20 March 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Soap Series: Interview with ‘Fair City’ Executive Producer Brigie de Courcy
21 Jul 2015 : Seán Brosnan
‘Fair City’ has been on the air since 1989
This summer IFTN is taking a closer look behind the scenes of Ireland’s soaps – kicking off the series this week is our interview with ‘Fair City’ Executive Producer Brigie de Courcy.

The storylines of ‘Fair City’ and the happenings in Carrigstown have been talked about around the watercoolers of Ireland since 1989. Here, Brigie (Executive Producer since 2008) gives us a little glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes of the RTÉ One soap.

IFTN: ‘Fair City’ has been an Irish mainstay since 1989 and for many loyal viewers the likes of Niamh, Paul, Bella, Charlie and co have become an extended part of the family – does having such a long-standing fan-base create any added pressure for you?

Brigie de Courcy:‘We have an incredibly loyal audience – we also have new audiences coming to us as we go along – but our loyal audience would have really followed the detailed stories so it is really incumbent on us to be true to the history of a character. Of course people’s lives change as they go along. For example, Paul Brennan (Tony Tormey) was a bit of a jack the lad – he was a sound engineer and a radio DJ – and he is now the owner of a number of businesses including a garage and the marketplace. So, we had to chart his rise really carefully so that we didn’t belie his previous story because everybody remembers those things.’

You mentioned new audiences there – ‘Fair City’ has been on the air so long now and it seems a lot of kids would be inheriting a long-standing interest in the show because their parents would have it on growing up…

‘Absolutely. I think the joyful nature of soap is that we have a very broad demographic. We are not limited to one set of professional people. For example, a medical drama would be a lot more limited than us. We can be very cross-generational – for example, we can tell stories of fostering and adoption from the point of view of both the child and the adult. We can show stories of adolescence – of teenagers growing up and becoming adults and taking control of their own lives. We have to assume that there is someone new watching every time we broadcast and we need to make something exciting for them in every single show.’

‘Fair City’ has grown from a one episode a week show that took breaks in the summer to a four episode a week show that airs all year round – how do you maintain the quality of the show when you are expected to work so quickly?

‘We have to work incredibly smart and hit very strict deadlines. We have very good logistical and scheduling teams that are on top of all that. We have story demands, logistical demands and production needs and we need to match those at a very early stage and hopefully that’s not evident on screen but that’s what we are doing. There isn’t time to stop. There is very little blue sky thinking.’

‘In terms of story – we plan very long-term – we plan 18 months ahead. We might not know the finer details yet but we would be very conscious of where we are going for Christmas 2016 and what our big story will be then. We absolutely need a route map to show us where we are going because otherwise you get bogged down in tiny details and when you come to tell the big story - the building blocks just aren’t there.’

How do you go about building those blocks – do you have a writer’s room where you are constantly thrashing out ideas or are episodes given in blocks and the writers told what is expected of each character in those episodes?

‘We have approximately 40-45 writers on our roster at one time. They might be exclusively storyline writers, exclusively episode writers or perhaps they would be both. Basically, they are in-house in a story room here at RTÉ for a period of time and they beat out the stories. We have conferences once every three months or so where some key writers would be invited to come in as we beat out ideas about where we are going for the next period. We have a very strong Series Consultant (Sam Atwell) who is terrific at managing all of those long-term plans.’

‘We break down the 18 month plan into smaller sections and then we plan for three months ahead of where we are at that point. We then send that down to the story team where we have a bunch of people working on specific stories for four weeks at a time.’

How do you keep all the members of such a large cast happy? You can’t have all of them at the forefront all the time..

‘I think we are pretty fair with regards to how the stories are passed around. We know what our audiences love and they love seeing different characters but we also have to make sure that we are doing different types of stories. For example, if we are having a medical story, we need to make sure that we also have a business story or a relationship story – it’s important that we have a range of stories going on to appeal to our audience.’

When planning out episodes would you match a certain type of story to a certain type of writer? For example, would you have specific writers who are strong at writing those medical stories so you would make sure those episodes would be written by them?

‘When we come down to specific episodes, we would always try to match the content of that episode to a writer’s skills. Sometimes we may have a particularly emotional episode so we would match that to a writer that can script that heavy material very strongly – or it might be that we have a lot of information in an episode to get across in a very realistic way that won’t be dull for an audience – that takes enormous skill – so we would send that over to one of our writers that is gifted at that.’

‘Fair City’ has been praised – particularly under your tenure – for its social realism. Do you set out to make storylines that echo contemporary social issues that people can identify with or do you write storylines to highlight the characters rather than writing to highlight the issue?

‘For me, I think it is extremely important that everything is character-driven. We don’t aim at issues. We don’t go through the newspapers and say “ah there’s an issue that we can cover”. We are all about the characters but the contemporary reality of that is that we will hit on certain issues that are prevalent in society today - and we really need to be careful of that. For example, we cannot tell a political story in this climate – we can’t influence what is happening in the country currently and we also cannot reflect it. A good example of this would be the recent marriage referendum which we didn’t touch on at all – one reason is because we would have been filming three weeks ahead of the outcome so we wouldn’t have known but it also would have been completely inappropriate for us to go there.’

‘On the other hand, we have to create a reality on ‘Fair City’ that does reflect what modern society is – which is an all-inclusive and all-embracing society – and that is something that I feel very strongly about. Whether the stories are about religion, orientation or whatever, I think it’s very important that we have that door open for everybody.’

What sort of input would RTÉ have – are you in constant contact with them over upcoming storylines?

