Cold Call

Sally Chatterton rings Phil Redmond
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The Independent Culture
DEATH TO the boring middle classes! Write them out of existence - or at least out of Brookside Close. Well, that's what Phil Redmond ordered this week. The jovial television producer talks of his fiendish characters as though they were best friends; he also has a penchant for gritty realism, and brings both them and it into our homes with productions such as Brookside, Hollyoaks and Grange Hill. Not for him the comfortable life of Albert Square where just about the worse thing that can happen is Babs Windsor fluttering her eyelashes at you; Redmond prefers bodies under patios, incest, drugs and contract killing. No wonder my mother would never let me watch Grange Hill.

Why do you think the middle classes are boring?

That is a typical soundbite quote. I was trying to correct the view that I was about to take Brookside more middle-class, following on from Blair's notion that we're all middle-class now, so we need to make all our soap operas middle-class. It just wasn't true.

Why leave the middle class out?

Soap needs at its core working-class characters, because most of the population can still be defined in those terms. As a storyteller, I think there's a lot to be said about the needs and the problems of the working class. And it's where I come from.

But when I last saw `Hollyoaks', it was teeming with middle-class families.

If you stand back and look at the characters, I would argue that they are not middle-class. They are just slightly more middle-class than normally seen portrayed on television.

Aren't you perpetuating a `scally' stereotype with some of your working- class characters?

One of the most frustrating things that you discover as a contemporary dramatist is that life really is made up of stereotypes and cliches. They're true because they do exist.

Do you think that soap has a specific function?

There are so many bogus theories on this. But it falls on what you want to do as a writer. I am interested in looking at issues. If you can engage an audience in a programme, you can then engage them in the debates that are going on in society. The more challenging you make that debate, the more enjoyable they find the programme.

Not just a cynical ploy to up the ratings, then?

Well, we do do cynical ploys: the explosion in Brookside, drugs in Grange Hill, a plane crash in Emmerdale. That's part of the skill.

It is a cynical ploy, then?

No. It's part of the crack. The fabric of society is the mundane. People want to see a relevancy, to touch it and realise that someone else is experiencing what they've experienced. But not all the time. They also want a bit of spice.

Can soap operas educate?

It's education with a small "e". But that's not the vocation. We're there to entertain. We've turned the Reithian thing around from "educate, inform and entertain" to "entertain, inform and educate". I've learnt that if you're not talking about an issue that the public is engaged in, then they will ignore it.

Soaps, then, will encourage debate rather than dull the brain?

It helps create a more sympathetic climate for the real campaigners. That's the greatest claim I'll make and that gives the greatest buzz.