Redmond's just taking Brookside back to its roots. Honest.
Monday 17 November 1997
featuring the return of Sheila Grant, may seem like a cynical ploy to milk the fans. Not so, says Phil Redmond, the Channel 4 soap's creator. It's a back-to-the-roots reward for their loyalty - and the testing bed for a grander plan, he tells Meg Carter
Phil Redmond's career is built on his desire to develop social realistic drama exploring real issues and real lives. He is the man who gave us Grange Hill and, of course, the soap with a social conscience - Brookside.
So why is he now bringing out a feature length, 18-certificate action- packed Brookside video, complete with a cocktail of strong language, high emotions and rape? Here's a tip: it is anything but a cynical marketing ploy.
Times have changed, and so has he. Redmond is now an astute businessman - head of one of the country's most successful independent production companies, Mersey TV, and vice chairman of the North-west's film commission. This is the man, remember, who put Trevor Jordache's body under the patio and a Lockerbie-style air disaster into the ITV soap Emmerdale. Is he guilty of using cheap gimmicks to boost his pension? No way.
"Something extra for the loyal fan" is how Redmond prefers to describe the feature length video, Brookside: The Long Weekend. He is down in London for the celebrity launch bash across town. Over black coffee and Diet Coke in the gloomy interior of the West End's Langham Hilton, he explains the difference between what he is doing and the cynical exploitation of viewers by many other programme-makers.
"I've never treated audiences like a bunch of cretins, as other producers do," he insists, referring to Granada's Coronation Street "movie" of Curly and Raquel's wedding. The feature-length episode was sold as exclusive to video, only to appear on ITV within months. Granada was deluged with calls from angry fans and had its knuckles rapped by the ITC. The Lost Weekend, however, comes with the promise that it will not be aired before 2000. "We're not cheating the viewer - we would be if we were going to transmit it on TV next week, but we're not," Redmond says. "The acid test is, if people want to watch it, they'll pay. It's no different from people making an active choice to see a film at the cinema."
Creatively, the idea behind the video is a clever one. The action picks up where last week's five-night special left off, following Lindsey Corkhill's trip to Norwich for her TV debut as a Cher lookalike, Barry Grant's gun- wielding pursuit of the gangster Finnegan and the brief return to the close of one of the show's favourite characters - Barry's mother, Sheila. When the next television episode is broadcast on Tuesday, viewers will know something has happened over the weekend, but not what. Repercussions from the video's dramatic climax will rumble beneath the thrice-weekly soap's broadcast action for many months to come.
The "something extra" comes with the return of Sheila Grant, played by Sue Johnstone, after a seven-year absence from Brookside Close, and from the creative freedom offered by the video format. "It enabled us to take emotions, language and the level of violence a bit higher - it's more a reflection of what Brookside used to be." In the beginning, the creative focus was post-socialist society, Redmond explains. "I came into TV drawn by its potential to be a strong force for social change. I was interested in juxtaposing the trade union movement, black economy and growth of Thatcherism. I was keen on tackling hypocrisy in society and on scatology - showing reality through the use of real language in real situations. Swearing is closely attached to strong emotions and powerful storylines." But practice proved tougher than theory. The dream was modified almost immediately, he sighs. "What happened over the first year was almost a siege mentality." Criticism of the rawness of the language led to self-censorship of storylines by the production team.
Subsequent changes, however, took the soap even further from its social realistic origins, with increasingly sensational plot twists. These were driven by shifts in society, Redmond insists. "With a lack of any `great vision' from the Conservative government and the arrival of the cult of the individual, our stories became more introspective." Social issues such as domestic violence moved centre-stage. And so did sex. The cocktail proved effective, boosting audiences to one million more than the current average of 6.5 million.
A similar volte face happened with Hollyoaks - Redmond's teen drama for Channel 4 set in affluent Chester, although the starting point was somewhat different. "My dream was to do something aspirational, something happy rather than doom and gloom. After 16 episodes, however, the reaction of the kids was cool. They thought: `OK, but where's the drugs?'." Storylines were spiced up, characters culled and audiences rose to more than three million. This talent has also been put to good use on ITV's Emmerdale where, following explosive surgery, audiences rose from 11 to 18 million.
All of which made Redmond very popular indeed with the broadcasters. It left some, however, with the feeling that the anti-establishment radical had sold out. So, was his apparent readiness to do anything for ratings a willingness to compromise? Absolutely not, he insists. "Everything we do is for ratings - that's my job. I don't ask, should this plot development be this issue, just, why not do it because it will be interesting. We've got to do this because we bring in the cash to Channel 4. Many other programmes are, commercially speaking, negative-value programmes. We generate advertising revenue that pays for everything else. And I like that. It's the buzz." It also puts both him and Mersey TV in a powerful strategic position. Which is just where he wants to be. "I'm one of the few people who can have an idea and put that idea on screen," he claims, referring to a recent meeting with the disability group 1 in 8 about including disabled people in Brookside. "I'm the supreme court." Behind this bravado, however, lies long-standing resentment of the industry's London-based power-brokers. Redmond is proud to be based in Liverpool and has long campaigned for more programmes to be made outside the South-east. He still sees himself as an outsider - especially since his unsuccessful attempt to out-bid Granada for its ITV licence five years ago.
And this despite the fact that at that time his own business, Mersey TV turnover was bigger than that of a number of smaller ITV companies. "I'm certainly not part of the broadcasting establishment," he insists, "I've tried and they wouldn't let me in." Not that it seems to bother him any more. "I'm more than happy with where I am today," he confides. He regularly speaks out against the BBC's lack of creative vision and its creeping commercialism, or broadcasters' lack of commitment to the regions. He is currently developing a futuristic six-part drama for Channel 4 examining a range of issues including the health service, education and law. And he still plots new storylines with Brookside's team of writers and producers. With a new family of old Labourites due on the close early in the New Year, expect more political storylines charting their hopes and disillusionment with Tony Blair. "I'm already working on the next general election," he smiles.
His real frustration, however, is with the conventions of prime-time television. "The concept of family viewing which has swept through TV has made broadcasters frightened of trying anything which is innovative before 10pm. By their good attempt to protect kids, they are squeezing out anything remotely challenging from the prime-time schedule." Which brings us back to Brookside, the video. It is more than a spin-off to boost his pension, you see. It's a way of breaking conventions - of testing the water for future creative opportunities thrown up by digital media.
"Eventually, people like me will be talking to on-line distributors about making movies, even soaps," Redmond believes. "We'd only need one million people willing to subscribe to a Brookside on-line to be able to fund the production, produce the programme and deliver it to them direct. From a creative point of view, that would certainly be more rewarding than fighting suits the other side of the country." The question is, would fans be willing to pay? All of which may seem a far cry from the early days of the soap with a social conscience, but there is nothing wrong with that in Redmond's book. "I'm no dreamer with a great cultural vision, just someone with an overriding sense of reality," he says. "I'm cursed with the gene of pragmatism."
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