DESPITE being home to murders, betrayals and now kidnappings, one of Ireland’s most iconic towns has an almost peaceful quality.
It’s not the type of vibe one would expect on a tour of Fair City’s Carrigstown. Nonetheless, it comes as a welcome change for an exhausted cast and crew.
Actors, script writers and directors — to name but a few — are always running which isn’t surprising considering they churn out 18 scenes a day.
Their efforts produce 120 minutes of drama a week — the equivalent of an entire movie. As Friday evening looms, a reassuring calm descends over the set. Studio lights casting a pale glow over Carrigstown have all but faded away as performers take a much-deserved break. On this occasion, it’s as if the whole town has been evacuated following a bomb scare. Veneers of frighteningly realistic little houses and businesses line the street like empty fish tanks. We have the whole world to ourselves… well almost. Meanwhile, a camera operator blends seamlessly into the background like an unobtrusive companion.
Catching sight of one’s self in the window of Carrigstown’s local Spar as an anonymous passer-by is surreal to say the least. In recent months the show’s phenomenal reach hit stratospheric levels. Every bombshell dropped shook sitting rooms across the country. Shockwaves are still rippling after the reveal of popular character Katy O’Brien’s captor Ciaran Holloway. The uncovering resulted in a social media burst of colourful reactions. Viewers couldn’t have been more absorbed if Donald Trump himself had landed in Carrigstown via hot air balloon.
The engrossing plot had the nation in its grip, with average viewing figures of 550,000. Approximately 517,400 people watched spellbound as Katie came face-to-face with her captor. In the scenes that followed the former Love Hate star’s character drugged Katie before dumping her in a forest. A foiled escape attempt sent perspiration glands across the country into overdrive.
Now, viewers remain on tenterhooks amid speculation that she may be in the grip of more than one abductor. And it’s not just viewers who are waiting in eager anticipation. Even cast members confess they are uncertain where the rabbit hole might lead.
With a sweeping gesture, we’re beckoned into the second part of our tour — Fair City’s indoor studios. Our guide leads us to a cave-like gloomy structure. A rust eaten wash basin and shower add to the room’s stifling quality. It’s instantly recognisable as the basement inhabited by abducted Katy. Actors Johnny Ward (Ciaran) and Amilia Clarke Stewart (Katy) are perched on opposite ends of a shabby make-shift bed while preparing for an upcoming promo. I find myself wedged between them like an uncomfortable house guest.
Their relationship is an astonishing departure from the one we know on screen. With this in mind it’s not surprising to learn they have been friends for years.
“As kids we lived in the same area so hung around together a lot,” Amilia recalled. When I heard that he was going to be kidnapping me I thought ‘Is this going to work?’” Unlike her character, Amilia has become somewhat attached to her new “home”. She maintains that her release will be less than a peaceful transition.
“I’m so used to working one-on-one in such a confined space that it will be hard for me — as well as Katie — to settle back into Carrigstown.”
The actor is grateful to be fulfilling a life-long dream.
“As a child I sang with Cór na Nóg on television and one of my main memories is sitting in the RTÉ canteen with my sheet music. At the time, I was just waiting for a Fair City cast member to walk by so I could get them to sign my notebook.
“I used to watch the programme all the time with my nan. Years later, I can remember running down the stairs to tell her I got the part. She cried and it wasn’t long before I was crying too. Her friends in the nursing home loved that she had a grandchild on the show and would always refer to me as Katy when I came in.
“Nan used to come along as an extra and loved every second. I’ll never forget how she kept casually by Tony Torney, who plays Paul, just to get up close. I was really glad I got the part in Fair City before she passed away.” Whether it’s marriage, break ups or kidnappings, a soap actors fate is decided by the mere stroke of a pen.
“We never know what’s coming up for us until the script lands into our hands, which is good in a way as it makes things unpredictable just like real life,” Johnny chips in.
Our next port of call is the famous Molloy’s pub to meet producer Brigie De Courcy.
On our “access all areas” tour of Carrigstown, the real world seems but a far-away place. But, life often interferes in ways one can never anticipate, as the series producer attests. She tells of how actors frequently influence their characters worlds. In Amilia’s case this resulted in one of the biggest storylines in Fair City’s history.
“We have between 40 and 45 writers on our roster and stories are normally decided around 20 months in advance,” she says. “Amilia was participating in the Fringe Festival so she would be away for a while. We had to come up with a reason for her absence so decided to really go for it.” This wasn’t the only time writers had to side-step life’s pitfalls.
“One of our actors Victor Burke ended up breaking his wrist. We had to tweak the script so he was able to go to hospital and be X-rayed. We are always prepared for these types of situations. Constant firefighting would mean we wouldn’t be able to respond to things the way we do.” Other bizarre intrusions have included rugby fans with a penchant for Madonna.
“You have to take ambient noise as it comes but I once had to approach the local rugby club for blasting Madonna really loud while warming up. They were very good about it and have been so supportive of us.”
You could be forgiven at first glance for thinking Brigie’s colleague series consultant Sam Atwell has stumbled on to the wrong set — one with considerably less sand!
“I played Kane Philips in Home and Away and worked in the writing department for a number of years before moving to Ireland to work on Fair City,” he explains. “We spent a lot more time shooting outside in Australia but it’s a similar studio set up here. My favourite part of working on Fair City is probably having the opportunity to explore a variety of genres. Obviously, this excludes sci-fi and horror but there is still a wide scope. The biggest challenge is the time constraints, especially in the winter months when it gets dark early. Actors arrive to have hair and make-up done at 6.30am and scenes normally take an hour to shoot.”
Last but not least, series producer Shirley Dalton gave an insight into the inner workings of one of Ireland’s best loved soaps.
“My job effectively involves getting the script from page to air. From a production point of view, we write episodes in blocks of four. In any one year we produce 200 episodes. Every block of four is on the Fair City conveyor belt and has its own journey. Its lifecycle normally lasts around 24 weeks from when it’s pitched to when it goes to air.”