Brookside Creator Phil Redmond:
‘Netflix Will Be Streaming Soap Formats in Five Years’
A Conversation with Phil Redmond was the usual set up, a conference room in Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) in front of staff and students from the MA in Television Fiction Writing programme. There were familiar faces from stage and screen adding stardust, glitter and a touch of decadent profligacy to the ubiquitous modern white seminar rooms much lauded by University architects.
It always appeared so nonchalantly effortless for Phil Redmond, so it was great to hear -maybe this is just a writer thing- that it wasn’t plain sailing. Sometimes it’s reaffirming to know those who achieve great success had to struggle like the rest of us. He called his rejection and continually getting it wrong at the hands of commissioning editors, ‘the price of entry’. Something every writer has to, in fact needs to go through.
It’s hard to believe Phil Redmond is 66. Can the bright young thing, the man who created three of Britain’s longest-running drama series, Grange Hill (1978-2008), Brookside (1982-2003) and Hollyoaks (1995-to present) really be a pensioner? You wouldn’t think so from the energy he shows finding his many targets. He comes out all guns blazing. Top of the list, Oxbridge execs running TV and the commissioning editors making ‘Mary Poppins TV.’
Controversially, Redmond declared it would only be a matter of time before Netflix, Amazon and BT create a soap format via streaming. They would revolutionise the current format and it will happen within the next five years. If he was starting out as a writer in 2016, that’s where he’d go first. He encouraged those present to do the same. Things had to change, it was obvious to him, as TV just eats itself and copies what’s successful, he thinks its inevitable that a streaming giant would create a soap.
It also sounds that throughout his career, across many projects he spent a great deal of time and energy locking horns in the corridors of power with incompetent Oxbridge execs.
The commissioning process? Those in charge of production could be making drama cheaper than ever, yet don’t seem to know how to even use it. He gave the example of producers even sending film crews to interview him with huge cameras costing hundreds per hour when it could be recorded on cheaper equipment, just as well at a fraction of the cost. He went as far as to suggest we could record a drama with the latest iPhones and plug-in mics if we used a bit of clever editing.
He shunned claims Brookside was some kind of champion and campaigning poster boy. As far as social issues go, it’s not the job of the soap to change the law, only to tell the story clearly, as they did with the famous Jordache story line. Their job was to tell it properly and build it up in long form, which they did, over a year, to reach the story’s natural (if gruesome) conclusion. Then it was up to those watching to engage in debate and campaign groups to become galvanised by the story itself. Proud as he was that the laws were changed, that was done by people campaigning, not the show itself.
The current drama strand in TV for nostalgia, the Julian Fellows, Downtown Abbey, Meet the Midwife shows better get their helmets on too, he’s gunning for you too. Their tone had made it just about impossible to make the sort of TV he would want to do. They leave him cold, he blames the regulators and accuses them of having no imagination, copying what they assume is popular and making what he again refers to as ‘Mary Poppins TV’. He appears happy to be out, stating the defining moment for him was the advent of cheap and easy reality TV and Big Brother.
When in conversation, you can hear that comedy background. That ear for spiky, sharp, cutting dialogue honed from growing up with Monty Python, Morecombe and Wise and Harry Secombe. He smiles in wonderment and excitement when he recalls getting paid for writing. He sold scripts to Doctor in the House (his first comedy sketch was for Mike and Bernie Winters. He also wrote for Les Dawson). Though admittedly, sieges, murders, rape, mental breakdowns, incest, heroin addiction, lesbian kisses and patio graves are far from PG Wodehouse.
Redmond always represented a real, working-class voice, tangible evidence that people from a similar background could write for TV. Unlike writers such as Martin Amis, wonderful yes, but when portraying fictional working class characters always treated the subject like a wonderful play thing, a great piece of porn which has him both captivated and intrigued. Much as it can be hilarious, it’s more caricatured and lacking real bite.
In the world Redmond the writer vacates, it’s different; ‘In Corrie someone might pop in through an unlocked door and shout ‘cooeey, just in for a cuppa, luv’. In Liverpool if someone did that they’d be shot.’ There’s humour too but there’s a reality, an honest truth that matches his writing style and approach.
I was there to hear about Grange Hill and Brookside. Redmond’s work chimed and resonated with most of my generation who grew up with his work. We started high school when Grange Hill began and at sixteen, in 1982, watched Brookside, from launch. Yes it was powerful, controversial and groundbreaking but it inspired too. When pals were getting apprenticeships with British Gas and becoming joiners with the council, I wanted to stay on at school for the next few years and figure out how to write for TV. Suddenly he made it possible to dream.
