Cloudy days in Eldorado: Charles Oulton and Martin Wroe look at the BBC's struggling soap and meet some real ex pats next door

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SCENE: The Costa del Sol.

The plot so far: Fifteen-year-old Kirsty has not been her usual sociable self of late, and her friends are worried about her. Was she hiding something from them? Her father has not seen much of her either, but she seemed all right to him. So it came as a bombshell when he bumped into a friend with a surprising question.

Action: Friend: Hello, Colin, when is Kirsty's baby due?

Colin (a former lorry driver from Scotland who set up a bar in Spain four years ago): What baby? What are you talking about? She's only 15. I'm going home to sort this out.

Later, having challenged his wife and been reassured his daughter is not pregnant, Alan walks into the club where a quiz is being held. He takes the microphone, and announces that Kirsty is not pregnant.

Cut. Fevered television producer, under fire following poor ratings for the first few episodes of a new soap opera, thinks the new story line is stretching credibility. The critics have been calling for more excitement, but hasn't the writer gone too far?

Take Two:

The plot so far: Timeshare Tracy has been thrown out of her boyfriend Marcus's flat, her underwear following her in an undignified fashion and landing in a heap in the market square. Tracy then announces she is pregnant.

Action: Tracy pours out her heart to two older women.

Tracy: He called me a whore. He said I was trying to trap him.

Older Woman One: Always did have a way with words, did Marcus.

Tracy: I don't know what to do. He won't even talk to me.

Older Woman Two: What about work, Tracy, will they help?

Tracy: I doubt it. We all got a lecture when we got out here: no fraternising with the locals.

Older Woman One: He's not a local, he's from Southend.

Cut. That's better everyone; the fevered producer likes that. It's called verisimilitude, and he thinks it will go down big in Southend.

Eldorado, the BBC's new pounds 10m-a-year soap opera filmed on a purpose-built set carved into a Spanish hillside near Malaga, has not gone down big in Southend, or anywhere else for that matter. The ratings show that the fevered producer's satisfaction with the underwear-throwing scene was not shared by many of the corporation's viewers.

In truth, the cameras were only rolling during the second of these two scenes. The first scene went unrecorded at a large, predominantly British housing and shopping development called Calahonda, a 45-minute drive from the film set. Here, and particularly in The Dickens Bar, on the second floor of the development's El Zoco shopping complex, Eldorado scriptwriter Tony Holland drew much of his inspiration for the series, calling it his 'favourite place in the world'.

However, he and his colleagues have as yet failed to capture the essence of Kirsty and the other real-life expats and portray their television counterparts as they are in the flesh. Even if they eventually do, few critics believe British viewers will have sympathy for, or will be able to relate to, a group of sun-basking, barbecuing expats who look as if they have just strolled off the Neighbours set, but who talk as if they're propping up the bar in the Queen Vic in EastEnders or the Rovers Return in Coronation Street. This difficulty in identifying with the characters is a major reason for the panning of the series.

Last week, Jonathan Powell, the controller of BBC1, interrupted his holiday at home and flew to Spain to bolster morale among the cast. In a meeting on the set, he told them that the BBC was still committed to the series, and that he thought it was 'potentially a very good show'.

Reporting on the meeting, he told journalists that the mood among the cast was 'very bullish', and gave the impression that he too was optimistic about the ultimate success of the series.

This, despite viewing figures of fewer than 3 million, against 13 million for EastEnders and 16 million for some episodes of Coronation Street; production problems, particularly with the sound; Mr Powell's own admission that some of the acting had not been top drawer; and the 'resting' of the series producer, Julia Smith, who made EastEnders a hit, but who will now be remembered just as much for her failure in Spain.

However, some executives at the BBC think his confidence is misplaced. Mr Powell is closely associated with Eldorado, and could yet be dragged down if it continues to slide.

'This is a massive investment,' said one senior drama producer. 'If Powell's head doesn't roll, whose head will? It's been so much his baby I can't see anyone else carrying the can.' Another disagrees. 'He's a survivor. He's so talented that the BBC could not afford to sacrifice him.'

Some people in the industry say the series will actually enhance Mr Powell's career prospects. Mike Murphy, whose Dutch version of an Australian soap opera now leads Holland's ratings, said: 'If they persevere I think the BBC will make a success of it. The biggest secret is perseverance. In September, with the weather turning, some tits and bums on a Spanish beach become a lot more appealing to British viewers.'

Mr Powell thinks Eldorado has been unfairly criticised, and must be allowed to find its audience in its own way and time.

EastEnders and Casualty both took some time to find their feet before becoming successes. Mr Powell likens the process to getting to know a next-door neighbour, something that can take years. 'First of all, you borrow a cup of sugar. You may then decide to keep your distance for a while. Then you get to know each other over the garden wall. So with soap operas. Viewers take in the characters as their friends.'

But haven't you got to like friends? 'I think the characters in Eldorado will develop to be strong enough for people to become interested in what they do. Although it may be a bit of a culture shock for people to change their viewing patterns and watch a tri- weekly show at this new time in the evening (7pm), I believe the characters will lead the audience into it, and then the setting will become a bonus.'

Mr Powell has an excellent track record in drama, albeit in loftier series such as The Barchester Chronicles; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; and Bleak House.

Many of the British expats sitting outside The Dickens Bar in Calahonda did not bother with Bleak House, but have made efforts to watch Eldorado recordings.

Colin Campbell, the Scottish ex-lorry driver and father of Kirsty, said: 'I saw a recording of the first episode at 4 o'clock in the morning, and I had had a few. Put it this way, it can only get better.'

Alan, a businessman who has escaped the pressures of running his own company in Henley for the more relaxed lifestyle in Spain, said Eldorado should concentrate more on the sort of characterisation and story line offered by the expats of Calahonda.

'This is a big overgrown village, all the soap operas rolled into one.' And right on cue in our next conversation comes another potential story for Eldorado.

Plot so far: Scott, the dark and handsome karaoke king, has been wowing the girls since his arrival in April. Today is his 27th birthday, and he is giving a party.

Action: Scott is, as always, the heart and soul. But then he asks for a moment's silence.

Turning to a mystery girl who has just flown in from Scotland, he announces: 'I would like everyone to know that as of today, Sue and I are engaged to be married.'

Sue is 10 years older, and Scott has suddenly become a toyboy.


Fevered producer: 'Thanks very much, everyone. Pity we spent that pounds 2m building the set. We should have filmed all of it down here. Never mind, it's only those Brits back home who are picking up the tab.'

Fade out, to the strains of a guitar (possibly permanently).

(Photographs omitted)