Serial killers

Veronica Lee meets prime-time's hit squad
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If your favourite soap is lacking in lather or your serial of choice has lost its bite, chances are it will soon be hiring the services of a new executive producer. These are the guys, among the highest paid but least-loved people in TV, who are called in to turn round a long-running show's ailing fortunes by whatever means necessary, including killing off much-loved characters or sacking stars. Such is their fearsome reputation that the tabloids have dubbed them the "Mad Axemen".

The title was applied to Paul Marquess when, on his first day on Brookside in summer 1999, he called in eight actors to tell them their characters – including the entire Musgrove family and Sinbad the window cleaner – were being killed off. Last autumn, he was hired to revamp ITV's police drama The Bill and this time his hitlist was seven actors and most of the writing team.

The Bill has gone through many formats since its inception 18 years ago. Twice-weekly, thrice-weekly, half-hour and hour-long formats have all been tried and there has even been a brief flirtation with soap in 1998, when it hit rock bottom. Audiences were falling, with very few under-35s watching, and something had to be done. In America, of course, the network would have cancelled the show (even after just three episodes, as John Cleese found recently with his sitcom Wednesday 9.30), but in Britain TV companies prefer to go for a new man at the helm and a spot of rebranding.

The reason is simple, says Marquess, a 37-year-old Northern Irishman. "To replace it would be very difficult and very expensive in terms of destroying old sets and building new ones and creating new production teams. Also there's great affection, loyalty, a regular audience who have watched the show a long time. The Bill's a bit like Marks & Spencer – there's nothing intrinsically wrong with it, but it's just been allowed to get a bit tired."

Marquess, who as story editor was responsible for overseeing some of Coronation Street's most gripping plots in recent years (including Deirdre in jail), and later as executive producer revitalised Brookside's fortunes following the vacuum left by creator Phil Redmond's departure, hadn't watched The Bill in the six months before he was offered the job. But, he says, the weakest characters were obvious. "I just watched it on tape and decided who wasn't working for me. It wasn't necessarily the actors' fault, as in some cases the writers hadn't invested in their characters, the storylines weren't plausible, or something hadn't clicked."

Brian Park, 47, executive producer at Coronation Street for 15 months before he reworked Family Affairs in 1998, agrees that longevity, while bringing loyal audiences, throws up its own problems. "There's obviously a burnout factor and a need of rejuvenation every now and then," he says. "A change of executive producer often works because it does give the chance to clear out the deadwood and rebalance what works with a show."

While the original creative teams might stay for decades, subsequent ones come in, do the job and leave. "We have a change of executive producer every two or three years," says a spokeswoman for EastEnders. "Any longer than that is tough for anybody." The current incumbent, John Yorke, while overseeing the departure of characters such as Grant Mitchell and Steve Owen, has resisted the attraction of major surgery, unlike his predecessor Mathew Robinson, who wrote out or killed off 23 characters, including Kathy, Cindy, Bianca and the Kapoors, within a year of taking over in 1998.

Executive producers are perhaps most famous among their shows' audience for their big bangs. Marquess torched Sun Hill police station – "saves doing each storyline separately" – to get rid of his extra-to-requirement characters (the death toll included Chief Inspector Derek Conway, DS Vik Singh and PC Di Worrell) while Park blew up a canal boat on Family Affairs to wipe out almost the entire cast and Redmond, creator of Grange Hill, Brookside and Hollyoaks, woke up a dozing Emmerdale Farm audience with a Christmas 1993 plane crash that killed half the cast but doubled the audience to 17 million overnight.

But aren't big bangs an easy way out of the problem? "I'm sure that some people think our explosion is a bit cheap," says Marquess of the Sun Hill conflagration. "We needed something to grab the ratings, we needed to have a clear-out of the cast and we needed a big story to bring in the new regime.

"But as long as there's a good strong storyline that you follow through, you can justify it. When I was on Brookside, we wanted to do something big for the show's 18th birthday and we killed off Susannah Farnham. But that story had been started months before, we had several suspects and it culminated in a five-night special that got some really good crits." Brian Park says of the pyrotechnics: "They won't by themselves save a show, but they can act as a wake-up call to audiences – 'Oh, that looks interesting, I'll give that another try'."

Park, whose time in charge of Coronation Street overlapped some of Marquess's there, didn't need the services of an unfortunately placed gas canister or an unlucky flight number – he could just have waited for the Grim Reaper to pay a call. In fact, one actor (now dead) was so past it that it often took several takes to film him walking across the street, and other actors had to have his lines written on Post-It notes stuck on their foreheads or pint pots in the Rovers.

"I looked at the cast and simple arithmetic showed me the median age was something like 65," Park says. "It had gone from a show that you would watch to one your mother would watch to one your grandmother would watch." So, inter alios, out went Percy Sugden, Derek and Mavis Wilton, Don Brennan and Bill Webster.

An executive producer's lot is not a happy one, in the first few months at least, as sacking actors is the first task they have to undertake. They all say it's the least pleasant part of the job although, as Park points out: "Being unpopular comes with the territory. And you're very highly paid for it."

But for every disgruntled actor dropped from the cast, there are others who are grateful for the chance to shine. "Kevin and Sally Webster [on Coronation Street] had years of washing their hands and eating baked beans on toast," says Park. "Michael Le Vell and Sally Whittaker were then given great storylines, including his affair with Natalie, Sally's catfight with her when she found out and the subsequent divorce." The sackings also gave him the chance to introduce new, younger characters, including the Battersbys and a sexed-up Nicky Platt, into the cast.

Marquess, too, has had the agreeable task of telling some of The Bill's regulars they're staying and will be getting some meatier lines than "Cuppa tea, guv?" "I had a chat with one actor who I thought was unfocused and she said she felt she would never play a new scene again. I think before on The Bill the characters served the story, actors felt lines weren't written for them so they didn't commit. Now she's doing some great stuff."

Long-running programmes can become complacent and incoming exec producers, fresh to the show and with allegiances to nobody but their bosses, can dampen some egos that have been allowed to run rampant – "Nobody should be bigger than the show," Park says. "From vanity, actors will wear nicer clothes and dye their hair regardless of how rough their character is supposed to be. I went through the wardrobe at Corrie and found Armani labels, even a white camel coat for someone selling newspapers. The Rovers was starting to look like the Royal Enclosure at Ascot – I've never seen so many pastels."

Marquess's revolution on The Bill is now taking shape after eight months at its head. Over the next few weeks we will see the denouement of the explosion story and the real start of his regime (delays in production time being what they are), with the introduction of new characters and the relaunch of the programme at the end of June as a serial rather than a series. He is making wholesale changes on the writing side too, cutting the 70 writers attached to the show in the past (mostly male and middle-aged) to a core team of 12 plus a dozen additional writers, including younger people and women. He still writes the storylines, but feels he can shortly hand over much more of the programme's future to them.

"It'll be much more democratic once the system is up and running – it'll be up to the writing team as to who stays and who goes." Then he remembers his tabloid nickname and gives a wicked smile. "But if I want someone to go, they'll go."