An oral history of Brookside: looking back at Britain's most groundbreaking soap

Johnathon Hughes
·25-min read
Photo credit: Shutterstock/Digital Spy - Getty Images
Photo credit: Shutterstock/Digital Spy - Getty Images

From Digital Spy

It's 1982 and Britain has a choice of three soaps: Coronation Street delivers northern wit and whimsy, Emmerdale Farm (as it was still known) offers genteel tales of rural folk, and Crossroads churns out cheap and cheerful cliffhangers to the delight of viewers and the derision of critics.

Spotting a gap for something new and fresh to shake things up, on November 2, as part of its launch night, Channel 4 unveils its flagship soap – Brookside.

Created by Phil Redmond, the man behind gritty BBC school drama Grange Hill, which started a few years earlier, it was filmed on a real-life suburban Liverpool cul-de-sac and broke new ground with its realistic tone, topical issues and unflinching depiction of class clashes.

Three years before EastEnders combined Brookie's social conscience with Corrie's kitchen sink realism, this new soap on the block revolutionised not just its own genre, but the face of British TV drama.

Digital Spy spoke to cast, creatives and fans of the much-loved show, reflecting on how it outgrew its cult beginnings to an explosion of popularity in the 1990s, through the controversies of its later years and eventual cancellation in 2003. It's time to head back to the Close...

We spoke to:

1. Paul Marquess (Producer, 1999-2001)

2. Michael Starke (Thomas 'Sinbad' Sweeney, 1984-2000)

3. Tiffany Chapman (Rachel Jordache, 1993-2003)

4. Shaun Duggan (Writer, 1991-1998)

5. Alex Fletcher (Jacqui Dixon, 1990-2003)

6. Richard Burke (Writer, 1998-2000)

7. Heather Robson (Writer, 1997-2003)

Early days

Brookside Close was a microcosm of Thatcher's Britain, with families from different classes and opposing ethics living next door to one another and frequently falling out. Redmond's home town of Liverpool had been impacted by mass unemployment and the widening divide between rich and poor.

But beneath the socialist statements were instantly relatable characters like the working-class Grants and posh Collins clan, and a sense of realism not seen in the likes of cosy Corrie and cheesy Crossroads: in its first few years it hit headlines for stories about rape, homophobia and drug addiction.

Photo credit: Lime Pictures/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Lime Pictures/Shutterstock

Paul Marquess (Producer, 1999-2001): I watched the first episode in my university halls' grim little TV room and it felt unbelievably real, like they'd been in our house. My own family had the same arguments and tensions as the Grants did, they were my touchstones.

Richard Burke (Writer, 1998-2000): I was immediately drawn to Damon Grant. He was a scouse Tucker Jenkins from Grange Hill, a loveable, cheeky scally and very relatable. I remember him being in the government's Youth Training Scheme they were running at the time then being knocked back for a full-time job when it ended, as it was cheaper to hire another YTS kid.

Seeing the economic reality of Thatcher's Britain on TV was terrifying, your heart broke for Damon but I was thinking, 'That'll be me in a few years when I leave school'.

Photo credit: Kevin Holt/ANL/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Kevin Holt/ANL/Shutterstock

Heather Robson (Writer, 1997-2003): I loved the passion and loyalties of the families, it was absolutely gripping and gritty. Powerful scenes like Sheila crying in the shower after being raped, and her husband Bobby not being able to handle it, like it was an affront to his masculinity and knowing he wasn't there to protect her – I can still see them now.

Shaun Duggan (Writer, 1991-1998): You take for granted how fresh it was compared to other soaps. Unlike Corrie, which you knew was a purpose-built set, this was filmed in real houses and felt more authentic and totally different.

As a kid I lived near the actual Close and would go on pilgrimages with my sister in the school holidays hoping to meet the cast. Sue Johnston and Paul Usher were like megastars to us, I've still got pictures of me with them from those days!

I was such a fan I would record every episode onto an audio cassette then listen back to it, like it was a radio play! It seeped into my brain for when I became a writer. Characters like Karen Grant hadn't been seen on TV before, she was so cool the actress made the front cover of the NME. And she wasn't even in a band!

Heather Robson: Brookside influenced my cultural reference points and made me aware Liverpool had a strong voice. The first play I ever saw was Willy Russell's Blood Brothers and I watched a lot of Carla Lane's TV shows, and everyone knew Boys from the Blackstuff, which highlighted Liverpool's devastating unemployment problem.