Redmond left school at 18 to train as a quantity surveyor for five years. The time he spent prepared him for the challenges that lay ahead in television production. Whether it was the importance of financial control, the understanding of legalities, the practicalities of production scheduling, or meeting a project deadline, all this experience would help shape his next 25 years in TV.
When he eventually decided to go full time on writing things stalled. Realising ‘there were too many gaps in my education’ he returned as a mature student to do Social Studies at the University of Liverpool.
Working around spare time, he got a break when the BBC liked an idea he pitched about a London comprehensive school. He was given a blank canvass and asked to devise something for kids TV, which he did with Grange Hill. He was also shrewd enough to keep the copyright. At one point, with Grange Hill annuals published on IPC and a series of novels published on Fontana, it was Redmond who received the six figure sums which he would put toward setting up Mersey Television, his own production company that went on to develop Brookside.
With Brookside he drew on the QS training yet again. Instead of burning money renting out and setting up each house, Redmond made the groundbreaking decision to purchase 13 new builds on an estate in Liverpool. The architects adapted each house to his technical requirements. He discussed with sellers, the type of people who would live in each house and was able to select their homes in accordance with their job, salary and background.
With the show costing £13,000 per half-hour episode to record on location, even at the full cost then, of £25,000 for each house, they would only have to shoot 26 episodes, 13 weeks of output to get back their outlay. He beams proudly as he and his accountant wife Alexis recently counted the saving in location facility fees over the collective 21 years of the show’s broadcast was £9.5m.
Launched on the first night of Channel 4, November 2, 1982, Brookside started gritty and controversial and remained that way. A show determined to tackle social issues head on and one which remained thought-provoking.
One of the show’s writers, Jimmy McGovern (Cracker, The Lakes, The Street) begged to write for the Grants but was landed with the posh Tory family the Collins. Redmond refused to let McGovern near the Grants, loving the way he took his vitriol out on the somewhat privileged easy target of the Collins and it worked.
(Everyone talks about the lesbian kiss of 1994 but in 1985 Gordon Collins, the son of Paul and Annabelle was the first openly gay character. A copy of the Gay Times was accidentally delivered to the Corkhills and we found out Gordon had been in a relationship with his pal from school, Chris).
The show’s use of Steadicam and lightweight cameras gave the feel of a live news report. The casting policy which featured many untrained actors and storylines which reflected the redundancies and strikes under the 1980s Conservative government, gave the show a real bite. The show didn’t use script editors, preferring instead to have long meetings with writers and work things through collectively.
With Hollyoaks, Redmond is matter of fact. It was originally devised as a British antidote to American shows like Saved by the Bell or a light-hearted British take on Aussie soaps. Then when it was broadcast, everyone asked ‘where’s the drugs?’ The show exploded when Natasha died when her drink was spiked with ecstasy.
Hollyoaks circa 2016 isn’t what he would make but he’s fine with that. He also seems pragmatic about selling to Granada. He wouldn’t compromise with the broadcasters but knew they would, meaning the show would continue and keep people employed.
He gets particularly irritated with genres. The publishers call his book a crime book. He accepts they know their business but gives the impression he finds having to limit storytelling to a specific area, stifling. He shares a funny anecdote with then Channel 4 Head of Nations Regions (who recently quit after 20 years to focus on other projects) Stuart Cosgrove, saying ‘Who watches TV by genre? Oh tonight I might watch a bit of religion, followed by some factual, then some drama.’
Maybe he’s just outgrown TV, but it sounds like the changes in regulation and the continuing legality made him quit and move on. Then he’s realised what he missed most was storytelling. His visual narrative is clearly evident on Highbridge, the first of a sequence of four novels.
You get the impression he’s enjoying it, the first book is out, the second almost complete and like any quantity surveyor meets successful scriptwriter, the structure is stable, ready for a full, overarching story with the third and forth. I wonder if he misses the collaboration? Bashing out storylines with a big team? Working through the logistics and costing? He admits to making one concession by deliberately picking a huge publishing machine (Random House) big enough to say no to him. He wanted editors strong enough to tell him, ‘no you’re going off on one again, there. ’
I’m tempted to ask if the books are a lengthy journey to pitching Highbridge as huge project to Netflix. It sounds visual, as if it’s been written with that in mind but fear I might get shot and buried under the patio.
For those interested in story, if offered the chance to garner any words of wisdom from Redmond, jump at it. If you have an inkling to write for TV, believe in powerful compelling storytelling or just write, he’s well worth catching as he promotes this and his next three novels.
Highbridge is available on Century (Random House)