknamed Barmy Bill and possessed of the desire to make Crossroads “unrecognisable in six months”. He had a grand plan to reinvent the format as an upmarket, middle class, smart and sassy drama – until he found out the show’s core audience all read the Daily Star, and conceded, “there was no point in clever funny writing if no one would appreciate it.”

All the same Smethurst pressed ahead, revamping everything up to and including the name (Crossroads King’s Oak, with the plan to eventually get rid of the “Crossroads” altogether). However just as the final piece of the jigsaw was in place the new Central TV Director of Programmes, Andy Allen, pulled the plug.

The reason given was financial: the wrong sort of audiences were preventing enough advertisers plugging the right sort of products. Yet the lackadaisical twilight years and the steady decline in ratings could not undo the legacy of two decades of teatime swagger. In yet another stroke of irony, the death of Crossroads provoked one hell of a fuss among precisely the circles which had taken such joy in ridiculing the show when it was alive: the popular press. Not for the last time in TV history, the oxygen of publicity billowed around a soap just that little bit too late.

But the moment had passed. The hysteria looked futile and desperate. Everyone moved on – although not far enough to prevent Crossroads being revived 13 years later.

It was an act of pure vanity, although that was probably the only way it would have happened at all. When the production company Planet 24, makers of The Big Breakfast, was bought by Carlton Television, a condition of the sale was that one of its directors would be allowed to take a seat at the Carlton boardroom table. This, however, turned out to be Waheed Alli: the only one of Planet 24′s executives to have no TV experience whatsoever. A moneyman by trade, Alli arrived at Carlton gripped by one idea and one only: to bring back Crossroads.

First mooted seemingly for publicity reasons alone, then commissioned for want of Carlton being able to think of anything else to put in its schedules, Crossroads mark II was a disaster. It’s enough to say OTT has commented elsewhere on its turbulent couple of years back on television, a bizarre journey which ended in the show turning into a gay pantomime and resolving itself entirely in the form of a dream imagined by bored checkout assistant Jane Asher.

“It’s not as bad as you think it is”

At least Family Affairs went out with a bit of decorum. “Most people, I’m sure, don’t watch the show,” Channel 5′s Director of Programmes Kevin Lygo once gracefully admitted. “But if you forced yourself to, you’d be surprised – it’s not as bad as you think it is.”

Seemingly conceived purely because it was thought you couldn’t launch a new TV station without it having its own soap, the show spent its life being the closing half of a sentence: “… and there’s Family Affairs.” What anyone actually thought of it, including Lygo, didn’t really matter. It was there for the channel to add onto the end of press releases, to tick another box in the eyes of the regulators, to fill another line in the annual report.

That’s not to say the channel didn’t try to show willing. To jumpstart ratings, almost all the cast were blown-up during a wedding reception on a barge. A revamp then ensued which didn’t merely restock most of its cast but relocated an entire district a distance of several hundred miles. When this didn’t work, big names were invited to drop by for cameo appearances including, unbelievably, that saviour of Albion Market, Tony Booth. Was nobody paying attention to soap history?

Yet still the show was killed, very quickly, at the end of 2005. The stated reason wasn’t that it was doing badly in the ratings, rather that it wasn’t doing well enough. Quite what “well enough” meant was a question for which there were as many answers as there had been commissioning editors and TV executives at Channel 5. The one who put the show to bed, Dan Chambers, stated Family Affairs had reached the end of its “natural life span” – but since when did soaps have life spans, and when was there anything natural about them?

In truth there was really no reason why Family Affairs had to come to an end when it did. But then there was also never really been a reason why Family Affairs should not have come to an end at any point in any year. Its airy inconsequentiality was both the motive for its birth (by dint of being cheap, unassuming and disposable television) and the manner of its death (by dint of being cheap, unassuming and disposable television).

Still, at least it made a dignified exit, with no traces of malice placed in any characters’ mouths. Which cannot be said for the greatest and most spectacular act of immolation in soap history: the killing of Brookside.

“Don’t believe anything until you’ve heard it from me”

Conducting a constructive, let alone positive, relationship with Fleet Street wasn’t really an issue for British soaps until the 1980s. Coronation Street struggled. Albion Market tried and failed. Crossroads just didn’t bother at all.

One man who likes to take credit for initiating the change, as with so many other things in soap lore, is Phil Redmond. Throughout his time as creator and executive producer of Brookside for Channel 4, Redmond was rarely one for letting an open microphone escape his lips. Yet the channels of communication he sought to maintain and extend throughout the 1980s and early ’90s collapsed as soon as Brookside hit the rocks.

Treating the press as if it were a particularly lethal vacuum it was his duty to fill with cleansing comment, throughout the final years of Brookside‘s life Redmond provided an almost running commentary on the soap’s fortunes. Except not once did he offer the view that it was the show itself that was at fault.