Michael Starke (Thomas 'Sinbad' Sweeney, 1984-2000): I had done some extra work on Brookie and was working in Liverpool theatre. I knew the writer Jimmy McGovern and he told me I'd be perfect for this small part he'd created, which was only meant to be for a few episodes.

The nickname was an old scouse mickey take, a window cleaner who doesn't do the corners is given a nautical name as the windows look like portholes.

They wanted to call him Popeye but settled on Sinbad. Window cleaners told me to 'crack my scrim' to make it authentic, which means flicking the shammy leather like a whip. I did it in a scene and they dubbed a whiplash sound on it when it went out – it was hilarious! Sinbad was a more light-hearted presence in those early days and slotted in nicely.

New era, new faces

With many of the original cast gone, including Sue Johnston and Ricky Tomlinson, Brookside underwent a revamp in 1990 with the addition of a third weekly episode, the arrival of the rowdy Dixons and snooty Farnhams, and a new shopping parade built on a converted college still used by Hollyoaks.

Less politics and increasingly ambitious plots ushered in a new era of popularity as the show became bigger and bolder.

Photo credit: Shutterstock
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Shaun Duggan: I was 20 and writing plays but not really earning much. Brookside had gone off the boil for me and with nothing to lose I wrote a letter to the producer, Mal Young, explaining I was a big fan and listing the writers I didn't like! He got in touch and asked me to do a trial script, then I was asked to join the writing team. I never expected to be taken on. I was by far the youngest writer, and felt like a pupil sneaking into the staff room.

Alex Fletcher (Jacqui Dixon, 1990-2003): I auditioned to play someone's girlfriend in the Rogers family and the casting director said I was too young but had me in mind for something else. I thought she was letting me down gently because I was a kid, but true to her word, six months later Phil asked me back to be one of the Dixons.

I was 14 and already done a year presenting Why Don't You?, a BBC kids show which was actually produced by Russell T Davies – I'm proud to name drop that he gave me my first job in TV!

So I'd had some experience in telly already and my family kept me grounded. I didn't go in thinking I was a big star – I couldn't get over my first scene was with Sinbad!

Michael Starke: I had been a recurring character and dipped in and out for about five years, but wanted more security and asked the producer at the time, Vanessa Whitburn, if I could go on a contract.

She didn't want to lose the character and gave me six months guaranteed, which was wonderful. Believe me it doesn't always work when you knock on the producer's door and ask for that!

When Mal Young became producer in 1990, I got my first year-long contract. I always had a good relationship with Phil, I'd see him in the corridor or the canteen and discuss storylines – it was quite informal. He'd always make time for you.

Shaun Duggan: People were starting to take notice of it again in the early '90s. It was a new era and it became more story-driven. The storylines were played relatively small in the early years and if anything huge happened, if a character died for example, it had a massive impact.

That was fantastic but got harder to sustain as audiences get bored and restless. Once Sue Sullivan was pushed off the scaffolding on the parade in 1991, it signalled a move to big, powerful stories, and not worrying so much about whether all these things would happen on one little close, which had held them back prior to that.

Creator Phil Redmond told Digital Spy in 2016: "Programmes have to evolve. I know that made compromises on Brookie to keep it going, because it employed 150 people who were reliant on it. So you have to bend to what your broadcaster wants."

Alex Fletcher: The Dixons were like the Clampetts arriving in the back of Ron's big van, the Moby, which was exactly like my real family when we moved house!

My dad had a big wagon, I remember my mum laughing thinking we were just like the Dixons. When they all pulled up in the Close the Farnhams were mortified, then you had me with my massive perm in my shellsuit... I didn't realise how big it was.

The younger cast were very protected, and my family were down to earth and even though they were proud as punch, they made sure I didn't get carried away so nobody made a fuss. It was a job and I just wanted to do my best.

When I turned 16 and was classed as an adult I had to choose between doing my A levels or staying at Brookside – Mal said they had big plans for Jacqui but I said I'd only stay if it was a regular contract, not a recurring one, which meant only a few episodes a year. That was quite hardball for me, I was petrified!

The body under the patio

The Jordaches arrived in 1993 with a dark secret that spawned one of the most famous soap storylines of all time, as abusive Trevor was murdered by abused wife Mandy and buried in the back garden.

It launched the career of Anna Friel, who played Mandy's daughter Beth and was also part of another landmark moment: the first lesbian kiss on British primetime. The body under the patio plot was the defining peak of Brookside's popularity, impressing viewers and critics, running for more than two years and becoming a national talking point.

Shaun Duggan: Phil came to a long-term planning meeting and handed out a press cutting about a similar story in real life. He said: 'We're going to introduce a new family, the wife will murder her husband and bury him under the patio...' It sounded a bit far-fetched!

