The never ending story
Television-writer and one-time Blogorrah scribe Derek O’Connor is new to Fair City. He’s fleshing out a C story involving show stalwart Bela (Jim Bartley) and Cass (Eamon Morrissey). “Something self-contained and light that can be wrapped up in a week and doesn’t have massive consequences but might be fun,” he says. “For me if you can get the comic stuff right that’s the real corner store of your soapiness. It’s amazing to be writing for people like Eamon Morrissey and Jim Bartley. They’re just pros and can really make a meal of the material.” Carl Austin, an American writer, is still coming to terms with the nuances of Irish life. After using the word “eejit” he says: “I know. It sounds so wrong when I use it.” He was surprised by how much people follow the soap. “I was coming from the airport and told the cab driver that I was writing for Fair City. He said ‘Ah you’re the black guy who writes for Fair City!’”
Coming up with new twists is a challenge. “You suggest something and it turns out that it already happened 10 years ago with the same characters,” says story-writer Ross Dungan. “You read their backstories and this supposed normal person has had six different affairs and murdered three people. It’s really difficult to find new things to do.” Fair City, unlike some other dramas, has no “series bible” keeping track of all the toings and froings. “No, there’s no definitive bible,” says story editor Ferdia MacAnna. “The bible’s name is Liz [Nugent, story associate]. She’s brilliant, she’s like an oracle. Every soap needs someone with great recall.”
A few years ago, to help keep track of everything that had happened to date, the office apparently purchased software designed to keep track of family trees. The software malfunctioned. “We’ve got some pretty interesting family trees in Carrigstown at this stage,” admits Mac Anna. He has a post-it on his desk which reads: “heartbreak, crying babies, love triangles, cause debates, audience take sides, proper adult love stories.” The people who really keep them in line, he says, are the viewers. “If John’s mum is talking about it, we know it’s working don’t we?” says Mac Anna. “And my neighbour as well!” says script/story-writer John Fox, who’s chatting while wiping finalised storylines from the white board. “I got a call from a neighbour the other week about the Lucy storyline ‘When is it going to end? What’s going to happen?’ That storyline was really interesting because by the time people were loving it we were close to writing the end of it. So we could then make the ending really big. It’s really challenging now because people often watch more than one soap and are really aware of how stories work. So my da sits watching shows and says ‘alright this is going to happen now and she’s going to do this and then this will happen’ and it all makes sense.”
“It’s all Charles Dickens’s fault really,” sighs Mac Anna. “He started it all by releasing weekly updates on stories.” Upstairs in her office, De Courcy is about to commence a script meeting.
While those in the storyroom are formulating next April’s stories, she and a team of script editors are finalising January’s scripts.
Around a table six people are parsing the details of fictional lives. In the script a character has just kissed another character (I’m sworn to secrecy on details) just before the ad break.
“When we come back are they still kissing?” says De Courcy. “Would they still be doing that?” Gareth Philips spots a different problem. “We have to make sure people don’t think they had sex during the break.” The script meeting, unlike the freewheeling story meeting downstairs, features lots of heads down, biros out and speedy decisions.
“There’s an awful lot of alcohol across this week.” “That’s a bit overwritten.” “Are we getting ahead of ourselves here?” “I don’t understand her motivation at this point.” Soap storytelling as outlined by De Courcy is often as much about practical considerations as big themes. “We had a romance start recently but because the right sets weren’t available it had to start in a parked car,” she says (filming inside moving vehicles can be expensive). She also talks about having to talk writers down from car-crashes and infernos.
There have been a couple of last-minute panics in De Courcy’s time. When actress Pat Leavy died, the writing team had to rewrite 72 episodes. “I was sleeping under my desk,” says De Courcy. “The story department were rewriting frantically and we were also very sad at the time having just been to her funeral. It was awful.”
At the time of Saipan, an episode featured a character saying the words: “provided Keano doesn’t lose the head”. “Then he did lose the head,” says De Courcy.
“He lost it on Tuesday and the episode was to broadcast on Friday. We had to take it out of traffic and redo the line.”
Over the course of the day I hear the Fair City operation likened to a juggernaut, an ocean liner and a factory. Gordon Spiering says that it’s like a big skipping rope, and that when you join the team you have “to start jumping”. The size of the operation is evident out on the lot, aka the main street of Carrigstown, where Gary Agnew and his crew are shooting scenes featuring Bob (Brian Murray) and Ingrid (Vivienne Connolly) that are due to air in December. There’s also a studio, a big warehouse space, in which familiar interior sets are assembled as required. (Some sets, such as McCoys pub or the Hungry Pig restaurant, remain up all the time.)