‘Yes, I would be in regular contact with the Commissioning Editor of Drama (Jane Gogan) and she and I would have conversations about the direction of the show and what my vision for it is – both short-term and long-term. Jane would sometimes come back to me with notes after broadcast and they are invaluable. Sometimes, we work so hard and so fast that occasionally things might slip through the cracks that we haven’t seen. So, it is wonderful to have a very keen, crisp pair of eyes that gives us exterior steerance like that.’

Your own background has seen you working on British soaps such as ‘Emmerdale and Eastenders in the UK before returning to take your current role on ‘Fair City’ – did you find it hard returning to ‘Fair City’ initially after working on presumably much larger budgets in the UK?

‘I started out as a lecturer in Drama for a long time here in Dublin. I then did a Doctorate in Tragedy so I was pottering around in that sort of area before I became a Script Editor in ‘Fair City’. It was only then that I moved to the UK so I was very familiar with the inner workings of the show before I went to the UK.’

‘It was fantastic to work on ‘Emmerdale’ – Yorkshire is really beautiful and it was a very exciting thing for me to do at the time. ‘Eastenders’ was a completely different kettle of fish – another big budget show – but there was also a huge character and actor pool – so much bigger than it is here. On ‘Eastenders’, anybody you wanted to come onto the show was available to come onto the show. So, all of those things were very exciting for me.’

‘But, I like the way that we tell stories here – I like the way we love language and we love talking things through. We have a very careful line of morality that means we can take on some fairly difficult subjects. It is very reflective of Irish society that we don’t have a fear of discussing moral issues – issues that the BBC and ‘Eastenders’ might be skittish about touching upon. I think we are much more egalitarian in Ireland and we treat our characters in a very different way.’

Can you tell us a little then about the budget of ‘Fair City’? How much does the production of an average episode cost?

‘A lot, lot, lot less than ‘Eastenders’, ‘Emmerdale’ and ‘Coronation Street’! When you put us up in comparison to those shows with much larger budgets, I think we do extremely well.’

For a machine such as ‘Fair City’ that has had its own very distinct style for so many years – how do you introduce new writers and directors? Would there be a sort of mentorship system put in place where you pair a more experienced person with the newcomer or would you throw them in at the deep end?

‘In terms of directors coming in, they absolutely have to be experienced in directing multi-camera studio dramas. We normally have two staff directors on our roster at any given time. Other than that, we have a number of freelance directors who come in and out – a number of whom have come from Ireland – from shows such as ‘Ros Na Rún’ for example. But we also have a number of directors who have come in very successfully from a background in directing British soaps such as ‘Emmerdale’ or ‘Eastenders’.’

For writers then, we do have a sort of mentorship system put in place. Writing for us and writing for soap or a long-running drama series is very different to writing your own work. Somebody coming into us would need to be writing one of 200 episodes so we can’t really have mavericks who are writing in a completely different tone and language on a Tuesday to whoever was writing the episode beforehand. We have to ease people into all of that so we do have a mentorship system. Any writers coming into us would obviously need to have some background in writing – whether its’ film scripts or novels or whatever – but we are very careful to ensure that they are gently eased into our way of doing things.’

I presume it has happened – as it does with every long-running drama – where a story of character is just not hitting the mark – is there any contingency plan put in place for when this happens?

‘The team are exceptionally good at hitting deadlines across the board. This means that we have very few “panics” – very few emergencies. It means that if something untoward happens, we are ready to jump into action. So for example a few years ago the wonderful Pat Leavy (who played long-time character Hannah Finnegan) sadly passed away during the middle of a shoot here. Her passing directly impacted 72 planned episodes. The story team and the script team just dived right into it and I slept under my desk as people sent in single sheets with new scenes that had to be down to the floor by 8.30am the next morning. It was really, really intense. But because we are so prepared and have no other panics, we can do that.’

2015 has of course seen another English language soap come to the fore with TV3’s ‘Red Rock’ – did you feel under any pressure to shake things up on ‘Fair City’ or were you eager to maintain the status quo?

‘Oh, we are very happy with what we are doing. We are absolutely delighted that ‘Red Rock’ came on board because it is good for the industry – it’s good for writers, production crews and training up everybody and it keeps us all on our toes. I think the show is quite different to us in a lot of ways and I think there is something very exciting about starting out from scratch and establishing your own world. But, they are quite different from us in that we are drawing on a very successful and detailed history that puts us in a slightly different place but I think the addition of ‘Red Rock’ is great.

So, you’re saying there can be an almost symbiotic relationship between the two soaps and ‘Ros Na Rún’ of course –I know with ‘Red Rock’ in particular they have had some writers and directors that have worked extensively on ‘Fair City’ before….

‘Well the thing about the freelance world is that people move around all the time. At the minute, we currently we have an ‘Emmerdale’ director, a ‘Hollyoaks’ director and an ‘Eastenders’ director here as well our two staff directors - so I think the spread of workflow for the writers, directors and crew is just fantastic. Obviously, there is a certain amount of confidentiality that we need to enforce with anyone that comes here to work but we are always dealing with professionals so that is not an issue.’

With ‘Fair City’ coming up to its’ 26th year then, can you tell us a little about what we can expect on Carrigstown in the coming months?

‘We have a very exciting September. We have a couple of familiar faces returning to the soap to shake things up and we also have a pretty spectacular and unexpected event in Mid-September that is going to have a huge impact on a lot of lives. There is a lot of excitement about that event here. This is one that is definitely going to come out of left field for the audience I think!’

Stay tuned to IFTN over the coming months for more features and interviews on soaps and long-running dramas in Ireland such as ‘Fair City’ ‘Ros Na Rún’ and ‘Red Rock’.

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