You could argue that, as Brookside‘s executive producer, he was simply doing his job. He had to defend the programme however and whenever he could. Yet equally you could assert that, through the pursuit of such a high-profile high-risk strategy, and through the nature of his outspoken remarks, he most certainly wasn’t doing his job. For the more he spoke out, the more he seemed out of touch. His comments became increasing removed from how Brookside was being perceived by both viewers and the TV industry.

So while Redmond would often be the first to concede that the show had “under-performed in the past few years”, this was never because the episodes themselves were badly-written, or poorly-acted, or downright unwatchable. It would be because of too much regulation by broadcasting watchdogs preventing him from tackling issues the way he wanted. Or because of “compliance issues” forcing him to make cuts on grounds of taste and decency, in the way he supposedly never had to in the past. Or because of “structural troubles” in the Channel 4 schedule, a favourite bugbear of Redmond’s and one that became almost his watchword throughout the autumn of 2002, after it was announced Brookside would be moving out of its traditional weeknight slot for the first time and airing as one 90-minute omnibus on Saturday afternoons.

This decision signalled the game was up for all but the most blinkered of Brookside‘s many erstwhile champions. Although Mersey Television was on a rolling contract to produce the soap, surely demotion to a slot against the football results and You’ve Been Framed was proof enough Channel 4 was now engaged in damage limitation. If the show wasn’t going to shape up, the channel was set on doing its best to minimise the damage Brookside was having on both its ratings and its prestige. In other words, it was burying it before it buried Channel 4.

Other soaps had been kicked around the schedules during their lifetime, it’s true. Take Night and Day. Commissioned for 240 episodes, which committed ITV to 80 weeks worth of material, the show was launched on Tuesday 3 November 2001 at 5.05pm and conceived to run Tuesdays to Thursdays every week. It was also backed with a fussily-titled “adult” repeat, Night and Day: The Remix, every Tuesday at 10.20pm.

However this lost its superfluous subtitle after just one week and within a month had already been shunted back to 11.15pm. The teatime episodes, meanwhile, were ditched completely the following April and replaced by, coincidentally, You’ve Been Framed.

But Night and Day continued, ignominiously, in omnibus form alone, for a further whole year. Not only that, the transmission time was blatantly slung further and further into the small hours, sliding to 11.30pm in June, midnight in August, 12.30am in October and 1am in November, ranking it as surely the most expensive programme ever to go out at such an hour. The final episode – and there was a two-week gap between that and the previous one, just to drive away any last viewer or two who was still hanging on – was at midnight on Thursday 5 June 2003.

All in all, a shameless display of schedule roulette, with ITV spinning the wheel almost weekly to see which slot would serve it best by way of maximum audience share and minimum embarrassment. If this had happened to, say, Emmerdale, the newspapers would have been howling about a network in terminal crisis. However Night and Day was a soap that barely registered on the critics’ radar, let alone that of the viewers’. The story of its failure had actually blown over within a matter of weeks. It never established enough of its own pedigree, nor boasted such an outspoken cheerleader at its helm, to see the manner of its death elevated into such a live issue.

So while its demise unfurled at exactly the same time as that of Brookside, and was – from a scheduling point of view – a great deal more hapless, the latter was always going to garner more attention despite being a great deal less turbulent and despite the programme receiving roughly the same, if not less, of an audience than Night and Day.

For who was actually watching Brookside during its death throes? Precious few. Seven million or so had tuned in back in 1995 when the soap was enjoying its biggest popular following thanks to eye-catching storylines and convincing performances. Within five years that figure had halved, then halved again by 2002, then halved once more by the time the show washed up on Saturday afternoons. An average of just one million were tuning in come summer 2003, negligible by even Channel 4′s standards, and no justification whatsoever for the amount of resource the station was pouring into Mersey Television at the time.

The figures also give a lie to Redmond’s various excuses for the soap’s “under-performance”. People started switching off long before Brookside lost its hallowed weeknight slots (prompting Redmond to grumble about the impact C4′s cricket coverage was having on the show’s permanence in the listings), or faced supposedly over-rigorous regulation. Interest died in the programme many many years before the architecture supporting it in the schedules collapsed.

With it came a decline in attention from the press. Reviewers simply switched off. What was once finely-honed notoriety was adroitly judged to have become lazily-conceived sensationalism, and reporters simply refocused their energies elsewhere. This wasn’t a conspiracy, simply common sense and good business. But Redmond, inevitably, sniffed foul play and quickly added the press to his ever growing list of enemies, in particular pursuing an astonishingly juvenile feud with Jim Shelley at the Guardian which included threatening to sue him for libelling Lindsay Corkhill (lest we forget, a fictional character) and sending Shelley a tray of sour cream in the post the morning after Brookside‘s final episode.

