'Footballers' Wives' shown red card after ratings slump

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The Independent Online

It had exploding boobs, a hermaphrodite baby, catfights, affairs and fake tans aplenty, but was noticeably lacking in genuine sporting action. When Footballers' Wives first appeared in 2002, nothing quite like it had been seen before in television drama.

But after five series and following a slide in ratings, ITV has decided to axe the show that captured the obsession with celebrity footballers and their consorts and made even the lives of Victoria Beckham and Coleen McLoughlin look bland by comparison.

Viewers did not know initially whether to take the programme seriously, with its plot lines that stretched the bounds of reality, flash cars, fancy houses and a character named Chardonnay.

They soon got the joke, however, and the antics of the players of the fictional Earls Park football club and their wives and lovers attracted a new youthful audience to ITV1.

But ratings have been steadily slipping, falling beneath four million last month. Yesterday, ITV announced that there would not be a sixth series.

ITV's director of drama Nick Elliott said: "It's been a great show for us and delivered a young audience to ITV1 but, because it was a zeitgeist show by its very nature, it's had its moment in time.

"It hadn't been performing as well as it had in the past and we need to make room in the schedule for fresh new series."

The show is made by the independent production company Shed Productions, which also makes the prison drama Bad Girls for ITV1. Eileen Gallagher, Shed's chief executive officer, said that it was the right time to bring the show to an end.

"It's a hard show to keep up for longer than five series. We wanted to take it out on a high. At first, people thought we were being serious. They eventually got the fact that it was sending up a world that is preposterous."

Shed's managing director Brian Park, the show's original producer, said: "We're proud we created one of the most talked-about shows of recent times and the fact it really caught the mood of the nation."

When it launched in January 2002, it was clear from the off that Footballers' Wives was a new genre of drama. As has become the norm now, the pages of celebrity magazines had become filled with pictures of the wives and girlfriends of footballers, shopping in designer tracksuits. But the ITV drama went one step further and imagined what was going on behind closed doors in a world of bed-hopping sports stars and conspicuous consumption.

In the opening episode, top striker Kyle Pascoe fought off the attentions of a lap-dancer on the grounds that his fiancée, Chardonnay "would go ape".

It immediately became talked-about television, although not always for the right reasons. "The most startling thing about Footballers' Wives is that nobody has made it before now: it's one of those shows, which crop up now and then, that seem to be the product less of imagination than of inexorable commercial logic," wrote The Independent's Thomas Sutcliffe at the time.

"Testosterone-pumped young men and their gorgeous women, all togged up in designer clothes, scooting around in fast cars, living in big houses, swilling and snorting and getting in fights ... it was all there, just waiting for somebody to put it in a prime-time slot." The Daily Mirror put it more succinctly: "It is so tacky it is a wonder no one thought of it before."

The show made stars of Zoe Lucker, who played the ruthless Tanya Turner, Laila Rouass, who played her love rival Amber Gates and found a new role for former EastEnders actress Gillian Taylforth as the footballer's mother Jackie Webb.

Such was the show's glitzy appeal that 91 babies were registered with the name Chardonnay between 2002 and 2003. Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared himself a fan and the Archbishop of Canterbury even mentioned it in his Easter message.

Guest stars over the five series have included Joan Collins, David Seaman, Jordan, Peter Stringfellow, Sol Campbell, Richard Madeley, Judy Finnegan and Antony Worrall Thompson.

Fans will have a last chance to see the show, in a special edition being made as part of the BBC's Sport Relief, to be shown on 15 July, which may include cameo appearances by Premiership footballers and their wives.

As it comes to the end of its lifespan in the UK, a new audience is opening up for the drama internationally. Last year, Footballer's Wives was sold to BBC America, where it continues to perform well and a new deal has just been struck to take the show to what Mr Park describes as its "natural home", South America.

Action replay: the best bits

* Chardonnay's chest caught fire and exploded when a man threw a drink over her at a post-match party. As a Page 3 model, her cosmetically enhanced bust was her best asset, so she was deeply upset.

* When top striker Kyle Pascoe's mum Jackie became pregnant, he and fiancée Chardonnay paid her to adopt the baby. But the father turned out to be her long-lost son and the child was a hermaphrodite.

* Premiership heart-throb Conrad Gates apparently fathered children by his wife Amber and lover Tanya at the same time. But, unsure of her baby's real parentage, Tanya swapped it for Amber's, but not before she had covered it in fake tan to match her love rival's darker skin.

* Amber Gates faked her own kidnapping by the Triads in a bid to get money out of husband Conrad. The scam was all the more convincing as the Triads had already taken her favourite dog, leaving behind its collar in a plate of curry.

* At a Pride and Prejudice-themed wedding, two black footballers turned up in chains and shackles, to make the point that in Jane Austen's day, it was more a case of prejudice than pride for black people.