The prime-time soap making a comedy about itself

TV has often dug behind the scenes for laughs, but now, for the first time, a new soap is exploring the concept. Gerard Gilbert approves

The birth of a new ITV soap would not be an event with which The Independent would necessarily trouble its readers. And neither would the fact that this particular soap marks the return to "continuing drama" of Jason Donovan Neighbours sweetheart turned musical Joseph and jungle reality star and Martine McCutcheon, the button-eyed actress who went from EastEnders barmaid Tiffany Mitchell to Eliza Doolittle to a strange sort of celebrity limbo.

But then Echo Beach, a sexy post-watershed saga set in Cornwall full of hard-bodied young surfers and their bikini-clad teenage followers (imagine Hollyoaks meets Home and Away; Donovan and McCutcheon play middle-aged parents) is not your traditional kind of soap. Or, at least, it is and it isn't. Let me explain.

When Echo Beach screens this month, it will be preceded by Moving Wallpaper, a comedy drama purporting to go behind the scenes of the soap. Featuring a wonderfully OTT performance from Ben Miller from Armstrong & Miller as the egomaniac producer of Echo Beach, Moving Wallpaper is an outrageous (although, as we shall see, not all that unrealistic) fictional expos of how soaps are put together.

Having seen both programmes in the order in which they are meant to be viewed, I am happy to report that this high concept idea works remarkably well. The lurch in tone from comedy drama to soapy melodrama doesn't jar at all our savvy modern media reflexes take it in their stride and the two shows act as commentaries on each in an entertainingly post-modern way. I found myself laughing at lines in Echo Beach that had been set up in Moving Wallpaper, and vice versa.

"And they both work absolutely on their own terms", says Tony Jordan, whose brainchild this is. The twin shows draw on Jordan's 25 years' experience as lead writer and story consultant on EastEnders, and (given that in Moving Wallpaper, Echo Beach flirts with disaster) his association with BBC1's 1992 Costa-set flop, Eldorado.

"This has been gestating for 12 years now", says Jordan. "It's the culmination of me sitting in a thousand story conferences with grown adults arguing over whether a character should be shagged or shot."

Did the fact that it was more than just a new soap help to attract his two eye-catching leads, Donovan and McCutcheon? "Yes, I think so; but you had better ask them."

Donovan is in no doubt. "When I read Echo Beach I liked it but when I read Moving Wallpaper I rang my agent straight away. It just sounded really, really good fun."

For McCutcheon, an actress born to give of herself in a way perhaps only soaps can allow, the chance to immerse herself in Echo Beach was enough in itself. She is, however, pleased by the disarming qualities of its twin: "I think it's great that you've also got a show for the cynics of Echo Beach; after all, there's nothing people can say that's not already been said in Moving Wallpaper." In other words, Moving Wallpaper is Echo Beach's own harshest critic. Genius. If only the makers of Eldorado had thought of that.

"It's also great to be able to send yourself up, although I did hesitate and think it was quite a dangerous concept," adds McCutcheon. "After all, I'm going to be 'Martine McCutcheon' in Moving Wallpaper but not saying my own words."

Actors sending themselves up in this manner is now familiar to British audiences, largely, but by no means entirely, thanks to Ricky Gervais and Extras. Indeed, it's almost become a badge of honour. But then, celebrities making an arse of themselves or allowing others to make an arse of them is at least as old as The Morecambe and Wise Show, while there have been plenty of movies about the inner workings of television since Peter Finch delivered his Oscar-winning rant in Network back in 1976.

Television itself has proved far slower to pull down its own fourth wall and reveal its inner workings. Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin's Channel 4 sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey did it up to a point with its behind the scenes look at Globelink News, but the real breakthrough happened in August 1992 when American stand-up comedian Garry Shandling introduced his new alter ego to the world: vain, neurotic late-night chat show host Larry Sanders.

Inspired by Shandling's own experience as guest host on The Tonight Show, The Larry Sanders Show was both a behind-the-scenes comedy about the chaotic preparations for the nightly show (complete with clashes of tender egos) with videotaped segments of the programme as viewers might see it, filmed with a real studio audience. Celebrities played themselves as guests. "Everything started with Larry Sanders," states Jordan.

Sanders schmoozed his final guest and had his last backstage nervous breakdown in 1998, and instead of an avalanche of imitators.... nothing. It was if Shandling's sitcom had been so utterly brilliant that imitators thought they'd die simply by exposing themselves to comparison.

ITV, rightly, perhaps, believing that few of its viewers would have seen The Larry Sanders Show, was the first to have a go in 2000 with a direct rip-off, Bob Martin, with Michael Barrymore rather well cast as the neurotic talk show host. But the ITV of seven years ago was probably not the right place for this sort of high concept television. In fact, it took a comedian with a genius and an originality bordering on Gary Shandling's to give British viewers a taste for television about television. Extras, Ricky Gervais's 2005 follow-up to The Office, cast Gervais as Andy Millman, a TV and movie extra with ambitions of his own, and a whole raft of celebrities playing versions of themselves.

"You can take a time-line directly back from Extras to Larry Sanders," says Jordan. "I remember when this sort of thing was being touted to TV executives and they would say, 'People don't like this sort of thing... TV looking at itself.' I guess the people making the decisions didn't want audiences looking into their world. They're much more receptive now."

Meanwhile, an unlikely protagonist was emerging from all this inward-looking television the writer has written himself into the story. Long before the current Writers Guild of America strike, screenwriters were increasing their visibility in far more organic ways, with shows such as Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and 30 Rock.

The latter places writers in their traditional Hollywood role as the abused underlings, backroom dialogue slaves at the mercy of the whims of directors, producers and stars. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, on the other hand, portrays them as dashing protagonists. Aaron Sorkin's attempt to do for television politics what he did for White House politics in The West Wing has a comedy writer, played by Matthew Perry, brought in to rescue the eponymous Saturday Night Live-style comedy show. Is this a strange new solipsism that's of no real interest to viewers? The failure of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip may suggest so, but Tony Jordan reckons the lot of writers is of wider interest.

"I know as a soap writer that people are always asking me, 'So what characters do you write for then?'," he says. Indeed, the soap writers in Moving Wallpaper all have distinctive character traits, each of them, says Jordan, based on people he has worked with.

So where will it end, this self-obsession on the part of TV? The coming winter season sees two new British shows adding to the clamour. ITV1's Rock Rivals, at the end of February, is a campy drama following the lives of the judges on an X Factor-style TV talent show, while BBC2's Taking the Flak is an acerbic comedy that overs the entire progress of a small African war, as seen through the eyes of TV journalists sending back nightly reports for a fictional BBC digital station.

"I think this television-about-television stuff is inevitable", says Jordan. "Endless magazines and newspapers have been sold off the back of gossip about what happens behind the scenes on soaps and TV shows.

"And this fascination is timeless. Would Extras have worked without Larry Sanders? Yeah, probably. Would Larry Sanders have been successful if it had been made in the 1960s. Yeah, again, probably. It's all about someone being brave enough to do it first."

Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach begins on Friday 11 January at 8.30pm