All this in turn meant not only a further diminishing of Redmond’s stature, but the implementation of a culture at Mersey TV which meant whatever the press wrote was wrong (“Don’t believe anything until you’ve heard it from me” was his regular entreaty to staff), despite it invariably being right, and even less coverage of the show in the soap pages of national magazines and newspapers.

“Everything comes down to the fact that Channel 4 changed”

No wonder there was such a lack of substantive reaction to the news of Brookside‘s demotion to Saturday afternoons. Yet this betokened an even greater degree of indifference which greeted the announcement a few months later that the soap would next be moved to 11pm on Tuesday night.

Once again Redmond came out fighting, insisting this would give the show scope to explore far more graphic and controversial subjects in a way, he implied, he’d never been able to do before in the programme’s history.

This rather conveniently overlooked all the graphic and controversial subjects featured to date. It also ignored the fact that when the show had tried to do graphic and controversial material of late, it wasn’t so much a question of regulation or compliance which had rendered them rather tame and unrealistic, it was the nature of the storylines themselves, ranging from the laughable (a couple having sex in hospital, with the camera dwelling on fingers pulling at underwear) to the preposterous (a helicopter crashing onto a shopping parade) to the cartoonish (yet another siege in Brookside Close) to the plain boring (another rant from Jimmy Corkhill about putting the world to rights).

Just four weeks after the news that the show was bound for a graveyard slot, on 11 June 2003 the axe finally fell. “Having gone through every possible scenario,” a press statement read, “Mersey TV and Channel 4 have agreed that there is no place where Brookside could survive in the C4 schedule.” This was putting a very thick gloss on a very rough and prickly reality. The language reflected C4′s desire, indeed necessity, to maintain a positive working relationship with Mersey Television (it had just ordered an extra episode of Hollyoaks every week, and threw in a short-lived day time commission, The Courtroom by way of consolation). But the insinuation of a polite settlement and a joint mercy killing was pure smoke and mirrors.

Redmond’s fury found it usual petty and perverse outlet in creating a new character for Brookside called Jack Michaelson, an unsubtle variation on the name of Michael Jackson, the Channel 4 Chief Executive Redmond held responsible for initiating the show’s decline. Jack Michaelson appeared on screen as a sleazy, sexist, untrustworthy criminal whose first words were “Fuck off” and who met his end when the residents of Brookside Close decided, as you do, to lynch him.

The last few episodes of Brookside‘s life were bizarre in the extreme. Entire 90-minute helpings were devoted to just three or four characters. Regular families wouldn’t show up on screen for weeks on end. The Close would often appear near-deserted, or just wouldn’t feature at all. Precious little attempt seemed to have been made to give the thing anything by way of a decent, dignified send-off. Indeed, the very last episode was one titanic demented effort at self-aggrandisement, topped off with a 15-minute speech delivered by Jimmy Corkhill from an armchair on his front lawn, penned by Phil Redmond, decrying – inevitably – the state of the nation’s television industry.

“There has been an awful lot of drivel spouted about Brookside in the last few years,” Redmond told the press on the occasion of the show’s death in November 2003, “usually by people who have never worked in the long running drama arena. I am not going to encourage or contribute to that nonsense any further.” He then promptly went on to say: “Everything comes down to the fact that Channel 4 changed – and Brookside didn’t fit the mix. I am particularly pleased that the programme is ending on such a strong year.”

Few would have agreed with such a blatantly obtuse statement. Even fewer tuned in for the last episode: a mere 500,000 – Brookside‘s lowest ever viewing figures.

In a way the most dramatic consequence of this most tortuous of soap deaths only revealed itself in the long run. Granada could bat away the stigma of stinkers like Albion Market and The Practice by hiding in the light of Coronation Street. When Crossroads died, Central TV were more concerned with persuading John Thaw to do another series of Inspector Morse than a surfeit of bad headlines about a bad soap opera. It survived the killing of one of its best-known brands. Mersey Television, however, did not, being gutted and gobbled up just over a year later by All3Media, a company which counted amongst its directors none other than the man who had helped both launch and then destroy Albion Market and The Practice: David Liddiment.

In the wake of such a headcount, what – or rather who – could possibly be next? The accelerated carnage of recent years may have turned what was once a rare novelty into recurring slaughter, but the appetite for destruction remains. And it’s surely the bagging of a big beast which everyone is secretly hoping for.

EastEnders remains top of the list, because even though the show somehow limps on in the face of ever decreasing ratings (regularly slumping to new “lowest ever figures” – 3.9 million being the most recent at the time of writing, on 13 July, 2006) and a revolving door cast, to even contemplate it facing the chop would be one hell of a headline. And that’s what it comes down to, at the end of the day: the events that lead up to the final episode and the final line, rather than the final bow itself.

It is the prospect of destruction, rather than the often turgid, botched curtain call, which stirs up the adrenalin, delivers the column inches and commands the emotion. It is the promise, in short, of a thrilling, white-knuckle, unashamed story. Which, when it comes to soap operas, is all we really want.