Why I'm still backing Brookie

Phil Redmond has plans to revive his soap. And as for Channel 4, there are no hard feelings, he tells Ian Burrell
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The windows of the boardroom at Mersey Television open out on to a roof terrace that is decorated with the neon sign from Grant's bar, the social centre of Brookside Close. It seems like nothing more than a sentimental reminder of a show that closed in November 2003 after 2,732 episodes. Not so. Phil Redmond, Brookside's creator, reveals that he is planning to bring the soap back to life.

Filming of Brookside will start again in the summer when Barry Grant (played by Paul Usher) will be shown going in search of the men who murdered his brother Damon, a storyline that was left hanging by Channel 4 when it chose to axe the 21-year-old soap. Redmond has no plans to offer the new material to C4, nor indeed to any other broadcasters. His plan is to shoot up to six Brookside stories a year and to sell them as DVDs. By shifting 60,000 copies (and even in its last dark days on C4 the show had a following of 700,000) at £9.99 apiece he calculates that he can make good money.

"If we make six of those a year, we would make just as much money as we made when we made 156 episodes with the channel," he says. "Then we are looking for product placement and sponsorship, which are things you cannot get away with on television but are all legitimate in the film industry."

The 13 Brookside houses that Redmond bought in 1982 for £25,000 each have not been sold off, in spite of the rising property values in a city that was recently named as the prospective European Capital of Culture. Instead, the houses are used for DIY and home makeover shows, for filming scenes for the early evening soap Hollyoaks and for keeping Brookside alive. It is this kind of acumen that has helped Redmond to continue to grow his Mersey TV empire in spite of the seemingly calamitous C4 decision to walk away from his flagship show.

The company, which employed 56 people when Brookside began and grew to 120 when the soap was pulling in audiences of up to nine million in the mid-Eighties, now has 350 full-time staff and another 150 working freelance.

Redmond, who hopes to have sold the company within 18 months, has a man-sized statue of Mickey Mouse outside his offices and he has transformed what was a college in the Liverpool suburb of Childwall into a Disney-style theme park.

Mersey's next big project is to produce a modern-day version of the long-running Seventies series Crown Court, which is about as close as Britain has come to allowing television cameras to portray the workings of the justice system. "We are doing 40 [shows] initially but that might go all the year round, which will be a massive commitment," he says. "The challenge was to get a compelling drama in the courtroom down to 22 minutes. I think we are cracking it."

Redmond believes the daily afternoon drama (working title The Court Room) will be strong enough to attract some of Britain's best-known acting talent. The project is an indication that, in spite of the acrimony over the re-scheduling and then dumping of Brookside, Mersey's relations with Channel 4 are "the best in 10 years".

There are no frills to Redmond (long grey hair, old grey granddad shirt and plain black trousers and shoes) but the chair of the International Centre for Digital Content has always been across developments in technology and how they relate to the business of filming stories. That is why, despite his current good relationship with C4, he believes that the broadcaster has no future in the fast-changing world of television unless it is privatised.

"Of all the channels, I think Channel 4 is the most vulnerable to technological changes because it is a public service broadcaster," he says, noting that it lacks the flexibility of Five. This is because, he says, of the unfair "anomaly" that requires C4 to continue to fulfil a public service remit while funding itself from commercial sources.

The network, he believes, would fetch a price of £5bn if offered to the market. "Whoever buys it, as long as they don't break the law and pay their licence revenue, should be left to get on with it and do what the hell they like," he says. The recent appointment of Luke Johnson as C4's chairman was seen by Redmond as a welcome sign that the organisation was willing to look outside the "cosy" world of television when making key appointments.

Although Redmond remains committed to the gritty social commentary that made his name, he is convinced that the "nanny state" broadcasting regulations have confined all but the most anodyne of programming to the margins of the schedules.

"Go back in the last three years and show me a programme that is really gritty that has gone out before 10pm," he says. "Not some swearing or someone flashing their breasts but something showing the reality and seriousness of domestic violence or the drug culture or bullying."

Broadcasters, he says, are terrified of falling foul of regulations that are "too culturally narrow". "It's the problem of self-censorship. Compliance is such a big issue that the mantra is play safe, if in doubt take it out." He says issues that were dealt with in Brookside in the Nineties "without any problems" were deemed inappropriate for daytime television during the soap's last months.

As a consequence, producers will look to sell their best work to subscription-only channels rather than accept the meagre financing that goes with late-night slots on the major networks. And in the future they may even turn instead to the telecom and software giants who will show their productions online. "I'm a story-teller and want to be able to tell the best stories I can... but I want to get top dollar for what I do. Shall I do 156 episodes for a broadcaster or four 90-minutes features for a telecoms outfit [for the same money]?" he says. "Let me just think about that for a nano-second."

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