This month BBC One soap EastEnders celebrates its 25th anniversary and to celebrate this landmark Michael Keohan takes a look at one of the soap’s creators, Julia Smith.
Together with Tony Holland she created EastEnders and later Eldorado, which despite being remembered these days for all its flaws wasn’t a bad soap at all just beset with problems that tainted its first few months.
However, these two soaps aren’t Smith’s only contribution to the world of television having worked on shows such as Doctor Who and Angels. So in this Icon piece we look at her career from directing to producing and creating.
Julia Smith’s career in television starts in the 1960s when she directed some of several soaps that aired on BBC One during the decade. The BBC was keen to find a series to rival the popularity of Coronation Street which had proved so successful for Granada Television.
Although in these days they were not referred to as soap but instead as continuing serials – soaps were dramas that aired in daytime television and every weekday. In 1964 the country’s first proper soap, Crossroads, arrived which was also an instant hit with ITV viewers and produced by ATV for the network.
Amongst the several programmes Julia Smith directed for the BBC during the decade where Z-Cars which was the hugely popular Police drama set in Liverpool. Long have the BBC desired to recreate the success of Z-Cars with modern police dramas such as City Central and Merseybeat but all have failed – Z-Cars is the only truly successful, long-running police procedural drama the corporation has had. Smith also directed Compact; a saga about a magazine which was created by Peter Ling and Hazel Adir who would go on to create Crossroads for ATV.
In 1965 Smith directed several episodes of the BBC’s latest serial; The Newcomers. The new show was produced by Verity Lambert who had moved over from Doctor Who to take on responsibility for the newly launched saga.
Lambert, like Smith, was one of the few women in the BBC working in such high places – there were few very female directors and producers at the BBC in those days as such roles were very much seen as the province of men. It was trailblazers such as Verity Lambert and Julia Smith who would lead the way for future female producers, directors, and executives that would follow in the decades to come.
Amongst the cast of The Newcomers was actress Wendy Richard who was no stranger to the world of soaps having appeared in the short-lived Anglia Television rural soap, Weaver’s Green. Years later Wendy Richards would be cast in EastEnders, created by Julia Smith, as Pauline Fowler.
In 1966 Smith directed her first Doctor Who story – The Smugglers. It was during William Hartnell’s final few months in the role as The Doctor and the actor had become ill. To some he came across as difficult to work with and some directors and crew on the set found the actor extremely difficult to work with. In the series at the time were new additions to the cast Anneke Wills and Michael Craze who had joined the show in the previous story.
The Smugglers revolved around pirates in the 16th century and required some location filming in Cornwall. It was during the production of this story that Hartnell’s future with the show became under doubt; it was obvious to producer Innes Lloyd that the actor was not well enough to continue and it was eventually decided not to renew his contract.
When Smith returned in 1967 to direct another Doctor Who story it was with Patrick Troughton in the role although Anneke Wills and Michael Craze were still part of the cast they had been joined by Frazer Hines.
This time around she directed The Underwater Menace which had a troubled road to production with the script being dropped before being picked up again. Also the character of Jamie [Frazer Hines] was a late addition to the regular cast and so scripts had to be rewritten at the last minute to accommodate the new character. This meant filming on the episodes took place just a week before the broadcast – leading to a somewhat rushed filming process in order to complete on time. Unfortunately due the widespread wiping policy of the era neither The Smugglers of The Underwater Menace exist in their entirety.
In 1967 she directed a television adaptation of The Railway Children which starred Jenny Agutter which eventually lead to the film starring the actress as the television version had proved so popular. In the late 1960s and early 1970s she continued to direct on television which episodes of Doctor Finlay’s Casebook and Spy Trap under her belt.
In 1975 Paula Milne created the new medical drama Angels – a drama about student nurses at the St Angela’s Hospital. Angels, like EastEnders would, tackled social subjects such as alcoholism, adultery and portrayed the roles in a gritty and more realistic light than previous more glamorous portrayals of nursing.
It also had a multi-ethnic cast which was another trait of Smith’s – EastEnders and Eldorado would both later have multi-ethnic casts but in the 1970s this wasn’t so familiar to television audiences. Actors on the show spent time in real hospitals shadowing nurses something which current dramas like Holby City and Casualty have copied.
Angels originally aired in 13 part seasons but later the BBC promoted it to a twice-weekly slot – testing the waters perhaps for future long-running serials such as EastEnders and Casualty. Julia Smith worked as a director and then producer of the medical soap. Amongst the many actors who featured in Angels over the years were some who would later be cast in ‘Enders such as Kathryn Apanowicz, Shirley Cheriton and Judith Jacobs while other cast members included Pauline Quirke and Lesley Dunlop.
Working as a scriptwriter and editor on Angels was Tony Holland who Smith had worked with during her days directing Z-Cars. In 1983 the BBC decided to cancel Angels to make way for two newer shows it was hoping to launch; one would become EastEnders and the other would be Casualty.
With the cancellation of Angels the BBC approached Smith to create a new twice-weekly serial for the corporation – although their early ideas involved the settings of a shopping centre or a cavaran park, Smith disliked both ideas and instead wanted to produce a soap set in modern-day London – something she knew very much about.
Together with Tony Holland the idea for EastEnders was born and both wanted the saga to be as authentic as possible – therefore when it came to casting they wanted genuine East End actors only.
EastEnders was, between 1983 and its first broadcast in 1985, on the long road to production. The BBC had bought the ATV Studios in Elstree in 1983 and they decided it would be the ideal location for a permanent backlot set of Albert Square and Bridge Street – the two main locations for the soap.
