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Soap Series: Interview with ‘Fair City’ Series Producer Shirley Dalton
11 Sep 2015 : Seán Brosnan
Over the last few months, IFTN has been taking a closer look behind the scenes of Ireland’s soaps – continuing our series we talk to Shirley Dalton – Series Producer of long-running RTÉ soap ‘Fair City’.

Here, Dalton talks us through graduating to Series Producer in September 2013, the difficulties working on a drama that doesn’t stop and the ‘marriage’ of all the different departments on ‘Fair City’ that ensures the smooth and continuous sailing of production.

IFTN: Was graduating from Director to Series Producer daunting at all for you – suddenly having so much resting on your shoulders?

Shirley Dalton: ‘I did find it difficult I have to say. I remember when Brigie approached me to see if I would be interested in taking the post and my initial reaction was that I wouldn’t be able for it. But Brigie seemed to have faith in me, as did Jane Gogan, so I thought that if these ladies think I can do it then maybe I can do it! They really took a big chance letting a rookie fly the plane. And they took a chance on me years ago too by putting a huge amount of resources behind me to train me as a multi-cam director. Directors coming into ‘Fair City’ have to come in with a hefty skill-set and I realise that more now that I’m a Series Producer. Looking back, would I have given myself the job? I don’t know actually!

And it was obviously a big period that you took over in - a lot of big storylines as well as the 25th anniversary special and drama last year so you were thrown in at the deep end…

‘Taking over on a project that just doesn’t stop means there is a certain amount of baton passing and you just have to keep running really. Initially it was tough but the great thing about ‘Fair City’ is that there is a really firm structure in how the show is made. Everyone knows what they need to do. So, all I had to do when I came in was get up to speed with what they already knew.’

How closely would you work with Executive Producer Brigie de Courcy?

‘Myself and Brigie touch base every 20 minutes! She’s brilliant. We are a small team really – there aren’t a load of different departments from a production point of view. There’s myself and Brigie. I manage the day-to-day running of the production side of the process. In any one week we have 32 episodes approximately in production and they would all be at various stages of production. The entire life cycle of a typical block of episodes is about 24 weeks – from when its’ storied to when we shoot it. Every week is different and episodes would be in different hands. My job is to make sure that all those different departments are communicating – I am the conduit between which all the information flows. With 32 episodes on the go one week and then a different 32 the next week – the information highway needs to be really clear.’

That sounds like a lot of balls in the air…

‘A lot of balls in the air! But again we go back to that firm structure we have in place. We have strict deadlines every week and a lot of meetings so everything flows calmly. So, if an emergency does arise – unforeseen weather conditions, actor or director down or whatever – we are well-placed to deal with it.’

Taking over as Series Producer for something like ‘Fair City’ that doesn’t stop as you said – is there a temptation to put your own stamp on the show or is your job to seamlessly blend in with your predecessors?

‘When I came in, I came directly off the floor as a director so I knew the show and I knew my job would be to keep it running smoothly. I wanted to help Brigie fulfil her vision of having a one director process. The way the programme had grown up meant that we were in a situation where each episode had two directors across it. That was just the way things had been done for the past 25 years. So, that was something I really wanted to help Brigie smooth out and we were thankfully able to change our production model to accommodate one director over a block of episodes. For me, that was the most amazing thing to achieve. Everyone benefited from it. When you have one set of eyes steering a block of episodes, the end result is better and I am delighted I could help make that happen.’

You have a background as a director but one of the balls you have in the air as Series Producer is working with the writing department – was that a tough transition for you coming in?

‘As a director, I wouldn’t have had any contact at all with the writing department. Stepping into the shoes as Series Producer was like a curtain being pulled back – I got to see the whole process from start to finish. I see stories originate in the story room and scripts being written and I love being across all of it. My job is to make sure that I manage the resources we have correctly so they match the stories we try to tell. So, I would be doing a lot of forward planning – 12–18 months into the future matching our resources to our stories. ‘Fair City’ really is like a marriage – we all work hand in hand together. Production and Story are constantly touching base with each other through every stage of the process and it works really well.’

How many people would be involved - across all the different departments – in the day-to-day running of ‘Fair City’?

‘Wow. I would say upwards of 150 overall across all the departments. We really are like an army. What I find amazing is that we really don’t stop – we have no time to reflect, there is no wrap party – we just keep going. Yet all of our departments arrive in every Monday morning with the same level of enthusiasm as if it were their first. That bowls me over and I think that’s reflected on the screen with the quality of our episodes.’

And would being a Series Producer mean you are first in the office every morning and last to leave every night?

‘Yeah I never leave Carrigstown [laughs]. I can’t remember the last time I have read a full book. But that’s OK because I love it!’

Your tenure at ‘Fair City’ has seen the addition of a new English-language soap in Ireland – what was the plan when ‘Red Rock’ hit TV3 – any panic or just business as usual?

‘Business as usual definitely. They really are different shows. We’re really happy where we are and with our community in Carrigstown.’

When we were talking to Brigie, she mentioned September being a big month with a big shake-up in Carrigstown – can you tell us any more about what’s coming up?

‘Well now if Brigie didn’t tell you, you hardly thing I am going to spill the beans! But it so exciting and it’s a game-changer for sure. That’s all I can say [laughs].

Check out our previous ‘Fair City’ interviews with:

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