A bloody body on the pier and a rather attractive sergeant on his way to investigate; a young couple snogging in the pub, taking breathers only to hint that theirs is a forbidden love (second only to a love triangle in the soap hierarchy of affairs), two warring families from either side of the tracks; and a rookie garda who discovers a dark secret about a colleague that could ruin both their careers - all in a scant half-hour of TV time. But that's soap for you – and Red Rock, TV3's new twice-weekly drama got off to a rollicking good start on Wednesday, introducing a range of strong, perfectly realised characters from the terrifying scheming matriarch of the moneyed Hennessy family (a gimlet-eyed Cathy Belton) to the comic relief from amiable jobsworth Paudge (Pat Ryan) a garda who'd rather be collecting rent from his bedsits than working.
Red Rock is set in a seaside town somewhere along Dublin's coast - urban with a watery twist - and it is the first Irish-made soap since Ros na Rún kicked off on TG4 in 1996. The garda station is the main location (like Sun Hill, back in the days of The Bill on ITV) and that's presumably where the main storylines are going to come from every week. There's a pub, a café, and a soon-to-open supermarket where the Red Rock residents can casually bump into each other.
Anyone tuning in to see shaking scenery and ropey acting - the first few dire episodes of Fair City in 1989 live long in the memory – will have been disappointed. Red Rock is good. It's a slick, serious piece of work in its filming and snappy editing, and the opener went about its business of introducing the main characters in a brisk, efficient way with short scenes and snappy dialogue. Writer Peter McKenna (Eastenders, Casualty, The Clinic) and director Matt Carter (Holby City) have form when it comes to weekly dramas and their experience shows. The cast - huge - is a mix of experience and newcomers and includes Richard Flood, Andrea Irvine, Cathy Belton and Paul Roe (as the menacing head of the skanger Kiely clan) alongside new faces including India Mullen, Adam Weafer, Jack Nolan and Jane McGrath (terrific as idealistic newbie garda Sharon Cleere).
Everyone seems to be sleeping, fighting or working with each other - or in some cases all three - which as it should be in soapland. And there's enough hinted at in all the main characters to believe they could have multiple stories in them - and they'll need it. There's a lot riding on Red Rock for TV3. On January 1st UTV Ireland launched and took TV3's big, early evening audience grabbers Coronation Street and Emmerdale. Never mind that soap viewing figures are on the slide - which partly explains why Coronation Street and Eastenders are vying with each other for ever-more sensational, borderline bizarre and mostly miserable plots - they're still the jewel in the crown of commercial TV scheduling, drawing vast audiences and the advertisers that come come with them. Fair City's Christmas edition drew a massive 571,000 viewers - and most week's that home-grown soap tops RTE One's ratings - no one's joking now about shaky scenery in Carraigstown. And those figures prove that Irish audiences since the days of The Riordans love Irish drama - the soapier the better – and are prepared to tune in faithfully.
With a €7 million budget, Red Rock is made with some help from the BAI and commercial sponsorship - that giant "Costcutter coming soon" sign over the supermarket didn't get there by accident - it's an expensive gamble. On the strength of its first entertaining, more-ish outing - that gamble should pay off. Only one quibble - soaps need a thumping signature tune - an ear worm that's the first cousin of the jingle - Red Rock's low key twangy one is a bit on the restrained side. The second episode of Red Rock is on TV3 on Thursday at 8.30pm