The never ending story
TELEVISION: Heartbreak, crying babies, love triangles – it’s all happening in Carrigstown when PATRICK FREYNE, who once wrote storylines for ‘Fair City’, goes behind the scenes at the soap
IN THE FAKE Spar shop in the studio set of Fair City, some of the oranges are real and some are fake. Gordon Spiering, the friendly production assistant who is showing me around the set, seems a bit perplexed by this himself. “There’s probably some reason for that,” he says, but sounds doubtful. We wander around the shop, a three-sided set with no fourth wall, checking what else is real or fake. The wine seems real. The yogurt cartons are empty. The cheese is real. “But you probably wouldn’t want to eat it,” says Spiering, lest I try.
Fair City has been spinning stories about the residents of the fictional north Dublin suburb of Carrigstown for 23 years. For all this time, the creators have been meshing the real with the unreal (though the Spar shop was only added last year as part of a product-placement deal).
“Carrigstown is a little bit like Brigadoon,” says executive producer Brigie De Courcy. De Courcy worked for the show a decade ago and returned in 2008 after successful stints on Emmerdale and EastEnders. “It’s tucked in somewhere between Phibsboro and Drumcondra and on a clear day you might find it.” Started as an urban counterpoint to the rural Glenroe in 1989, Fair City was not an instant success. It was nearly cancelled after its first six months under the guidance of EastEnders co-creator Tony Holland. “He just didn’t have the Irish thing,” says Tony Tormey, who has been playing Fair City’s lothario, Paul Brennan, since the shows inception.
“The scripts were all in a different idiom. They were written in Londonese rather than Dublinese. It just didn’t work so they cancelled it. But they stuck with it and brought Mary Halpin in. It was almost like starting again.”
Fair City is now broadcast four nights a week, a feature-film’s worth of drama. It’s one of the most-watched programmes on Irish television with juicily melodramatic plots about affairs, rivalries, spousal abuse and psychotic secret bunnyboilers (like Lucy, aka Lorna Quinn, whose obsession with the Molloy family came to a head this week).
The invention of such shenanigans requires a story factory in the heart of RTÉ. There’s an open-plan office with a screen showing the action being filmed in the lot and studio below. There is also a writing room with a glass wall but no natural light, nicknamed – depending on who you ask – Guantánamo Bay or The Goldfish Bowl. Downstairs, there’s another story room. This room is more familiar to me than the set. I wrote a story for Fair City for six weeks or so in 2009.
“Everybody loves telling stories and are curious about other people’s lives,” says De Courcy. “We all have a desire to see enacted all the terrible things we hope are never going to happen to us. In ancient Greece people left the theatre saying ‘thank goodness that’s never going to happen to me. I’m never going to be a king and have someone pluck out my eyes’. Soap is absolutely the same except we’re now watching our neighbours.” De Courcy likens Bella Doyle, with his three daughters, to King Lear.
“One is a king and his field of vision is enormous and one is a man who lives in a two-up-two-down in Carrigstown. We’re telling big, big stories with small, real people.” But even Shakespeare, hack though he was, wasn’t producing two hours of drama a week. On Fair City, the writing process is divided into “script” and “story”. Story-writers work in a group to come up with weeks of story lines, which are eventually put together as “dramatic beats” and given to individual scriptwriters to be fleshed out into dialogue.
Down in the story room, there are four white boards across which four weeks of story are summarised. Each day is represented by a strip of four plots – sentences written in green, red, blue and black marker – an A story (the big story of the episode), two B stories and a C story (usually a lighter yarn). Each story needs a “hook”, a tantalising enticement to come back after the break, and a “cliff” a suspenseful ending that will pull viewers back the next day. At the exit of the room there’s a big red bin with a special lock, where all notes can be disposed of securely so that no story developments are leaked. On another wall there are a series of cards printed with the working titles of stories, underneath which are headshots of various actors. On a third wall a white board lists all the actors available for the weeks in question. The weeks in question are next April.
“You find yourself wishing your life away in this job,” says series consultant Gareth Philips. “I felt Christmasy when we were writing the Christmas storylines months ago.” Philips has worked on Coronation Street and Hollyoaks, so as De Courcy says, between the two of them “they have all the soaps covered”. He uses the word “soaptastic” when describing particularly compelling storylines.
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.)
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.”