We argued it all through and he managed to get us on side. Originally Trevor was only going to be in a few episodes, but we slowed the story down so he moved back in, convincing Mandy he'd been rehabilitated. We wanted viewers to shout, 'Don't take him back!' So the end point of the murder was always there but we didn't think it would go on for as long as it did.

Photo credit: Peter Brooker/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Peter Brooker/Shutterstock

Michael Starke: Sinbad knew Trevor was a wrong'un and kept an eye on the family. Mandy and Beth told him what they did and identified a homeless man as Trevor when he went 'missing' and thought they were in the clear. But in soap nobody gets away with murder!

Trevor's sister turned up asking for the ring he wore as it was a family heirloom. So that was it, the body had to come up to get it off his finger! People always think Sinbad buried the body, but I actually dug him up again!

Shaun Duggan: You plan characters and stories but so much is down to casting. Anna was an unknown quantity but everyone was talking about her pulling off these incredible emotional scenes. Brookside felt like a very real place again, and must-watch TV.

Michael Starke: Anna was such a find. I'll never forget filming the scene where Sinbad and Beth dug up the body.

Sinbad lost his nerve and stopped, and Beth took the shovel from him and jumped into the grave, at which point he realised he couldn't let her do it so he'd carry on. Anna did this little thing, not rehearsed, where she put her hand on my head as Sinbad started to dig – I broke down in tears, it was so emotional.

We shot at night, the scene was about six minutes long with no dialogue. It was so dark we couldn't see the crew and it felt like it was only me and her in that moment. I was emotionally drained, but we all felt a duty to tell the truth and not sell the story short.

Photo credit: Mersey Television / Channel 4
Photo credit: Mersey Television / Channel 4

Shaun Duggan: Beth was our most popular character, and the kiss in 1994 with Margaret was risky at the time but felt organic. It was two people falling in love.

Phil initially wasn't keen on the idea, but I hadn't been out very long myself and was desperate to get that kind of representation on screen. It could have backfired and we didn't know the impact it would have.

I wrote that whole week of episodes, which was a complete joy. For it to still be this iconic moment nearly 30 years on is great. You wouldn't have a soap without gay characters now: Brookside broke the mould with that.

Tiffany Chapman (Rachel Jordache, 1993-2003): I was 13 when I got the part and was protected from the serious subject matter. My parents were a little concerned at first and chatted it through with the producer, but I never felt worried. We knew it would be filmed responsibly, and cast and crew were so supportive.

Obviously, it brought things to the forefront I would never have known about until I was a lot older, but as a kid you take it on board and don't dwell on it as much. I understood the process, that I was playing a character, and just got on with it really. Sandra (Maitland, Mandy) was really kind and Mickey (Starke) kept you laughing, which was needed as it was very heavy.

I probably wasn't in the really heavy scenes, and worked restricted hours because of my age, but my memories are all positive.

Michael Starke: It was huge. There were so many people in Mandy's situation and we felt pressure to get it right. We were snowed under with letters, not just from women but also men who had endured domestic violence.

It was one of the first times a helpline was put up on screen. For me, and I am biased, that was the best ever storyline we did. It reached new heights but went very deep and dark, and the show just got it right in so many ways. We knew we'd have to resolve it but the story was organic. Soaps get criticised for rushing things but they wanted a proper real-time approach with this. It was years before Mandy and Beth were found out.

Shaun Duggan: You know if you're flogging a dead horse and a story isn't working, but writers were excited about it and kept pitching for it to carry on. Stories work best when they impact on other families. When Beth and Mandy ended up in prison we had 'Free the Jordaches' with the whole Close campaigning to get them released.

Tiffany Chapman: There were protests outside the set, fans had banners demanding Beth and Mandy be freed! Everybody was talking about it. When I look back, it was an exciting, unusual thing to be a part of.

Shaun Duggan: The ending was a bit of a disaster. We knew Anna was leaving and planned a huge story where Beth escaped custody and fled the country on a boat.

You thought she'd drowned but we'd film insert scenes and show them a year later of her turning up revealing she'd survived. It would give Beth a positive ending and show she was out there starting a new life. I wasn't privy to exactly what happened, but Anna left the show a lot sooner and the writers were called in for an emergency meeting to change the story – everything we'd planned was scrapped and Beth ended up dying in prison of an undiagnosed heart defect.

We were all gutted. It was a letdown, seeing Mandy shaking a dummy in the bed! Whatever was going on privately behind the scenes, we should have stuck with what was the best story and what was best for the character.

A step too far?

