Friday, 11 January 2008


Friday, 11 January 2008

Lord knows we have enough soaps on British television, but there's a new one in town; courtesy of former EastEnders' executive producer Tony Jordan. Having helped reenergize the cop drama, by adding a time-travel twist in Life On Mars, Jordan turns his attention to reinvigorating soap...

Jordan's twist this time? Well, the serial drama in question (Echo Beach; a glamorous fantasy of Cornish coastal life), has a sister show called Moving Wallpaper, starring Ben Miller as Jonathan Pope – Echo Beach's fictional executive producer. It's here that we see the comedic behind-the-scenes mishaps that inform the soap...

To be fair, it's an enticing gimmick. But it's a gimmick all the same. What you end up with is a fictional behind-the-scenes show, poking fun at another fictional show. Miller looks to be having a great time, but treats everything like an extended sketch. Which it is, really. But his character is played too broad and the unsubtle comedy just highlights how utterly fake everything is. Which isurely means a mockumentary has failed in its aim?

There's very little sense of credibility anywhere – just a broad pastiche of what the layman expects to see a television production company do in the name of "art": Pope upsets the writers with constant demands for unpopular rewrites, he makes a child actress cry for the camera, and gets a blowjob from former-Footballers' Wives sex-kitten Susie Amy (who, very improbably, is desperate for a line in a cameo!)

Moving Wallpaper was light and fluffy, neutered by the fact it can't be aggressive in its ribbing of Echo Beach's or its C-list stars... because it knows, and we know, it's all made by the same gang. The best you get is a little nod to the fact Martine McCutcheon only agreed to star because she was told she can sing. Ooh, bet that one stung! Hmmm.

Quite why anyone would watch Moving Wallpaper is just beyond me. It doesn't really add anything to the "main show", and only highlights the fact that Echo Beach is fake. And, while every level-headed person knows that already, it seems very indulgent to have concocted a show to spell that out for us.

Echo Beach itself is set in the fictional Cornish coastal town of Polnarren – imagine Home & Away's Summer Bay, but with British weather.

Actually, to be fair, the production did a good job of making the place look sunny and vibrant, with the aerial photography and glamorous flybys of beaches, country lanes and posh houses suitably dynamic and appealing. It's only a matter of time before the filming location is deluged by fans, upsetting the locals. But the gorgeous Cornwall landscape was Echo Beach's only highlight, as everything else was horribly predictable and quite uninteresting.

Martine McCutcheon plays Susan Penwarden, married to Mark Penwarden (The Full Monty's Hugo Spear), with kids Jimmy (Ed Speleers) and Grace (Laura Greenwood). Into Susan's life comes old flame Daniel Marrack (Jason Donovan), a single-parent of teenagers Brae (Christian Cooke) and sexy Abi (Hannah Lederer-Alton), whose reappearance in town reignites feelings in Susan and jealousy from husband Mark.

It's bad enough that the cast is comprised of two washed-up soap stars (EastEnders' McCutcheon, never making it big -- despite a credible singing voice and "breakout" role in Love, Actually) and Neighbours' Jason Donovan (cashing-in his I'm A Celebrity fame and kitsch-appeal), but there's also the surreal sight of Coronation Street's Mike Baldwin (Johnny Briggs) propping up a bar and doing a terrible Cornish-Cockney accent. Hilarious!

There was a bit of fun to be had in spotting the knock-on effects of Moving Wallpaper's storylines on the soap itself, but can that sustain the whole series? Here, we knew why the café had no furniture (Miller's character had used the budget on his office), we saw that Susie Amy's blowjob had won her a speaking part, and we had already been told that Donovan's character would be staying on -- which was obvious, but how many other secrets will be spoiled by Moving Wallpaper in the weeks to come?!

Of course, Moving Wallpaper told us the writers' original intention was for his character to move on and make Susan and Mark realize how much they love each other – which would make absolutely no dramatic sense! So, the obsessive fictional producer proved he's made better decisions than his writers... and what does that tell you about creativity in the TV industry?

It seems to me that Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach are a symbiotic relationship that undermine each other. Wallpaper is a an unfunny and unsophisticated "mockumentary", that would be cancelled after a few episodes if it was a standalone series -- but it will survive because it's tied to Echo Beach.

The problem is, Echo Beach is similarly vapid and unconvincing, and the only entertainment came from spotting the result of Wallpaper's storylines -- which was still distracting and mainly served to distance you from the show's "reality". My prediction? Both will limp along together for this 12-episode run, before drowning in a sea of viewer of apathy. Quite why noted soap-writer Tony Jordan did the Wallpaper comedy and other people wrote the Beach soap is also beyond me...

There is a chance that both shows will rapidly improve once they settle into their concepts, but at the moment it looks like a commendably unique idea... that doesn't work in practice. I'm grateful ITV are trying to rebrand their drama output in 2008, but viewers need something more tangible than a self-involved gimmick and a few familiar faces.

10 January 2008
ITV1, 9.00 (Moving Wallpaper)
ITV1, 9.30 (Echo Beach)