Fair City has seen it all in the past 27 years: Sex, violence, domestic abuse, forbidden love on the fictional streets of Carrigstown.
The Dublin-set soap, which this week marked 4,000 episodes, brought us the first gay kiss on Irish television (technically, an almost kiss, though the impact was no less profound).
When likely lad Bella Doyle was diagnosed with cancer, doctors reported a surge in men seeking prostate examinations. A battered husband storyline was so skilfully wrought that Coronation Street pinched it and made it its own.
“As the Berlin Wall was coming down we were creating our own cultural history in Ireland,” says Finola Doyle O’Neill, broadcast historian at UCC School of History. “Fair City felt like a microcosm of the culture. After Bella Doyle’s prostate cancer there was an uptake in people going to the doctor. In 1996, we almost had the first gay kiss [on Irish television] between Eoghan and Liam.”
When Fair City debuted in September 1989, the country was becoming increasingly urbanised. Yet this reality was rarely reflected on screen. The two iconic Irish soaps — The Riordans and Glenroe – were unapologetically, almost polemically, rural. Irish television had failed to hold a mirror up to our lives or wrestle meaningfully with social issues.
“Fair City was the second urban soap opera,” says Dr Doyle O’Neill. “Tolka Row went from 1964 to 1968. While admired, it was very staged — it was Abbey actors on a closed set. It didn’t engage with social realism. Being plot-driven, there wasn’t any relevance to everyday life.”
Fair City was not an immediate hit. Original show-runner Tony Holland had been hired from EastEnders and was not always sensitive to the differences between Ireland and Britain.
“It wasn’t popular because he [Holland] wasn’t able to engage with Irish audiences,” says Dr Doyle O’Neill. “He didn’t realise Irish people were blunt. British people were far more reserved.”
“The scripts were all in a different idiom,” said Niall Matthews, the executive producer brought in to replace Holland told the New York Times, which, in 1997, expressed disbelief at an Irish soap tackling gay storylines and gangland violence.
“They were written in Londonese rather than Dublinese. It didn’t work With an Irish writing team parachuted in, the show found its voice. One early controversy was the gay kiss that wasn’t (the characters were interrupted as they were about to embrace). And yet the producers denied smuggling social commentary onto the airwaves. The only ambition was to serve the story, they insisted.
“We don’t hang out a banner saying we are dealing with rape and murder as issues.
“One of our characters gets raped and the story is how it affects her, her family, and the community. We are not doing issue-driven programs. We use issues to illuminate the characters more than to illuminate the issues.”
Today, Fair City’s distinct Irishness remains both a strength and an weakness. It will never be mistaken for EastEnders or Coronation Street, let alone a US version.
In a crowded market, this is an invaluable selling point. However, it also means Fair City is doomed to never expand beyond an Irish audience. This is in contrast to racier shows such as Love/Hate and Red Rock, which have been sold abroad — with Red Rock, in particular, thriving on BBC One’s lunch-hour slot.
“Fair City hasn’t been syndicated. Maybe that is because it is ‘too Irish’,” says Dr Doyle O’Neill.
As to the future… the soap must continue to interweave compelling plotlines and social commentary, say observers. Too much sensationalism or playing to the shorter attention span of millennials and it risks losing its unique tone.
“Fair City is getting a good run for its money from Red Rock, which is taking away younger viewers,” says Dr Doyle O’Neill. “With lesbian kissing and bisexual characters, you have to be careful you don’t throw the whole kitchen sink in. Older viewers may feel it is becoming too much.”
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