Riding high from the Jordache story and a decade of taboo-breaking, the show began to struggle as it tried to stay on top and keep up with the competition with a series of far-fetched plots.

An incestuous affair in the newly-introduced Simpson family in 1996 sparked a backlash from fans who felt the show was losing its way, with a focus on sensationalism, gangsters and violence.

Photo credit: Nils Jorgensen/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Nils Jorgensen/Shutterstock

Michael Starke: The show was on a bit of a hiding to nothing. Once it had got so big with the Jordache story it had to keep that going. For instance, Sandra and I felt the romance between Mandy and Sinbad was wrong and unnecessary. She would never have fallen in love again that quickly and it was an anchor writers thought might give the characters longevity.

Shaun Duggan: That massive response was always going to be hard to follow. There was excitement about the incest story in the initial discussions, it was risky and hadn't been done before.

But it was just a bit gross and made the audience feel uncomfortable. On reflection, there are other ways we could've told it. We handled it like a coming out story, Nat and Georgia eventually wanted everyone to know they were siblings in love, but it didn't ring true. We got it horribly wrong and it was the point where the sensational element definitely tipped the scales in the wrong direction.

Alex Fletcher: When I was told Jacqui was going to be a surrogate for Max and Susannah in 1997, I was a bit shocked. I was still quite young and didn't really understand it! Back in the day, it hadn't really been done.

But as a storyline, I can't knock it. It led to Jacqui marrying Max eventually, which was hilarious, as my mum fancied the pants off Steven Pinder, who played him. That was cringe!

Richard Burke: I joined after the incest story and the show was showing seeds of recovery. It was fairly positive and the story team and writing room was brilliant. It felt like the show had plenty of life left.

In retrospect, it had become less overtly political but that reflected the times. Tony Blair was in power and lines between left and right wing were less defined.

Shaun Duggan: Viewers want stories to be rooted in truth, with characters they can invest in. I hated the gangster stuff – there had been smaller elements of that with Barry Grant's character but personally I preferred Lindsey Corkhill working at the chippy, not running around with guns.

Alex Fletcher: Some stories later on got a bit far-fetched but for me, the majority of it was really relatable and down to earth. We did a lot of things first and it set the benchmark.

Richard Burke: There was still the territory for good stories with families like the Shadwicks, who were well-defined and hit the ground running. If audiences don't care about the characters then all the fireworks in the world won't make them want to keep coming back.

Back to basics

Paul Marquess became producer at the end of the '90s and took the show back to its roots, introducing blended family the Murrays, featuring Bernie Nolan and a young Ray Quinn, and tackling date rape, bullying, religion and infertility. Viewers put off by incest and gangsters were tempted back as Brookside rediscovered its heart and warmth, and there was a resurgence of love for the show.

Photo credit: Ray Tang/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Ray Tang/Shutterstock

Paul Marquess: I'd pitched Footballers' Wives to Channel 4 which they turned down but asked if I wanted to do Brookside instead. I met Phil and he was up for changing the show a bit. It had a reputation at that point, fairly and unfairly, for big stories.

I said at the time all the explosions have got to be emotional. I wanted to go back to core values and strong families, which is how the Murrays happened. I'm still proud of them, they were instantly fantastic and brilliantly cast. Bernie Nolan became a great friend, I still miss her.

Raymond Quinn was extraordinary – I put him and Bernie in a scene and I was in tears. The Murrays defined what I was trying to do with Brookside.

Photo credit: Nils Jorgensen/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Nils Jorgensen/Shutterstock

Richard Burke: Paul was very impressive, a story machine with loads of ideas. Phil had been very hands-on again when I joined, he loved being around writers and it was a writer-led show. When Paul came in, he took more of a backseat and left the day-to-day running to him.

Heather Robson: I heard Brookie was short on female writers. I submitted a play I'd written, and I was running the New Everyman Youth Theatre in Liverpool at the time, and got on the team.

I'd never written for TV and certainly learned on the job. It was an out-of-body experience being in meetings with Phil Redmond, working on a show that was a big part of my youth. I felt like the luckiest woman alive. Phil loved writers, he was really nurturing.

And he fed us well – tea and cakes came out at 3pm, and if a meeting ran late into the night he'd order in a takeaway Chinese banquet!

Paul Marquess: Phil and I worked well together. By that point he also had Hollyoaks(launched in 1995 as Brookside's sister show) to run, but it was still Phil Redmond's Brookside, and top of my job description was getting on with him.

He would suggest big issues to explore, like IVF, and I'd work out how to make it a story and for which character, hence Bernie's character Diane desperately wanting her own biological child which opened emotional tension with her stepkids.

