How to help a drama out of a crisis: The tabloids have eaten 'Eldorado' alive, but William Phillips believes they may end up with paella on their faces

WHETHER they call it Helldorado, El Disastro or Desperado, the papers have written off BBC 1's Spanish soap opera. Three weeks of leaked, garbled, misinterpreted audience figures and the tabloids call for Eldorado's execution. Only the BBC, defensively nursing a pounds 10m annual commitment, refuses to sign the death warrant.

The corporation has little choice: its contract with the show's independent producer, Cinema Verity, is good for two years and it is in no state to kiss millions goodbye. The official attitude, expressed by BBC 1's controller, Jonathan Powell, before his Mercy Dash to Spain last week, is that all soaps need work before they work, and all Eldorado needs is fine-tuning.

He is half right. The show can be saved, but this is in spite of some serious tactical errors in the soap's launch, for which he shares blame.

Eldorado was rushed into BBC 1's 7pm Monday, Wednesday and Friday slots to replace the flagging Wogan, which had twice fallen to below three million viewers in May. No previous continuing drama has been launched in July, towards the seasonal low point of the audience's availability to view.

Three weeks into its run, Eldorado collided with the Olympics on BBC 2 just as initial curiosity could be expected to be waning. A July debut did give it scope for tabloid coverage in the summer 'silly' season - vital for priming an audience - but it was so rushed that journalists had little time to file background stories before their junket to the show's Spanish village set.

The haste shows. Eldorado is supposed to snaffle younger viewers, mass television's elusive elixir. The middle- aged people who decide these things believe that under-25s, clutching their channel zappers, cannot attend to any item for longer than half a minute. Hence Eldorado started with a bewilderingly fast kaleidoscopic shuffling of 31 continuing characters. Coronation Street and Neighbours have a dozen.

So far Eldorado lacks a single physical centre of action like the Rovers' Return pub in Coronation Street, or the emotional focus of a strong 'tentpole' character, such as Ena Sharples on the Street or Meg Richardson in Crossroads, around whom plots could be woven. The promise was that the sunny setting, multinational ensemble and holiday atmosphere would contrast with the workaday cliches of soaps such as EastEnders and Brookside.

But old habits die hard with the two EastEnders veterans, Tony Holland, Eldorado's head writer, and its producer, Julia Smith, who has already retired hurt with 'nervous exhaustion'. In the first fortnight homophobia, disablement, bereavement and alcoholism were on the menu. We were offered the Irish layabout, the drunken Scot, the nosy spinster, the randy Jack- the-lad, the black feminist in dungarees, the ageing man-mad chanteuse and the lonely homosexual.

The British welcome well-executed cliches, but Eldorado has introduced a 'Euro-pudding' dimension to promote overseas sales, already achieved in Scandinavia. For some years British audiences, nourished by programmes designed solely for them, have scented a sell-out in foreign locations and actors speaking English with accents.

Dieter, the German toyboy, and Arnaud, the French smoothie, plus representatives of Spain and Sweden improbably conversing in a muddily recorded English lingua franca, may annoy British xenophobes. The directors seem to have been told to 'cheat' certain shots to assist dubbing into foreign tongues. This causes some strange postures and camera angles.

With Ms Smith's disappearance, the executive producer, Verity Lambert, has taken command. The labour of weeding out dud characters has begun with the announcement of the early departure of the hapless Fizz, street survivor and baby bride of the portly, middle-aged Bunny. Their marriage was the first episode's punchline. The spring-and-autumn theme played like a variant of Smith and Holland's first soapy triumph, when Dirty Den, the EastEnders publican and sinner, secretly fathered the schoolgirl Michelle's child.

Legend has it that EastEnders was saved by this expertly protracted story arc. The facts are these. EastEnders premiered in February 1985, taking 9.3 million viewers in its first week and falling by 17 per cent to 7.7 million by week three. It was less watched in early days than the wildlife documentary repeats it replaced, and was outrated by Wogan on other weekday nights at 7pm.

EastEnders sank to 5.2 million after 15 weeks, about what Eldorado is scoring now (ignoring the much publicised freak overnight rating of 2.8m on July 31, when it was up against the Olympics). EastEnders took off only in August when ITV screened old episodes of its direct rival, Emmerdale Farm, during that soap's summer break. The interposition of Emmerdale Farm Remembered gave viewers their cue for a fresh look at EastEnders, when the pub-based love triangle was hotting up. The tabloids, which had slaughtered the soap, resurrected it. By Christmas 1985, shifted to 7.30pm against softer opposition, it was BBC 1's most watched programme, with more than 15 million viewers.

Michael Grade, who is credited with salvaging EastEnders when he was running BBC 1, has always been better at playing his hand than picking it. He judged Eldorado a hit before its first ratings.

Can it, too, be salvaged? The first three weeks' figures are equivocal. The average audience at 7pm has fallen from 7 to 5 million, but the repeats' viewing held up better, down from 2.4 to 2.1 million. Interestingly, children watching the afternoon repeats doubled between week one and week three. It was, remember, the under-15s' enthusiasm that pushed Neighbours into an early evening slot and gave Grade's BBC 1 its other soap sensation.

The Olympics will scramble all data for a fortnight, but by September ITV's gambit of vanquishing Eldorado at 7pm with ancient game shows such as Take Your Pick may be losing force. Children who control the dial at 5.35pm for Neighbours may persuade their parents to forsake games for the crucial second look at Eldorado - but only if a plotline and characters to seize the imagination are in the can.

If not, it will merit the fate of Granada's The Practice (1985) and Albion Market (1985-86). These twice-weekly soaps lacked tentpole characters and were stuffed with social worthiness, as if to atone for Coronation Street's disregard of contemporary mores. However, some soaps have been nursed to reasonable health with patience.

In 1982 Brookside dropped from 3.4 to 1.9 million viewers after three weeks on Channel 4; like Eldorado it was too costly to cancel. By 1984 it was C4's top-rated series. Home and Away, ITV's Australian riposte to Neighbours, began with a mediocre 6 million in winter 1989, quietly building up to the 9 million Eldorado needs by Christmas.

Eldorado was supposed to reproduce the nave narrative vigour and sunny surfside atmosphere of the teen-oriented Aussie serials, but this probably mistakes their appeal. The British love to be lectured in their everyday drama: witness the success of The Bill, soon to be thrice-weekly, with its thinly dramatised homilies and crime prevention lectures. Neighbours and Home and Away are stiff with morality. Thieves are always caught, quarrels made up, abortions averted, guilty secrets exposed. And the kids lap it up.

Their elders are just as fond of shame and penance. Eldorado must resist all temptation to endorse the hedonism of Club 18-30 or the escapism of the Costa del Crime. Make Marcus 'Randy' Tandy genuinely lovestruck, force 'Drew the Drunk' Lockhead to forswear the beer and the Sun's page seven lead may yet be 'Eldo-ratings] No-hope soap races up chart'.

(Photograph omitted)