There's no soft soap from this new avenger

US thriller Revenge starts tonight. It's a return to the Eighties, says Sarah Hughes

Thirty years ago watching television was easy. You sat down with your family and gasped at a parade of glamorous women as they fought and schemed and threatened their way across your screen.

The 1980s was the decade of the night-time soap opera and the only real decision you had to make was whether you were a Dynasty family, preferred Dallas, or even, sacrilege, were the sort of indecisive type who watched both. Now E4 is hoping to bring back those glory nights of big hair and bigger shoulder pads back with the arrival at the end of this month of their newest US import.

Revenge is a sudsy thriller set in chichi beach resort Hamptons and stuffed full of beautiful people with perfect teeth, all possessed of the ability to utter gloriously over-the-top lines such as: "Understand something, Lydia. Every time I smile at you across a room, run into you at a luncheon, welcome you into my home, let my smiles be a reminder of how much I despise you. And that every time I hug you, that warmth you feel is my hatred burning through" with admirably straight faces.

"I wanted to create a night-time soap opera because I had grown up loving shows like Dynasty," admits Revenge's creator Mike Kelley. "When were on TV 30 years ago they were so fresh and exciting. I loved the heightened emotions, all the elements of treachery, deceit, love and lust."

US network ABC, who approached Kelley saying that they were interested in doing a modern-day update of Alexandre Dumas' historical swashbuckler The Count of Monte Cristo. "They didn't really have more of an idea that that so I read the book again and thought that there were all these possibilities," says Kelley. "Because with today's audiences you can't just have a night-time soap opera about rich people, you need more."

Revenge is essentially the story of Emily Thorne, a mysterious young woman who turns up in the Hamptons for the summer and swiftly inveigles her way into the heart of the wealthy Grayson family. Emily is not who she seems. Her father was badly betrayed by the Grayson family and her sole aim is to wreak her vengeance on them.

And she doesn't hold back. Within the first few episodes people are shot, poisoned and financially ruined. Holding the whole frothy confection together are two committed performances from Emily VanCamp as the wronged but somewhat sociopathic Emily Throne and Madeleine Stowe as icy matriarch Victoria Grayson.

"Madeleine read the script, called us and asked for a meeting," says Kelley of Stowe, the ethereal star of Nineties hits such as Twelve Monkeys and The Last of the Mohicans. And no wonder, after being out of the Hollywood spotlight for a number of years, Stowe, who received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, steals the show with Joan Collins' levels of relish.

Yet if Revenge were nothing more than a sudsy guilty pleasure it probably wouldn't have become the success that it has. In the US it regularly pulled over eight million viewers and ABC recently rewarded it with the plum Sunday night slot recently vacated by Desperate Housewives.

So why did it work? In part, it's because under the sudsy trappings beats an altogether blacker heart. Revenge might be based on The Count of Monte Cristo but it nods to everything Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels to Alfred Hitchcock movies. Yes, it indulges in melodramatic moustache twirling but it does so with a knowing wink ensuring the rise and (potential) fall of the house of Grayson is both gloriously over-the-top and darkly compelling.

'Revenge' starts tonight at 9pm on E4