A bit of grit for the Neighbours generation: 'Byker Grove', watched by millions of children, tackles sex, drugs and child abuse. Not all grown-ups approve, says Steve Clarke

Which television soap opera is said to be enjoyed more than EastEnders and Neighbours? Brookside, perhaps, or Coronation Street? Wrong. The answer is Byker Grove, the twice-weekly BBC 1 children's programme, a cult for the 5 million-plus viewers who tune in regularly.

Since Byker Grove was first shown in 1989 it has lived in the shadow of Grange Hill, the pioneering children's serial set in a London comprehensive school. Grange Hill famously introduced street cred and controversy to the somewhat stuffy world of BBC children's television. It caused outcry by tackling smoking, bullying and teenage sex.

Parents and teachers might have disapproved but audiences lapped it up. It was only a matter of time before the BBC attempted to repeat its success by launching another children's soap exploring themes that 10- to 16-year-olds could readily identify with.

The result was Byker Grove. While Grange Hill revolves around school life, Byker Grove has an out- of-uniform setting: a fictional Newcastle youth club. As far as the creators of Byker Grove are concerned, school is an activity that rarely intrudes on life at the Grove and its endless dramas.

In terms of generating controversy, Byker Grove leaves Grange Hill standing. Teenage sex, drugs, child abuse, homosexuality and divorce have all been given an airing. In the last series, now being repeated by BBC 1 on Wednesdays at 5.10pm, one of the leading characters, action man P J, was blinded by a paint ball gun.

The Broadcasting Standards Council, the television watchdog, was asked to adjudicate when viewers complained about a scene in which a boy was seen preparing for a night out by buying condoms. The BSC found in the programme's favour. Nevertheless, the feeling persists that Byker Grove embraces controversy for its own sake. Some critics felt the blinding incident was a bit strong for teatime.

Matthew Robinson, who produces the programme, denies Byker Grove goes out of its way to shock. 'I don't set out to arouse anger but if we didn't upset the older generation now and again I wouldn't be doing my job properly,' he says. 'Byker Grove sets out to be relevant and entertaining. But you have to be responsible. This is a particularly vulnerable age group.'

That may be so but young viewers are notoriously fickle. If given the choice, many would probably choose a cartoon rather than a gritty drama. With satellite and cable offering largely cartoon-based children's channels, Mr Robinson knows he has to work that much harder if he is to retain the audience's loyalty - increased competition has lopped around a million viewers off Byker Grove's ratings since the series began.

However, the appreciation index (measuring the percentage of audience enjoying a show) remains high - in the high 80s compared with 73 per cent for EastEnders and 68 per cent for Neighbours.

So what kind of storylines does this audience respond to? Cameron McAllister, a Byker Grove director, says: 'Basically the audience are into heartache, fun and sexiness.' In other words, the same tried and tested mix covered by teenage magazines.

Mr Robinson recently asked a group of 14-year-old girls what subjects they wanted Byker Grove to cover. Teenage pregnancy and rape were the most popular, followed by eating disorders and death, provided it was not Duncan's (one of the Grove's key characters). This may sound somewhat serious but, like all good soaps, credible characters, humour and the way a story is told are ultimately more important to Byker Grove than 'issues'.

Mr Robinson is a 49-year-old television drama veteran who has directed Coronation Street, Howard's Way, Bergerac, Dr Who and Angels. He did the initial casting for EastEnders.

Apart from the location filming, the series is made at the Mitre, a rambling Victorian mansion standing in four acres of grounds in what is now the rundown Newcastle suburb of Benwell.

The area is notorious for its break-ins but the Mitre seems to be exempt from local hostility. 'I think they rather like us around here. We try to involve local people and schools as much as possible,' Mr Robinson says.

The Mitre, bought by the BBC in 1990, is an all-purpose studio, including sets, production offices, make-up, wardrobe, rest rooms, canteen and even a classroom where the young actors catch up on their school work when not rehearsing or recording.

Mr Robinson gets hundreds of letters from children who want to become members of the cast, but the series can accommodate only a handful because of the need to have regular characters. However, by the time they reach 17 actors become too old for the series and are written out. The fact that Byker Grove's most successful characters, including P J, eventually have to leave is clearly frustrating for Mr Robinson. It is believed he would love to persuade the BBC (Byker Grove is made by Zenith North, an independent producer) to accept a spin-off series aimed at a young adult audience, in the way that Grange Hill sired Tucker's Luck.

For the time being, this seems unlikely. There is a gap in the schedules for a home-produced teenage soap but when channel controllers can buy foreign-made soaps cheaply, there seems little incentive to create an original programme.

The fact that Neighbours follows immediately after it undoubtedly guarantees Byker Grove extra viewers. But Neighbours' success infuriates Mr Robinson, who believes British audiences deserve something better than 'cardboard' television. 'Neighbours is so easy to watch,' he says. 'Our series is challenging and it's about a British way of life.'

(Photograph omitted)