Writer Stephen Greenhorn: ‘No one's ever offered me this big a canvas’

,lrson family: Paul'sa'mson, John Murtagh, Jo Cameron Brown and Gordon _ .Mccorkell


‘Our unique selling point is Glasgow's black humour; we can dealwith big dramas, but also were funny'

But forgive my cynicism. The world obviously loves them. Last year the second most viewed programme in Britain was the 5 April edition of [inst/{rrr/t'rs. watched by 20.05 million people. That‘s more than one-in-three ol'tlie population. lilsewhere in the top It) were (bro/union Street. lz‘nrnrr'n/ulr'. The British Soup xlll'(ll'(/.\ and .S'mr/rslurs. And that‘s not inclttding the pseudo- soaps such as [mu/on 's Burning. ('usrru/rv and The Iii/l.

So clearly. yes. don't listen to me what the world wants is another soap opera. linter BB(‘ Scotland. linter River ( 'r'Iv. linter the Tall Ship tojoin the Rovers Return. the (‘rossroads Motel and Bev's Bar. [inter Shieldinch to take its place on the fictional map that includes \‘l’eatherlield. Wall'ord and (ilcndarroch. linter' the Maliks where we already have the (‘orkhills. the 'l‘ilsleys and the low lers. And enter .lohnrry Beattie to cotrnt himself in the soap

celebrity company of Barbara Windsor. Margi (‘larke and Maureen Lipman.

The biggest single project undertaken by the BBC in Scotland. Rircr ('in‘ is a peak-time twice-weekly soap filmed in a purpose-built set four tenement blocks. a pub. shops and a boatyard in an old whisky bond in [)umbarton. The river in question is the Clyde. and the set has been made to pass itself off as a typical (ilasgow West lind neighbourhrxxl. It could be (iovan. Whiteinch or l’artick. rooted in the past. reaching out to the future. The core cast of 24 includes Scottish theatre stalwarts such as liric Barlow. Deirdre Davis. Jo ('arneron Brown and John Murtagh. Writers include lain lleggie and Ann Marie l)i .\1ambro.

Stephen (ireenhorn is the man charged with conceiving the whole thing as well as writing the first three episodes. So Stephen. I suggest to him over a pint. soap opera’s crap isn’t it'.’ ‘lt‘s not crap. it‘s a genre.’ says the author of BB(‘l's Glasgow Kiss and the 'l‘raverse‘s I’us‘s‘ing l’/(Ir'('s‘. ‘That's like saying the linglish novel‘s crap. There are certainly crap soap operas. in the same way there are crap period dramas. but you can’t dismiss the genre. ll'you think back to the best moments of telly drama in the past year. for me it was the Slater story

from IfusII-[m/r'rs [the revelation that Zoe was Kat's daughter

and not her sisterl. lt exploded brilliantly because you‘d lived with these characters for so long before it blew trp.’ (ireenhorn had been sceptical. though. 'I did have that

initial reaction: do I want to write a soap opera'.’ .\'o. Btrt if

you phrase it as: "Do you want to start a drama that's going to last for 100 episodes a year. that will continue indefinitely if it finds an audience. and you can have a pool of tip to about 30 characters and two half-hours a week?" ~r then you start thinking. well no one's ever offered me that big a canvas.’ Over the course of several lunches with the BB(‘. (ireenhorn found himself strcked into the computational

challenges of inventing the perfect soap cast. ‘By the end of

three or four lunches l was having all these ideas. so they said why don't you just go and write a few of them down for us‘.”

Slowly they built relationships. changed ages. swapped genders. forged new connections. llis aim was to take the angry drama of IiusIIinr/r'rs. shave it of its depressing angst. match it with the character comedy of (invitation Street and throw in a dash of the social comment of early Brno/(side. ‘With the arrival ofthe Scottish parliament it felt that Scotland was on the cusp of things.' he says. 'There were people who were rushing headlong into the new Scotland: the parliament. Silicon (ilen and the whole idea of a nation of web designers. And behind that there were people who were really unsure about this: they were frightened of it or antagonistic. That tension is interesting. People are uncertain about whether the

changes are good or had. We tried to create a mix of

characters it would be good to explore that journey with.‘

There's no plan to be revolutionary with this soap. They looked at the flashback sequences of Rig/rt and Day and decided anything like that would only draw attention to itself. They looked at the escapism of the .-\trssie soaps and decided they wanted more recognisable situations. The distinguishing characteristic would be the social background and (ilasgow’s working-class way with a phrase. '()ne of the great things about setting it in (ilasgow is that even if you're dealing with a catastrophy there’s going to be an element that responds with humour; a response that makes you laugh while you‘re crying. Our unique selling point is (ilasgow's black humour: we can deal with big dramas. but also were l‘unny.’

In the end. the biggest gripe is that the proliferation of soaps stlttCL‘ICs otrt the one-off plays and serials for which British TV was once renowned. A choice between a dozen soap operas. however good they may be. is no choice at all. But there is hope. (‘rreenhorn himself is now working on two fact—based TV dramas: one a political sideswipe against public-private finance in the .\'llS. the other a provocative recreation of the Hatfield train crash. Once all that's behind him. he may well be in a position to catch up with his own characters in River (in. .lttst don't mention If/r/orm/o.

River City goes out twice a week on BBC1 Scotland at 8pm from Tue 24 Sep.

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As Johnny Beattie joins the cast of River City, we ponder on the famous folk who have jumped aboard the soap bandwagon. Words: Brian Donaldson

Clare Grogan The Glasgow wadMn seriously altered her image as private detective Hos lhorn. hot on the casc- of dirty old Cindy Beale. Couldn't prevent her client Ian getting shot. though. Happily.

Maureen Lipman After a lirtef spot rn the Corr/e sun as snooty landlady Lillian Spencer, the 'ology' ‘~.".’()rrrarr denied that she was set to take on a more permanent role. as it would have meant movrng to Manchester. Agony, right enough.

Martin Kemp Went from being mean and moody lll Spandau Ballet to being mean and moody lll Albert Square. as nasty old Steve Owen. Cacklrng like a nutter. he met his flamrn' end Ill a classic soap moment.

Lorraine Chase Being a lfan of Yorkshire, n the woman who put Luton airport on the map was ecstatic to he offered the role of Mary Stephanie Stokes Ill [nrrrrer'dr'r/e. Way too nouveau rrche to be seen dead mucking out the cow shit. though.

Kenneth Cope Having made his bitter ghost lll ng'xrqrr anti Hopr [Deceased . he resurrected his career rn Brooks/t It? as grottclty old Hay Hilton.

r .‘ THE LIST 25