A soap opera in a different class

Meet the Harts of Maidenhead, where grandad, an ex-miner, heads a family of aspirational youngsters. Marianne Macdonald talks to the creator of Channel 5's daily soap
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Corinne Hollingworth was producing Casualty and executive-producing EastEnders at the BBC when she got the call a year ago. It was Dawn Airey, director of programmes at Channel 5, the mainstream television channel that launches next month, who offered her the chance to create her own soap as the channel's controller of drama. "It just sounded so exciting to become part of the last terrestrial television channel," she says. "It was an offer I couldn't refuse."

Hollingworth, 44, is talking in her office in Long Acre, Covent Garden. She is as modern and mainstream as the channel intends to be - energetic, open, brightly made-up. She apologises for the building, which she thinks a bit drab; but compared with the BBC, it is a riot of colour and bustle.

It is here that Hollingworth has cooked up the first daily British soap, Family Affairs, based on the adventures of three generations of the Hart family of Maidenhead.

Partly because it will go out at 6.30pm every weekday evening, it will avoid the sensational content and taboo-shattering that Brookside has lately delighted in. The Edwardian detached house inhabited by the Harts will witness no incest, no wife-beating, no child abuse and no late-night arson. "We wanted something that would stretch over five nights a week, which was lighter, without being superficial - and also something which represented the changes in the way people lived in the late Nineties," Hollingworth says.

"Our first decision was that the soap would not be workplace-based, because if it was it would probably be better suited to a later slot, like The Bill. We could have set it in a hospital, but, again, if it's early-evening, there's a danger of emasculating the content all the time."

Hollingworth has worked on the concept - "the hardest thing to get right" - with Mal Young, former producer of Brookside. The biggest, and riskiest, decision they made was to break away from the communal concept that underpins other soaps, whether it is the village (Emmerdale), the close (Brookside), the square (EastEnders), or the local streets and pub (Coronation Street). Family Affairs will centre on one family, and examine in intimate detail the struggles and tensions within the four walls of the Hart household.

The other difference between this soap and its rivals will be that Family Affairs will not be geographically characterised. It is set in a neutral town, and will lack the northern atmosphere that permeates "Corrie" or Brookside.

Class differences within the family will play a big part. The personal experience of Young and Hollingworth influenced them to base the soap around a family that had an ex-miner at its head (Hollingworth's grandfather was a miner), whose son had become a self-employed builder, and whose four grandchildren were variously a trainee lawyer, an entrepreneur, a shop assistant and a schoolboy.

"The grandfather, Angus, is quite working class, a miner who manned the picket lines and comes from the north," says Hollingworth. "His son Chris is also from the north, but has moved south. He is a builder who decided in the late Seventies to set up by himself, and he and his wife Annie are lower middle class. But their children have had education and they've moved up. Holly, 24, is a trainee lawyer. Her twin, Duncan, has opted out and is an entrepreneur who sets up music gigs. Their sister Melanie, 19, is our Spice Girl: she works in a shop and plays hard; she doesn't work hard and has a good time. The youngest son, Jamie, is 13 and still at school."

Can a family-centred soap (even one that follows the characters into their workplace and to the local bar) sustain itself over two-and-a-half hours a week without the hard-edged storylines that have sent Brookside's ratings soaring? Hollingworth is bullish about this - more bullish than she was over the doomed sun 'n' sangria soap Eldorado, which the BBC brought her in to turn around. "There is an element of melodrama in all great soaps, but if you go five nights a week you can't have people killing each other or laying siege to post offices. This will be about character and the minutiae of people's lives. If people are interested enough in the characters, they will be interested in their stories."

Can the actors, some of them newcomers, pull it off? The ability of the Eldorado cast was much criticised - with the nymphet Fizz notably on the receiving end. Hollingworth says: "You can create a wonderful character, and put to it the face of an actor who is possibly not the world's best, and somehow the character comes alive. Then it doesn't matter"n

`Family Affairs' starts on Sunday 30 March; it will run six days a week for the first week only.

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