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Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV

How to make a million selling soap

This week the London Evening Standard broke the story that Phil Redmond paid himself £500 000 last year, making himself the highest paid executive in British TV. His company's production fees come to £1.5m, so he keeps a third of it for himself. If the head of Granada were to do the same, he would be earning £43m a year. If Michael Grade were to do the same, he would be getting about £60m a year (instead of a mere £250 000).

Some misguided people moaned about the Redmond payout. They seemed to think that he should have spent the money on making more programmes. These people have clearly never seen any of the Baron's programmes. Personally, I feel relieved that it has gone on yet another jacuzzi. At least we don't have to watch the soap he puts in there.

Redmond has pulled this money largely by making Brookside (surely even the BBC wouldn't pay someone for making Waterfront Beat). What with the fall in advertising revenue and the chaos caused by the late appointment of the central scheduler, I think we may well see a few more safe soaps in the near future. With this in mind and in the interests of the redistribution of wealth, I hereby give you the Frank Cottrell-Boyce (aka the Pope of Soap) infallible do-it-yourself guide to hit-making.

1. First of all, your show should be optimistic. Commentators seem puzzled by the extraordinary success of Australian soaps which appear to be low on production values and talent. What these shows have, which English shows by and large lack, is an endearing and reassuring sense that life is worth living and that Good will prevail.

Shows like Brookside and Eastenders on the other hand have opted for a kind of bedsitter angst, presumably on the grounds that this is a more 'serious' or 'artistic' assessment of the meaning of life. The result is an embarrassing mixture of hysteria and whingeing which will only work when your characters are genuinely operatic (as opposed to soapy), eg, Den and Ange. The trouble with genuinely operatic characters, however, is that they do not come in dozens, and, being cursed, they have a limited shelf-life. Once you have divorced, raped, murdered and dismembered them, there is nowhere for them to go.

Optimism does not have to mean the infantile positivity of Neighbours. A glance at Roseanne shows that as long as the value system (in this case, 'the family') is clearly stated, it can be tested to the limit. It is worth pointing out that Coronation Street - probably the only British soap whose durability can be explained by anything other than industrial inertia - espouses a different but equally simple and positive set of values; namely, a faith in the idea of community. The inhabitants of the Street may occasionally have murderous differences but the idea of the Street itself as an enriching, human dimension in their lives survives in a way that the closes, squares and Mediterranean condominiums do not.

2. It is notorious that the beer in the Rover's Return - Newton & Ridley's - is the cheapest in the country. This brings us to the second point. The World in which the drama unfolds should be convincing. At the same time it should be in some specific way more attractive than the reality in which we live.

Coronation Street, for instance, represents a kind of street that does exist; at the same time, that street is enriched by a stronger sense of community, a hint of nostalgia, and cheap beer. Ramsay Street is as banal as any modern housing estate but it is sunnier and its inhabitants are fitter. Lanford may be just like any Midwestern town, but its inhabitants are wittier and more integrated.

British shows have tended to strive for as realistic a representation as possible. They have made a fetish, for instance, out of trying to marry the date of broadcast with the date of the story, of trying to create the impression of 'real time' (no jump cuts) and of having the paraphernalia of real life hanging around the set.

In Eldorado the characters drink San Miguel and Coca Cola. These are real drinks; they can be bought anywhere. They therefore add nothing to our sense of place. In The Bull (Ambridge), on the other hand, we can order Shires - potent, traditional and pricey; while in the Rover's, they serve Newton & Ridley - cheap, cheerful and chemical. In a perverse way, because these are not 'real', they add more to the reality of the show. They show that a whole World has been imagined and not just a square or a cul-de-sac.

The imaginative geography of Brookside say, is just about adequate to get you through the 22 minutes. In watching Coronation Street, on the other hand, we are aware that the street connects Viaduct Street to Rosamund Street; that the inhabitants went to Bessie Street School as children; that the pub was named after the brewer's eldest son on his return from the trenches; that there is a rival pub on Inkeman Street called The Flying Horse, and on and on. Your show will take place in a World that is fully imagined and slyly attractive. One of its incidental pleasures should be a treasury of seductive trivia. Apart from anything else, this will provide you with many and varied marketing opportunities.

3. Following on from the above, the show should sound good. Although The Bill has shown that it is possible for a bi-weekly show to have an interesting visual style, it is clear that the real strength of this type of TV will be in the writing and the performances. Its greatest asset will always be the quality of its dialogue. Roseanne and The Golden Girls have done this through the one-liner. The shows do not have comic plots or whacky characters but the language is polished to the point where it can provide a-laugh-a-line. The Street characters speak an eccentric, rococo English that celebrates the way people speak instead of merely trying to mimic it.

4. This brings me to the most important aspect of any long-running show, its characters. The tendency among British soaps has been to go for a kind of representative cross-section of the nation (or of the nation's stereotypes). Their casts therefore have the look of the recent anti-Aids billboards - a wholesome sampling of the best of British; a demographic made flesh.

The reasoning behind this is that the show should somehow reflect its own desired audience. Eastenders wanted yuppies, so it put some yuppies in the show. This type of logic seems to us simple-minded and wrong. Was Shakespeare writing entirely for an audience of murderous thanes? Is Daffy beloved only of ducks?

In fact, most people do not want to watch their own reflection on the TV screen. They want to be surprised and delighted. Characters should be brought together because they conflict with each other in a way that will generate wonderful stories, and not in order to complete some kind of audience profile.

The 'state of the nation' approach also puts an enormous burden on the characters themselves, who become representatives rather than individuals. It is often very difficult to excavate a character from under the burden of its representational duties - to turn 'the youth interest' into an engaging Tracy or Steve - or to keep it up to date once its 'relevance' fades. The same rule applies to the people as applies to the ale. They should be recognisable but enriched, larger than life in some particular.

The prevailing wisdom is that a soap must have a big cast, each member of which is an important character in its own right. I understand that a soap needs a big cast in order to stay in production but, after working on several, I think it is worth passing on the news that the real cast is often smaller than it looks.

Out of the 30-odd regular 'characters' on Coronation Street, there are probably three or four who are substantial enough to carry a story at any one time. The rest are either padding or comic relief. On the Street, these slighter characters are called, 'salt, pepper and sauce' (as opposed to meat and veg) and this sense of dramatic perspective is a valuable, under-appreciated piece of wisdom.

On other soaps, you are often expected to distribute the time allotted to contract players equally, even though you know that the characters are not really up to it. The story-vacuum thus created draws in all kinds of ridiculous developments - unlikely love-matches, whacky visitors and pets - which seriously weaken the whole show. Even with a cast as small as that of, say, thirtysomething, some characters were less successful than others.

The great secret Truth about drama is this - character grows out of story; story does not grow out of character, any more than rabbits come out of hats; it's just that you can make it look that way if you're really clever.

Real ratings come with nostalgia of course, but the best nostalgia is disguised. It was years before anyone realised how old-fashioned Coronation Street was. Most of the audience thought the show did not look like their own lives because of regional, not temporal differences. You have to find a location that has crept to the point of extinction without anyone ever noticing. Both the family and the workplace fall into these categories.

So...Happy New Year. Make a million. And remember who told you how. And now I've got just enough space left to write about the future of the BBC.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 51, January 1993

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