Never let it be said that television doesn't know how to milk the life out of a successful formula, on the occasions when it stumbles across such a rarity. The approach that previously applied to docu-soaps and lifestyle programmes, that of reproducing them ad nauseum, is now being tested on the thirtysomething drama. The seeds of the trend were sewn with the success of the first series of ITV's award-winning Cold Feet. It spearheaded a style of contemporary, domestic thirtysomething drama - with a dash of comedy and the occasional dream sequence - that broadcasters have begun to clone at great speed and with great urgency.
This week, ITV unveiled a wealth of said programmes as part of the winter schedule. "I am particularly proud of the rich heritage which TV has built in drama," says David Liddiment, ITV's director of programmes, who commissioned Cold Feet when he was new to the job. It was part of a bid to take the network's image up the social ladder, into the homes of the middle-class audience, and down to a younger demographic. What began with Cold Feet, and the lives and loves of Greg Wise's Marshall - a 30- year old, Porsche-driving chartered accountant - and his Crouch End friends in Wonderful You, continues into the millennium. Get ready for new series of Cold Feet and Big Bad World. Transmitting in the new year are single films such as Reach For The Moon and Forgive and Forget. And the series Metropolis begins in the second week in January. This is a window on the world of a group of modern friends heading for 30, fast, in the city where the streets are paved with dreams, beggars and Pret a Manger sushi cartons. It's as though a Whit Stillman ensemble of characters had upped sticks, downsized and moved to London. "These dramas are not `easy'," claims Andy Harries, executive producer of both Cold Feet and Metropolis. "There are no vets and doctors. It's a mark of TV drama evolving."
But who are the people these characters represent? More importantly, exactly who is watching? What seems at first remarkable about the success of the genre, is that it is ITV that has cornered the market in it, within a schedule where Robson Green is as familiar a face as Trevor McDonald once was, cast as a doctor, detective, psychologist, soldier, cowboy builder and now fencing teacher in ITV's forthcoming The Last Musketeer. "I think these new dramas have come about because of a desire to refresh the channel and appeal to a younger audience without alienating the old," says Rob Pursery, executive producer on Carlton's Big Bad World. "They capture the fact that everyone is growing up late these days."
The success of these series is due in part to the fact that frequently, television's post-watershed, 9pm-on-the-dot slot, belongs to ITV because of past triumphs such as Cracker and Prime Suspect. (The axing of News At Ten gives new drama a clear run into the night). It was largely because of the insistence and persistence of advertisers that ITV laid down plans to target their drama at a younger, upmarket audience, that of the 18- 34 year olds. It was a move that could have seen their traditional mainstream audience dwindling, but in fact Cold Feet did bring in ratings and a younger crowd. Although, to a younger audience, any TV drama that doesn't feature crinolines or cobblestones may be welcomed as radically contemporary.
Oddly, all paths lead to This Life. The success of Amy Jenkins's chaotic, highly original drama of young lawyers inspired TV broadcasters to dramatise the lifestyles of similar characters several years down the line. When Gub Neal took over as head of drama at Channel 4 a couple of years ago, he claimed that it was time for television to move away from concentrating on working-class characters, as covered by TV soaps, and start looking at middle-class ones. Presumably, those who were in relationships, with careers, a mortgage, maybe a child, a pet, a Pep and a Tessa. The aim, he claimed, was to create a British version of thirtysomething.
American television was the first to discover the formula for this kind of drama a decade ago with the tales of Eliot, Melissa, Hope and Michael in thirtysomething. The recent news that Cold Feet - having been re-made and re-modelled with a stateside cast - was pulled from the US schedules after a couple of episodes, is therefore hardly surprising. thirtysomething was perhaps the only contemporary television series to sandwich dream sequences between depictions of the sturm und drang of modern American life. A life that was far removed from a Norman Rockwell tableau, but nothing like a Ewing feud on Southfork ranch either. It was as domestic as a soap, in a TV culture that had been characterised by soaps, but one in which middle-class professionals designed Carly Simon album sleeves, studied Saul Bellow novels for leisure, and all but came to blows on the subject of circumcision.
Just as thirtysomething was credited with defining an America of the Eighties, Cold Feet has been lauded for accomplishing something similar for Britain at the fag end of the Nineties. Here the themes are house-husbands, stolen kisses, infatuation and impotence, with Manchester providing the backdrop.
But do these dramas reflect their viewers' lives, or those of the TV executives who have commissioned them? It has become a truism within television, of numerous producers and commissioning editors, that the domestic impasse in which their own lives have stalled has become the gauge by which they judge the lives of TV viewers. Hence, female producers return from maternity leave ready to pitch many a series on childbirth. The husband hits 35 and gets a camera. Suddenly there is an abundance of programme treatments about photography. Before you know it, programmes overwhelmingly concerned with garden make- overs, cookery, cars and the changing of room interiors are clogging up the schedules. "I think that Big Bad World is an attempt to take the piss out of our behaviour and that of our contemporaries," claims Rob Pursey. "It sends up thirtysomethings and their insecurites. On the surface there is glamour but underneath it is panic. Our aim is to be satirical."
And so to a style of drama where there are indeed no doctors or vets, but a large amount of characters with media-related careers. In Big Bad World, Ardal O'Hanlon is a journalist on a men's magazine, and in search of Miss Right, with the assistance of his best mate, who works in advertising. In the forthcoming Metropolis, of the three central female characters, one is an agony aunt and the others have careers in politics. Whilst in Wonderful You, Clare is in publishing, Laura is an interior designer and Marco a chef. If there is a character to be found in a "realistic" drama that doesn't have a brilliant career and isn't middle class - culturally, anyway - chances are she will be vibrantly blonde with leather trousers, sunglasses and roots as dark as her past. Michelle Collins usually gets the part.
IF YOU'VE SEEN ONE, YOU'VE SEEN THEM ALL
Cute, clownish and unlucky in love - despite the fact that all female viewers would cheerfully leap into bed with them without a backward look.
Hugely trendy bars where you can always get a seat.
Tots seen only at breakfast, sweet in pyjamas or silent in buggies.
Essential wear for wives, who are nonetheless fully made-up.
Drug-fuelled male bonding
Over a joint, preferably on a roof.
Unfeasibly large kitchens
The size of a football pitch and replete with, apparently, the entire contents of the Conran Shop.
Planning to dump the cuddliest male character in order to pursue career/less cuddly but more handsome man.