Interestingly enough in the late 1960s the outdoor set for the ATV soap Honey Lane had stood in exactly the same place and it revolved around the residents of the East End and a market there – down Bridge Street would be a market where some of Albert Square’s residents would work.
When it came to casting the series Smith hired several actors she had worked previously with such as Wendy Richard who had just completed work on Are You Being Served. Kathryn Apanowicz, Shirley Cheriton and Judith Jacobs who had all starred in Angels were also cast but Smith was also keen to cast relatively new actors in key roles.
Susan Tully and Letitia Dean had both appeared in school drama Grange Hill and later added to the cast was Todd Carty who also had starred in the drama. However, alongside these actors were several new faces to launch the soap.
EastEnders was criticised by the press from very early on for its violence and bad language – ala Brookside – but very quickly the new soap became a favourite of millions of viewers thanks to its combination of strong characters and memorable storylines.
In 1986 the soap attracted its highest audience ever – and the highest audience for UK soap ever – when 31 million viewers tuned in to see ‘Dirty’ Den Watts [Leslie Grantham] tell wife Angie [Anita Dobson] he was divorcing her. It was the climax of a long-running storyline in which a desperate Angie had lied and told Den she was dying in order to stop him from leaving her.
The storyline saw the soap film its first overseas scenes in Venice where Den found out the truth about Angie’s conditions and plotted his revenge. Very quickly rival soap Coronation Street upped its game as it realised EastEnders was a competitor that wasn’t going anywhere – other than straight to the top of the ratings charts.
As well as producing and directing EastEnders both Tony Holland and Julia Smith were also overseeing another drama for BBC One – The District Nurse. The series was produced by BBC Wales for BBC One and ran for three seasons between 1984 and 1987. It was a period drama set in the 1920s, later the 1930s, which revolved around a nurse who fought to improve the terrible conditions of her patients. Amongst the cast of the series were Nerys Hughes, in the title role, along with Freddie Jones and Nicholas Jones for the third season.
In 1990’s Tony Smith and Julia Smith created a new soap for the BBC which would follow the lives of ex-pats living in Spain. They wanted to name the new soap Little England but the BBC preferred Eldorado. The new soap was a co-production between the BBC and Cinema Verity, an independent company founded by Verity Lambert who had produced Doctor Who and The Newcomers amongst many other programmes.
The new soap would not only be set in Spain but also entirely filmed out there with a huge purpose-built set – the town of Los Barcos – constructed to allow extensive exterior filming. For Eldorado, the duo decided to use their mix of casting established actors alongside newcomers and so Patricia Brake, Derek Martin, Polly Perkins, Jesse Birdshall and Campbell Morrison were amongst the established actors while a host of newcomers were hired by the producers.
The production of Eldorado was troubled from the start with the building of the sets being delayed and then the BBC decided to bring forward the air-date of the soap. This meant filming on the soap had to start even though construction of the sets were not completed with actors having to film in half-completed sets without soundproofing – meaning the sound quality was often poor. There were many other problems associated with air-date being brought forward.
Filming had to start immediately and there was little time for delays or reshoots and so scenes were filmed often without rehearsals or re-shoots and so if anything went wrong it usually stayed in. Post-production was also affected with no time to add subtitles to some scenes which contained foreign languages leaving English viewers confused as to what was taking place. Scripts were also rushed to be ready for filming resulting in poor dialogue and storylines and actors often did not have time to read their lines before filming.
All these problems resulted in Eldorado, hailed as an expensive new soap, reflecting the somewhat mythical problem values on defunct soap Crossroads; sets that shook, actors that fluffed their lines and poor storylines. The critics were savage with Eldorado blasting it for being an expensive flop for the corporation; lampooning the use of amateur actors and bad stories. Although Eldorado launched well with 8 million viewers very soon the ratings were tumbling down as the soaps problems became very apparent on-screen.
When the ratings dropped below three million the press called for it to be axed and many attacked the BBC and the licence fee. It was a huge disaster for the BBC and it’s not surprising that under the mounting pressure Julia Smith had a breakdown.
The BBC replaced her with Corinne Hollingworth who had worked on EastEnders. The new producer axed a string of cast members, banned scenes in other languages airing without subtitles, hiring new scriptwriters and altered the shows filming schedules to allow extra rehearsals.
Many better-received storylines were introduced under Hollingworth and Eldorado turned a corner. The press were no longer so critical of the soap and the viewers returned. In just a matter of months the show had completely turned itself around and was attracting 9 million viewers per episode.
However, despite its successful turnaround in 1993 new controller of BBC One Alan Yentob decided to cancel the series. Eldorado was an easy target for the incoming Yentob who wanted to make his mark – but he has since admitted axing the soap was probably a mistake. The final few weeks of Eldorado attracted an average audience of 11 million viewers!
The experience of working on Eldorado and the stress which Smith was placed under forced her to retire from television altogether. The production flaws on the Spanish thrice-weekly were not of Smith or Verity Lambert’s making [Lambert had also come under considerable fire for her involvement with the soap] but were instead mainly due to outside influences. The press however decided it was Julia Smith who was to blame. In 1997 she died from cancer and her funeral was attended by many EastEnders cast members including June Brown and Wendy Richard.
Michael Keohan is a radio presenter and has worked for stations including Lite FM and Capital Radio.
He also from 2008-2009 wrote a monthly personal showbiz column for ATV Today.
ATV Icons celebrate the names past and present who have given a great deal to British Culture.