Fair City, Ireland’s most popular and longest soap, is getting serious about reflecting Dublin’s diversity, says executive producer Brigie De Courcy, but a dramatic license must first be earned. She spoke to CATHERINE REILLY
IT’S ALMOST 20 years since Fair City made its debut on RTÉ television. Depicting the trials and tribulations in Carrigstown, a fictional north Dublin suburb, the soap has since firmly established itself as Ireland’s answer to EastEnders, and now appears on screen four times a week.
In its two decades, Fair City’s real-life backdrop has metamorphosed from Europe’s economic backwater into its crown jewels (and almost back again), while the population has dramatically changed too.
You’re as likely to meet a Piotr as a Peader, an Yvonne as a Yemi on the streets of Dublin today, and yet Fair City’s immigrant characters have remained few and their storylines generally unremarkable. An exception was Lana Borodin (played by Tatiana Ouliankina), the charismatic Russian wife of Leo Dowling, who certainly captured the public imagination.
Fair City executive producer Brigie De Courcy, a northside resident herself, believes that Dublin’s multi-ethnic mix has changed the city “for the better” and feels “very strongly about bringing this across in Fair City”.
But she insists that “parachuting” in any fresh characters without a dramatic license means only one thing: drama without believability.
“[The audience] don’t necessarily have a feeling for new characters and they always feel a bit put out... And in fact, research shows that it takes about six months for them to come around to knowing a new character.
“We have to be really, really careful about what is the actual truth of the situation on the ground, and what is the truth that our audience enjoys seeing. So we have to go nice and gently.”
In particular, De Courcy feels that creating an immigrant character purely for a race-driven storyline would firstly consign immigrants into a box, and secondly give the audience little time and means to identify with them. The story would thus be lost.
“What I’m trying to find are ways of gracefully introducing a wide variety of people across the show, who have stories that are bigger than their ethnicity, or gender, or their occupation,” she continues. “That they are actually human stories first before they are stories of nationality. I’m sort of setting a limit of a certain amount of ordinary stories about them before there’s a story about race or colour or creed or something else.
“If we were to bring someone in for a race story that defines them by that, I want our audience to know and understand them before they run into those sorts of difficulties.”
But De Courcy, who has been executive produce of Fair City for 18 months, does acknowledge that racism is a real issue – which must be dealt with by the soap.
“I do realise that many people come across racist problems in their daily lives. And I think it’s an immensely important issue to deal with – in the right time, in the right way. And we need to find the right time and the right way and the right vehicle.”
Soaps are usually defined “by the time in which they were designed,” adds De Courcy, who has also worked as series story producer on EastEnders and story editor and producer on Emmerdale.
Indeed, a case in point is the former, which debuted on BBC One in 1985. “East-Enders is very much an early 1990s place, it’s not the east end that’s the 2000s now,” she says. “What people expect to be the population of the east end is Peggy Mitchell, the Cockney geezer and the rest of it. But [in reality] they have moved on and moved out to other areas, and the east end is now a very, very different place.
“It’s not that [the audience] are not ready to see the others,” continues De Courcy, “but that they’ve established a relationship with the Cockney geezers, the Peggy Mitchells and the rest. And if you look at the houses in the square, you’d never find the [working-class] Millers living there – these are really posh residences and people with enormous amount of money are living in these places now.”
Meanwhile, plans are afoot to slowly implement the ethnic mix of which De Courcy speaks, and this includes Irish people with immigrant heritage. Dublin social worker Felix Jones – played by Yare Yegbefume, the Irish son of Nigerian parents and a “wonderful actor” according to De Courcy – is set to return, while upcoming castings could yield a new immigrant character.
“We also have a charity shop, and upstairs in the charity shop, The Helping Hand, we have a Make N’ Mend centre, which are actually growing more and more popular in the city,” says De Courcy. “And into this we’re about to introduce a new character, and really depending on who arrives into us, and comes into the casting will depend on how we devise the character specifically. But I would really love if this was somebody of Asian background, if this is possible.”
De Courcy, who has travelled in Asia, says that people from that continent have a great tradition of mending and being “dexterous” with things which could fit well with the proposed character’s occupation.
The producer, who was also involved in the excellent hurling animation series Ballybraddan, which included a Polish character, says there is “a delicate line to travel” in terms of accommodating accents (the character must be understood, she underlines), but that Fair City is “absolutely open to all nationalities and backgrounds”.
In this respect, she plans to hold open workshops with actors, “just to see what’s out there”, and potentially “design the characters from the people who arrive”. Additionally, script submissions and advice in-and-around immigrant dialogue are welcome.
“We’re looking for people to make submissions. I’m really open to having a huge variety of ages and backgrounds, views of the world around the table,” she says. “I’ve had a number of applications from people of different backgrounds. All that’s required is that they’re able to write – and watch the show.”