Meet Mal Shepherd - an ex-footballer now bar owner, just turned 30, and newly engaged to good-time girl and would-be model Nicole, who is 10 years his junior. He shares his smart bungalow with his brother Luke and his mother Joan. Meanwhile, just around the corner from Mal's bar in the fashionable Quayside area of Newcastle, Caitlin Kennedy, 22, is opening a new promotions business - Quay Events. Ambitious and independent, Caitlin is about to receive an unexpected visit from her feckless sister Susie, 25, fresh from a year travelling the world. For the next 17 weeks in the Yorkshire and Tyne Tees regions, they'll be fighting ITV's ground in the hotly contested 7.30pm slot on a Tuesday night - head to head with EastEnders on BBC 1.
"A high-risk strategy" is how Tyne Tees Television director of programmes Peter Mitchell describes it. But it's one that already appears to be paying off. In its first week, overnight ratings show that Quayside won a 39 per cent share of available viewing - a significant improvement on the regional factual fare previously occupying the slot. Meanwhile, EastEnders' share in the region slipped from 60 to 50 per cent.
Throughout the region, London-based EastEnders performs slightly below the national average, while northern-based soaps such as Brookside and Coronation Street do particularly well, Mitchell says. It is a bit of a gamble, he admits. So far, he has spent more than pounds 500,000 on developing Quayside's initial run - a significant amount for a regional production.
Quayside producer/director Matthew Robinson, whose past credits include EastEnders, Coronation Street, and Byker Grove, believes the series' feel- good factor will sell the soap. "Tune in to EastEnders or Emmerdale, and you can get as much sex, Aids and social security fraud as you'd like," he says. "We wanted something unashamedly entertainment-based with charismatic actors instead of gritty realism."
He describes his latest project as "colourful, lively and upbeat" - words sure to bring a smile to the face of Bruce Gyngell, managing director of Yorkshire Tyne Tees Television and self-styled media moralist who earlier this month banned as too smutty Hollywood Lovers, a Carlton TV-produced network series on showbiz love lives that included graphic descriptions of plastic surgery to women's genitalia.
"Viewers want to know that the crap affecting their own lives affects us all," says Diane Maxwell, media strategist at media specialist Michaelides & Bednash. "People love to watch other people's lives". Which is why a fine balance must be achieved between "uppers" and "downers", she cautions.
Only time will tell if the feel-good soap's traditional story-telling skills can triumph over sensational plot twists like plane crashes, hit- men and religious fanatics. Meanwhile, back on Quayside, Caitlin is trying to discover who smashed the window of her new office, while Mal is wondering if he's about to make the biggest mistake of his life...n