Soaps get a spring clean


Out! Out! Out! Soap stars are swirling down the plughole, or so it would seem, at least judging by the covers of the Irish TV magazines. A departure of a leading character from an Irish soap opera has twice made the front cover in recent weeks. The news that Biddy is set to pop her wellies in a car crash tomorrow night, courtesy of new-kid-on-the-block TV Now!, gave the elder lemonly RTE Guide a run for its money a few weeks back by breaking the storyline of Mary McEvoy's departure.

Next thing, Lorraine (Maeve McGrath from Fair City, also leaving) was cover girl on the Guide, and this week the cover looks at the high-profile defections and ejections in the adopted Irish soap, Corrie. The magazines seem to be at least partially fighting the turf war in that spooky area where fictional characters become confused with the actors who play them.

It wasn't always like this - although years ago ex-Riordans star Tom Hickey, after a terrific stage performance in an Irish classic at the Abbey, was said to be disconcerted to overhear a punter remark: "Benjy was quite good" - but the cult of soap celebrity seems to have risen to new heights. The departure of an established character has always given producers and writers the opportunity for a juicy storyline. So something might actually happen for a change in Glenroe next season, Miley now being a rich widower with two children. To be fair, things have been happening at a slightly faster pace than heretofore - the nailbiting (well, maybe not quite, but you know . . .) tension at the farm auction last week was well done, though, of course, as we all knew the Biddy tragedy was in store, there was a slight air of calm before the storm. Tomorrow night, as well as the car crash, maybe we'll also find out where on earth Dinny and Teasie came up with two million squid, as Ali G would say, to buy the farm.

Lorraine in Fair City has been the focus of a number of strong storylines in her time, including attempted suicide, rape and the ensuing trial, and latterly (and soppily) her marriage to childhood sweetheart Jimmy. Still, can't be doing with too much marital bliss in a soap - no sooner were they back from honeymoon than Lorraine discovers that Me Ma and Me Da have split up - and Me Ma has, somewhat incredibly, done a complete bunk. The news of Shelley's pregnancy with her husband's child would have knocked Me Ma for six - but there's nary a sign of Shelley, and Me Ma didn't even wait around for long enough to sock hubby Harry on his substantial jaw. So most of Lorraine and Jimmy's married life so far has consisted of the lost puppy bleating about Me Ma and Me Da, while nice guy Jimmy-in-the-middle frowns and throws up his hands. What end will they cook up for Lorraine? Presumably she won't go the way of Jimmy's big sis Helen - belly up in a car crash and expiring to the strains of the theme from Titanic. [RO

Meanwhile, over on Corrie, one is never enough, and the list of imminent departures - forced and voluntary - under the new broom of producer Jane Macnaught, includes Mark Baldwin, the clean-cut kid who cuckolded his father; Leanne Battersby, the first person in the world to become totally addicted to cocaine on her first snort; eco-warrior Spider, who ran out of trees to save and became a dole officer; whining Kev's wimpy wife Alison, who'll have her babby and later get the chop in yet another road accident; Nita Desai, the gorgeous Asian woman whose promising storylines haven't lived up to the possibilities offered by her character, or the actor's skill; show-me-astorecard Gwen, who will finally run out of things to buy down at t' precinct; and Gary Mallet, who frankly hasn't had a lot to do, other than struggle with the twins, following the death of his screen wife Judy.

And speaking of front covers, the imminent chop for Corrie's resident Irishman, Big Jim McDonald, was flagged on page one of the Irish Mirror this week - Charlie Lawson's contract won't be renewed after years of playing the sometimes drunken, sometimes violent, sometimes paralysed Jim McDonald (so-he-is).

At times, of course, the unanticipated short-term absence of an actor can throw plots sideways - it looks like the recent sudden illness of Mike Reid threw up some difficulties for the writers of EastEnders just as a number of storylines involving his Frank Butcher character were coming to a head. So Frank has been mysteriously stuck "in Manchester" - only a couple of hours on the train from London, but seemingly the end of the world as far as EastEnders in concerned - while his business partner and wife argue over dodgy motor deals, his son leaves the Square and the series in a dramatic episode, and the bar is the object of a tug-of-war between wife Peggy and cuckoo-in-the-nest Dan.

Every so often Peggy hangs up the phone, says Frank is still tied up in Manchester and that she hasn't had the heart to tell him what's been going on! So a few interesting surprises for him when he gets back next week, then.

Of course, a quick exit can also solve a management problem rather than cause one - Stephen Hancock, the actor who, fado fado, played Ernie Bishop (husband of the mild-mannered Emily), was also an Equity representative on the set of Coronation Street. He looked for better terms and conditions - and, of course, money - for his colleagues, and Granada's response was to have him promptly gunned down by robbers in Mike Baldwin's frock factory. Memo to Robert Carrickford (who has just stepped down as long-running president of Irish Equity, and who plays Stephen Brennan in Glenroe): Don't go too near that threshing machine!