The never ending story
There is a crew filming scenes in the Dillon’s sitting room. “When we started this morning this file was this high,” says floor manager Eddie Finlay, pointing at his diminishing pile of production notes. “We do about 16 scenes a day. We have four more to do.”
Finlay is wearing a headset with which he communicates with director David Whelan up in the “unit” where he’s observing the action on a screen. Finlay is Whelan’s voice on set. “I’m the go-between,” he says.
“The actors shout at me and the director shouts at me. It’s dangerous to let the director shout at the actors . . . nothing would get done.” Onscreen the action is happening in a pleasant pastel coloured, suburban sitting room. In reality it’s a three-walled plywood construction in the middle of a warehouse-sized space filled with other such reality-bending locations. Plotwise, someone is drunk, someone is slyly lecherous, someone is annoyed and one of them is wearing a pink boa.
It’s towards the end of the day and people are tired. On being asked to do another run-through, a slightly frazzled actor pleads with Finlay to go for a take. Finlay checks with Whelan and acquiesces. A loud bell rings. “I like to use the bell,” he says. “Others prefer not to.” The tired actor fluffs her lines. “We were doing so well before you arrived!” laughs Finlay shaking his head and looking at me like I’m a jinx. The actor nails it on the next take.
“Guys come in who have great stage careers but can’t believe how hard we work,” says Tony Tormey aka Paul Brennan. “One actor came in to record one day and by lunch he was white. He was ashen. He said ‘All that stuff we rehearsed this morning. Are we actually filming it this afternoon?’ I had to tell him it wasn’t a rehearsal, we were actually filming. Guy Ritchie said he loves working with soap actors. They’ll know their lines. They won’t bang into the furniture and they’ll know what to do.
“There’s no time for method acting. I wonder how Daniel Day-Lewis would do on Fair City? If I meet him I might ask him to give it a try.” The other thing that Day-Lewis might find difficult is never being called by his own name.
“I’m chuffed if someone calls me Tony,” says Tormey. “My barometer for how the show is doing is that people are coming up to me. They’ll say ‘Oh you’re a terrible man, Paul.’ I could be in the chemists with my children with one dying with bronchitis and they’ll still come up and give the opinion on what I should be doing or shouldn’t be doing with my fictional children . . . Paul has been a womaniser, so on the one hand I’d be getting the ‘go on Paul’ from the lads at the building sites, on the other hand I’d have the auld ones giving me a slap and telling me to behave myself. I suppose sometimes you’re in the house with someone who’s on their own with no contact with anyone else and as far as they’re concerned you’re someone that they know. You’re in their house four nights a week.”
Fair City plotlines often fuel national radio debates and column inches (a recent storyline about Suzanne’s physical abuse of Damien is an example of this). There’s a cork board in the office featuring recent Fair City related tabloid stories.
The grammar of soap is rigid. “You want the writers to be pushing at the boundaries and challenging things,” says De Courcy, “but we’re not Breaking Bad”. In soap each episode takes place on the same day. The characters age at the same rate as the viewers. The stories revolve around, in John Fox’s words, “births, marriages, deaths and affairs.” If you see a wedding dress before a wedding, it means the wedding is off.
If a gun appears, it must eventually be fired. The characters rarely leave their suburb. Nothing significant ever happens off screen. And it never ends. While classic drama is defined as comedy or tragedy depending on how it concludes, soap opera never stops.
“Nothing is ever completely resolved,” says script-writer Hilary Reynolds. “It means that you can’t make any character happy without knowing that eventually you have to go and destroy their happiness. Then again, there’s also some sort of satisfaction in watching these things unfold on the screen and thinking – my life isn’t that bad.”