Hollyoaks Executive Producer Bryan Kirkwood reflects on twenty years of the Channel 4 soap opera.
Hollyoaks is 20 years old – what do you think is the secret to its enduring popularity?
British television audiences have a rich history of loving soaps and I think what Hollyoaks offers is a unique twist on that. It’s on at 6.30pm, so whether you are just in from school, college or work, you can throw your bag down in the corner and have 25 minutes of pure escapism. While Hollyoaks has adapted and grown over the years, we’ve always offered a mix of big stories, romance and issues that appeal directly to a young audience and I think that is at the heart of our enduring appeal.
What has been your most challenging moment as executive producer?
One of the best pieces of advice I was given when I got my first producer job was to be prepared to make 100 decisions a day and accept that not all of them would be right. It’s such a fast pace, a relentless conveyer belt. There is always something new to focus your attention on. It’s always difficult when a story or a character don’t quite spring to life in the way you’d hoped and we occasionally have to make very difficult decisions quickly to kill a story and come up with something better.
What storyline are you most proud of and why?
I am really proud of the big, mad ‘it could only happen in Hollyoaks’ stories that we tell. It’s easy to dismiss them but I do think they provide a perfect cocktail of drama to an audience looking for escape, like the ‘Fall of Sienna’ storyline. Cuckoo in the nest nanny, Sienna stealing Nancy’s life is a particular favourite. However it is the ‘issue stories’ that we are most celebrated for and two stand out for me. Hannah’s anorexia was, bizarrely, a story that no soap had told at the time, but it was the perfect Hollyoaks story. It was the first time we got press attention for changing people’s perceptions and we are still reaping the benefits of the lessons that we learned from telling that story. I am also incredibly proud of John Paul’s rape as people didn’t feel it was possible to tell that story at 6.30pm. Not only did we we prove them wrong but it’s one of the most important agenda-setting, conversation-changing stories we ever told. Duncan Craig from Survivors Manchester was able to use it to successfully lobby for a £1 million government fund solely for male rape victims and the episodes have been used to train police officers.
Which of the characters you have created has been your favourite?
I would have to say the McQueen family. When I first joined the show in 2006 I felt it lacked big voices – but one character stood out, Michaela Jones, played by Hollie-Jay Bowes, who was Amy Barnes’ schoolgirl sidekick. In my very first story conferences we discussed bringing in a loud family of sisters and a gay brother around her, we changed her name to McQueen and the rest is history. Jen Metcalfe was the first to be cast as her older sister, Mercedes and from then on we struck gold with every single actor. We never imagined they would be so successful and the fact that they are still at the heart of Hollyoaks ten years later fills me with pride.
Are there any characters that you have created and then hated?
We all got very excited about a storyline where Rhys fell in love with a girl who turned out to be his long lost half-sister. Unfortunately we got so giddy about the story that we forgot to give Beth a character. A story that was always going to push the boundaries tanked because the character was a cardboard cut-out and poor Andy Moss who played Rhys wasn’t given a chance to succeed. Learning from that we now put all our new actors through a rigorous character session where the editorial team and that actor discuss the character’s background, life wants and desires, right down to what they have for breakfast. These sessions prove invaluable in helping new characters come to life from their first scene.
Hollyoaks has tackled some very difficult storylines like child abuse and male rape. What challenges does this present and why tell these stories?
We tell these stories because the audience tells us that’s what they want. We do have a younger audience but we treat them with the respect they deserve and they have a huge capacity for serious, truthful stories, be it about child abuse, HIV, male rape, the lists goes on and on. With all of these stories we work very closely with the appropriate charities and experts in their fields to ensure the facts are correct and we offer support around the episodes. We have to tread a fine line to not make the audience feel they are being lectured and the challenge to us is to remember we are telling stories about families and people we love and that’s why these stories have helped to change opinions and change lives.
Hollyoaks won Best Soap at the British Soap Awards in 2014, what did that feel like? Do you think it changed perceptions of the show?
Hollyoaks winning best soap was one of the best moments of our lives and it really helped change peoples’ perceptions about the show. We are not immune to the way some industry types look at our show but all that does is galvanise us to work harder at proving those critics wrong. The Best Soap Award was a wonderful reward at the end of one of our strongest ever years of stories and it ended 18 years of being the underdog. It also proved that the British Soap Awards are more than a two horse race.
Were you a Hollyoaks fan from the beginning and what was your favourite character/storyline?
I was 20 when Hollyoaks started. At its inception it was a wildly different show to where we are now. It was invented as a slapstick, light-hearted British response to the Australian soaps and hilariously I didn’t think it would last! My reaction proves how difficult it is to get a show off the ground with a dismissive youth audience and the fact that the show quickly hooked in a loyal fan base shows how wrong I was. Thank God! It wasn’t until the show adopted Brookside grit with its first ecstasy death that Hollyoaks really took flight and I think that proves how adept Hollyoaks has always been at moving with the times and adapting to the audience’s tastes. The character who did stand out for me was Tony, played by my lovely friend Nick Pickard. I had seen the Pickard boys on various shows and Nick’s brilliant performance was certainly one that caught my interest in those early days.
What is people’s biggest misconception about Hollyoaks?
It is easy to dismiss our actors. We are an easy target and I wince every time I see it. Yes we take young and sometimes inexperienced actors, but it’s a rapid learning curve and the vast majority of our cast in the last 10 years could stand shoulder to shoulder in other soaps. You only have to look at how many ex Oakers have gone on to huge success in British and US drama, Emmett J Scanlan, Emma Rigby, Will Mellor, Barry Sloane, Ricky Whittle, Nathalie Emmanuel to name just a few…
Are there any myths about Hollyoaks that you can clear up? Tell us a show secret?
There are many stories about the site being haunted, from doors slamming on empty edit corridors to children’s laughter being picked up by the sound mixer. But with so many people brought back from the dead on Hollyoaks it’s hardly surprising! A secret is that character Louise Summers was never meant to die. Louise, played by Roxanne McKee, was never intended to be murdered by Warren. We had written and filmed a scene of her surviving her wedding day shooting in order to use it as a flashback in the future. However, Roxanne quickly went on to great things in America so the twist that she had survived the attack and her return from the dead was scrapped.
Lots of soaps have live episodes to mark anniversaries. Would Hollyoaks ever do a live episode?
No. Firstly, while the other soaps are filmed on dedicated television sound stages with three cameras, Hollyoaks is shot on an old college site which has been adapted over the years to be fit for telly. We shoot single camera which takes three times as long. The lighting is set for each take and if we were to pursue a live option the look would be very different from the show that viewers are used to seeing. More importantly, however, I think there is a reason we record television drama and that is to make it better. I salute my fellow producers for their triumphant live celebrations and I understand that they give the audience an appointment to view for special reveals, but personally I would rather people weren’t tuning into my show to watch people make mistakes. There is a degree of schadenfreude in tuning in to watch an actor stumbling over lines and I would rather people watched us at our best.
There are a lot of deaths in Hollyoaks village. Which Hollyoaks character would you bring back from the dead and why?
Lovely Carley Stenson who played Steph. Carley was an adorable presence backstage and a fantastic performer on screen, she had every string to her bow. Comedy, warmth and proper acting chops and I personally would never have killed her off. But this is Hollyoaks so never say never!
Hollyoaks airs at 6.30pm weeknights on Channel 4