Hard man of Brookside moves into soft soap

Cole Moreton reports on Phil Redmond's latest venture: a serial about well-heeled teenagers in Chester
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The Independent Online
NEVER MIND grim reality - Phil Redmond, the man who put grit into the soap opera Brookside, has decided we've all had enough.

His new creation is Hollyoaks, home-grown rival to hugely popular imported soaps such as Neighbours, Heartbreak High and Beverly Hills 90210. Aimed squarely at their teenage market, the new feelgood show will be launched on Channel 4 tomorrow at teatime.

Back in the late Seventies and early Eighties, when "soap opera'' meant the cardboard walls and wooden acting at the Crossroads motel, Mr Redmond brought us drug-addicted schoolchildren in Grange Hill, and then a collection of murderous, double-dealing, jobless Scousers who lived in Brookside Close. Those were the yuppie years, when greed was good and popular drama with a social conscience was radical and rare.

But now, in the caring, sharing, mediocre Nineties, you can't switch on a British soap without bring brought face-to-face with issues such as Aids or racism. Even nostalgic old Coronation Street has dealt with sexual harassment. So Redmond's proven feel for the Zeitgeist has told him that people need to party. He has written the cast of Hollyoaks as glamorous young things who live in leafy suburbs rather than urban mean streets, and have only to worry about their spots and mobile phones.

Will cool-guy Kurt get off with gorgeous Natasha? Can her (equally stunning) friend Dawn handle both wild weekends and the emotional demands of a divorced mother with a toyboy? Will anyone care?

"As the guy credited with introducing the socially relevant soap into television, I look across the schedules now and think we've got too much of it,'' says Redmond. "At that time in the evening, people don't want to be challenged, they just want to sit down and have a bit of fun.''

But does the country really need another teenage soap? "We haven't got one,'' says Mr Redmond, who spent more than 10 years trying to persuade a television company to make Hollyoaks. "At least, not a British one. Ever since Grange Hill became big, the one thing I've heard from kids has been, 'Why can't it be on all the time? Why do we just have to have the Australian stuff?' ''

As an eye-catching backdrop for his young beauties, Mr Redmond decided on Chester, the historic walled city just a few miles down the road from his Merseyside studios.

Once seen by the Tories as the jewel in the crown of the North- west, Chester has always had the white middle-class image ascribed to other cities such as Bath, York and Harrogate. These days its pubs and clubs also act as a magnet for the wealthier young people of Cheshire and north Wales.

"The whole point was to show that Britain's not all doom and gloom and drug-ridden council estates with teenage pregnancies,'' says Redmond, who once used his dramas to prick the conscience of "Thatcher's Britain". Having made quite a bit of money out of soaps, he now lives near Chester.

"There are large segments of Britain that are actually quite nice places to be. Chester is at one end of the 'Golden Triangle' that stretches from there to North Cheshire and Macclesfield. And it is a visually exciting city.''

Chester city centre is still bounded by walls laid down by the Romans, and it wears its history on its sleeve, with museums, guided tours and teashops open all year. Main attractions include the famous Victorian clock at Eastgate, and the Rows, double-decker shops built in the 13th century with covered walkways above street level.

City planners had the foresight to stop the bulldozers of Sixties modernism in their tracks, and they are now being rewarded with up to 6 million tourists a year.

"We have spent a lot of money in the past 25 years to put in place the city centre you see now,'' says Paul Durhdam, chief executive of Chester city council. "But because it's an attractive city, people think we've got no problems. That's not true.''

Hollyoaks was filmed around Chester and is set mainly in a fictional suburb that was modelled in part on Handbridge, where wealthy professionals live in Victorian mansion-style houses by the banks of the River Dee.

But a few miles away are council estates such as Blacon and Lache, where unemployment levels are as high as 40 per cent.

"On the face of it, Chester does look like Mrs Thatcher's jewel,'' says John Price, leader of the Labour group, which holds the balance of power, "but behind that dazzling appearance lies a city with a whole raft of problems, many of which were caused by her policies.''

Labour gained control of the city at the last local election. It has had a Conservative MP since anyone can remember, but the present representative, former television personality Giles Brandreth, has a vulnerable majority of only 1,100. If he loses next time around, Chester could find itself a symbol yet again, only this time representing New Labour's appeal to market-town England.

In the meantime, the housing waiting list has 5,000 names on it. "It is attractive, as long as you have a place to work and a place to live,'' says Mr Price. "Too many of our people have neither of those things.''

Rather than "having a good time'' like Phil Redmond's characters, many of Chester's young people are jobless or on low pay, he says. As a result they leave the city, or lose hope.

"We are no more immune from crime than anyone else, and it is on the rise," Mr Price says. "Chester suffers from the same kind of drug problems as any comparable city. But generally, it is a safe place.''

Persuading the Government or European agencies to give money to help fight the social ills has proved difficult, he says. "It is dead easy to go to Warrington or Liverpool and see the problems there. It hits you in the eye. Here, it doesn't.''

Nevertheless, big names such as Shell and Marks & Spencer have been persuaded to move some of their offices to business parks on the edge of the city. Chester prospered during the Industrial Revolution, but like many other cities has latterly tried to move from light engineering to service industries.

Perhaps appropriately, another recent newcomer to the city is Originally Bradford, a US manufacturer of high-quality soaps - the sort that you wash with.

Three-quarters of Chester's income comes from its visitors. Tourist officers are rubbing their hands at the thought of Hollyoaks doing for their city what the other sort of soaps have done for Australian holidays. One business commentator describes the mood in the city as "overwhelmingly upbeat''.

Teenagers in the city centre had all heard of the new show and intended to watch it. Amanda Gore, 13, of Ellesmere Port, visiting for the day with her friends, thought Chester was "glamorous and old, with nice shops'', unlike her home town, which was "a bit of a dump''. Ben Drury, 15, a pupil at King's School in Chester, said he thought soaps were usually set in bigger and more famous cities. But Chester, he said, "can be all right of a night''.

Carol Lyons, on the other hand, was bored with the nightlife after two years in the city. A young professional in her early twenties, she thought it was "all a bit small-town; not enough of a cultural mix''. Hollyoaks, she said, was about "young people having a good time and not worrying about what's wrong with the world'' - and that was fairly accurate. "I mean, you think you should be concerned and do something, but then you just don't.''

The tourists may be elderly, but Chester also has three colleges. With army establishments and quieter towns such as Wrexham and Ellesmere Port nearby, the city centre experiences a huge influx of young people at weekends. "Older people like myself can feel troubled by that,'' says Mr Price, "but we are trying to do something about their concerns.''

That includes installing closed- circuit television to cover nearly every inch of the city centre. So if the cast of Hollyoaks ever do want to get up to Brookside-style shenanigans, they had better stay out in their agreeable, ungritty suburbs.