Brookside, the soap opera whose storylines involving lesbian kisses, rape and incest once defined everything that was different about Channel 4, is on its way out.
Despite a radical revamp and £1m promotional campaign to mark its 20th birthday next month, the series is to be moved from peak-time to become a single 90-minute drama on Saturday afternoons.
And a carefully worded statement from Mark Thompson, the new chief executive seeking to make his mark on the channel, made clear Brookside would be consigned to broadcasting history when its contract expired next year.
The soap's appeal peaked in 1995 when 9 million viewers tuned in to watch the unfolding saga of the body-under-the-patio storyline.
"Brookside has been a brilliant programme for Channel 4 as well as the most ground-breaking and influential soap of the past two decades. But peak-time has changed radically across British TV and is no longer an environment in which Brookside can thrive," Mr Thompson said yesterday.
"We want to explore new ideas in peak, while still giving Brookside regulars a chance to enjoy the show over the next year."
Tim Gardam, director of programmes, added: "Brookside will be 20 years old on 2 November and it is time to take a realistic view of its future while recognising its huge contribution to Channel 4."
Cancelling Brookside will free about £15m a year, which will go instead on a fifth episode of Hollyoaks, the channel's teen soap, and other dramas.
But the announcement was greeted with astonishment by Phil Redmond, the series' creator, who had invested £1.5m in new titles, new music and new storylines, including a rumoured helicopter crash and hostage-taking, to mark the anniversary and boost viewing figures, which have slumped to 1.5 million. "It's mystifying news that came as a bolt out of the blue," he said. "I feel a bit like a football manager – Mark Thompson gave me unequivocal support in June."
Channel 4 executives have not even seen the results of the revamp, which was due to be delivered to them next week, and Mr Redmond suggested that the recent strong showing from rivals Channel 5 was what had triggered the decision. "We're all sitting here thinking, 'Why didn't they look at it first?'," he said.
Lorna Cowan, editor of the magazine All About Soap, said she believed Brookside had suffered at the hands of Channel 4 schedulers, who had moved it around.
But there was also strong competition. "EastEnders and Coronation Street have been monopolising television with more episodes and soap fans are having to make a choice of who they're committing to."
Yet when Brookside first hit the screens on Channel 4's first night, it looked radically different from anything that had gone before. "It was gritty long before EastEnders was. It dealt with these big issues like rape but without sensationalising everything," Miss Cowan said.
It has also nurtured stars including Sue Johnston, Ricky Tomlinson, Anna Friel, Amanda Burton and Claire Sweeney. Jimmy McGovern was one of the early scriptwriters. Channel 4 has been having a tough year, with Channel 5 coming within a whisker of overtaking it in recent weeks. But a spokesman stressed that its 9.8 per cent share of peak-time viewing was a record and its share of all viewing – 10.2 per cent – was up on last year.
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