Not everything we did worked, and posh lesbian Shelley falling for Jackie Corkhill wasn't our finest hour, but my two years there were pretty bloody good.

Alex Fletcher: Jacqui had gone from a teenager to an entrepreneur by the late 90s, which was a lot to do with Paul Marquess. He loved the powerful women.

I saw people like Anna Friel move on to other things but I genuinely never wanted to leave – I loved it. I didn't aspire to go off and play other characters. I felt lucky to have had this break and be learning on the job and being able to stay close to my friends and family.

Shaun Duggan: Paul had Bev running the bar and she had this lovely, fun friendship with Lance the barman. I loved all that and it went through a good little period again.

Brookside Close(d)

Channel 4 started the 21st century with a bigger focus on reality formats. Brookie moved around in the schedules to make space for the likes of Big Brother, was eventually dropped from primetime in 2002, and was finally reduced to a late-night 'graveyard' slot. Ratings plummeted as the soap appeared less important to the network, and in 2003 Channel 4 announced Brookside was being axed. The last ever episode aired in November, almost 21 years to the day since it launched.

Photo credit: Bruce Adams/ANL/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Bruce Adams/ANL/Shutterstock

Paul Marquess: Before I left, Channel 4 were still very supportive. They wanted an extra weekly episode. We'd done five nights stripped across a week for big things like Susannah Farnham's murder which got good ratings, and a late-night special where Nikki Shadwick confronted her rapist. There was still an audience, so why did it get axed? That is a mystery to me.

Alex Fletcher: It had been rumoured for about a year. In my head I'd already bowed out a bit and prepared myself, so when it happened it didn't seem that bad. It was hard to feel negative as I'd had such a fantastic life there. It had come to a natural end and was time to move on.

Tiffany Chapman: I stayed until the end and would still be there now if it hadn't stopped! Paul had given it a real injection, it was still pushing boundaries and there was a good energy about it. I remember getting the call to go to the night club set and we were all told. It was surreal and very sad – the end of an era.

Phil Redmond told Digital Spy in 2016: "We'd spent a million pounds revamping. They cancelled it the same week they put billboards up across Britain saying it had all changed! I think Brookside should just have been moved out of early evening and put on at 10pm."

Richard Burke: It's well established the relationship between Phil and the channel was less harmonious than anyone would ideally have wanted by then. Brookside's demise was as much to do with schedules being saturated with soaps by then – there wasn't room for it any more. And moving the timeslot didn't help, no-one knew when it was on.

Paul Marquess: It was a terrible shock and I feel lucky to have worked there, given it got taken off not long after I left. It felt like we were rocking and rolling.

Bring back Brookie!

Brookside's impact on TV is still felt – arguably there would be no EastEnders without it, and it gave writers like Jimmy McGovern, one of British TV drama's most creative forces, their big break. Some fans still hold out hope it could make a comeback...

Tiffany Chapman: My mum is always saying they should bring it back! I'd definitely do it and I think they could make it work if they moved with the times. It would be quite comforting. People would like to see it back for the nostalgia and the memories. I'll never experience a job like that ever again – I know that and appreciate it.

Paul Marquess: Sadly, I think it's best left where it was. And the cul-de-sac itself was of its time – the setting would feel dated. I think TV misses something from Liverpool in the national consciousness, but if you're going to examine what's going on there now, Brookside is probably not the right way to do that.

Richard Burke: It created the template for EastEnders. Families of different classes living next door, openly gay and aspirational yuppies – Brookside did it three years earlier. Bigger stories like the siege and the cult were used as a stick to beat Brookside with, but are now commonplace in contemporary soap storytelling, and used as powerful narratives to keep audiences tuning in.

Shaun Duggan: You could do a series of one-offs over a week, catching up with some of the main characters and finding out what they're up to now. Where are Jimmy Corkhill or Bev Dixon? Who's still alive? Something like that could be interesting, but I don't think it would work to resurrect it as it was.

Phil Redmond: It could come back in some form – never say never. You could find some of the old characters and pick it up from there. I think there is a place for a soap like that, but doing it online would be the best way to do it. If I was starting now I'd be going round talking to BT, Amazon and Netflix and saying, 'Why don't we do this online?'

Alex Fletcher: I sometimes pretend I'm still on Brookie when I'm filming Hollyoaks, as it's a lot of the same crew and we use the old parade set. And I met my husband Neil Davies (who played Jacqui's boyfriend Robbie in 2000) on the show. Without sounding cheesy, that's a happy memory and a pretty good legacy!

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