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Fear and loathing in Los Barcos

Twenty-five years on, is pioneering Euro soap Eldorado due a cultural re-appraisal? Not a chance, says ANDREW WOODS. In fact, we can add Brexit to this show’s rotten legacy

You couldn’t lay all the responsibility of Britain voting to leave the EU on BBC1’s 1992 ‘Euro soap’ Eldorado. But it certainly didn’t help. A prime-time show stifled by its misguided ambition of addressing the new, post-Maastricht EUniverse within a traditional soap construct, shot entirely on location with inexperienced ‘talent’ from around the continent, Eldorado was spectacularly rotten.

Eldorado promised to disrupt the soap opera market with a heady mix of sun, sex and sangria. It succeeded only in going down in television folklore as one of the biggest flops of all time. Soaps had failed before – most recently ITV’s Albion Market in 1985 – but nothing had sailed so wide of the mark since another BBC show with European connections, Triangle, which spent three early 1980s years trying to entice tea-time crowds with a show centred around the three destinations of a cross-channel ferry (Amsterdam! Gothenburg! And, erm, Felixstowe!).

Yet it could have all been very different. Writer Tony Holland’s original script – dreamt up whilst relaxing on a nudist beach – was called Little England, and it is fair to say that it would have stood a much better chance of duking it out with Coronation Street than the show it eventually became. Little England was to be a tight, traditional, everyday tale of how Brits successfully and continually recreate home on foreign turf.

The show Eldorado morphed into however, under the guidance of his EastEnders colleague, Julia Smith, was a very different affair altogether.

Smith was a something of a maverick and thought we, as a nation, could handle a full-on ‘Euro soap’ in which the Danes, Swedes, Spanish and French were given as much onscreen prominence as the English speakers.

This was almost certainly the moment when the show started to wither on the vine, and the hype – and indeed shooting – hadn’t even started. Holland was horrified and only attended the lavish press launch under duress, because he could smell what was coming.

The concept could have been slightly less disastrous, but for a number of misguided decisions. The first was the set of 18 apartments and three villas, creating the fictional town of Los Barcos in a pine forest in Coin, near Marbella, at a reported cost of £10 million of license payers’ money (actually nearer £2 million). Not only did this make Eldorado a tabloid whipping boy before filming had even begun, but it had disastrous consequences once the cameras started rolling and sound engineers winced as dialogue echoed off the walls.

Second, and far worse, a sizeable chunk of the acting ‘talent’ were hardly RADA. Kai Maurer who played German toyboy/windsurf instructor Dieter was a timeshare salesman prior to his recruitment.

Maurer had the face for TV, but an actor he most certainly was not. Years later, he told a BBC camera crew that he had absolutely no idea of what a ‘read-through’ was. This guy had been selling apartments to retired taxi drivers just weeks before he landed the role.

The schedule was mad, with a cast riven by cultural and theatrical divides having to record three episodes per week. According to Maurer, every scene was done in one take. That was either a sign of strength, or an indicator of just how terrible this was likely to be.

Smith had a pedigree for casting unknowns, as seen with Leslie Grantham in EastEnders, but this cast was to be its downfall. You could have kicked a beach ball into a beachside bar and hit greater talent. Those who could act felt understandably miffed with what they had to work with.

The first episode, screened on July 6, 1992, was toast. The figures fell like a stone from there on in. Eldorado was supposed to attract 10 million viewers; quickly it was pulling in just 3 million. ‘Less popular than Panorama’ said one tabloid headline.

It was easy to see the problems. Scenes involving the foreign tongue were inexplicably played out with no subtitles, much to the befuddlement of both the audience and the cast.

On occasion, foreign speech was followed by crude exposition as the English characters mugged the translations back to the audience in their mother tongue. Or their foreign blather was simply ignored or ridiculed by the Brits. The continental characters were thinly drawn, too – the men played tennis while their women were played for erotic mystique and would simply hang around on balconies, pouting.

The Brits represented by far the most solid component of the production, and they were largely poor. There were some faintly familiar faces from homegrown TV, but they couldn’t hold the entire show together and the characters were chockful of textbook stereotypes.

Cockney Marcus Tandy (Jesse Birdsall) was a flint-hearted criminal – seen hurling a suitcase at a pregnant woman in the opening scene – while Drew Lockhead (Campbell Morrison), the Scottish father-of-two, was a raging alcoholic, who would fail to follow the simplest of instructions from his put-upon wife Gwen (Patricia Brake) (‘Can you please remember to put the chicken on?’) Snowy White (Patch Connolly), the Irish handyman, who had appeared to have appropriated Feargal Sharkey’s hair, was a dyspraxic simpleton constantly breaking things. It was if the scriptwriters were looking to a cabinet of Toby jugs for inspiration.

One faintly modern character was Drew Lockhead’s teenage son, afforded the somewhat prescient name Blair (Josh Nathan). This was 1992 don’t forget, and this befuddled pony-tailed rave zombie acted as if he was being interviewed outside Fantazia at 6am. In every single scene.

His acting chops ranged from ‘withdrawn’ and ‘languid’ all the way through to ‘comatose’. However, his cheeky wheelchair-bound sister Vanessa, played by Julie Fernandez, was a rare shining light of the show. To give Eldorado credit, we hadn’t seen a wheelchair user on a soap since Sandy from Crossroads.

The combination of languages, the risible acting and the gossamer-thin plots, were lapped up by student audiences, but it wasn’t rocking the bells for most. One episode revolved around a buffet, hosted by the busybody geriatric Olive (Faith Kent), which was eventually ruined by the hapless Snowy, who upended a silver salver of cheese and crackers.

Eldorado was far too light and far too frothy. By comparison, Neighbours could have been scripted by David Mamet. Without the side salad of irony, Eldorado was a theatrical and cultural airlock.

Now, Neighbours and Home & Away had led the way, in wowing the Brits with far-off places where the sun actually shone, but even that was missing from many of the winter months in Los Barcos.

There were plenty of overcast scenes shot on cheap plastic furniture as tarpaulin flapped in the wind. It was almost as if the weather was phoning it in. This was a show of pregnant pauses, furrowed brows and the loud marble-walled echoes that bounced around the expensive purpose-built set. Eldorado had the air of a porn-film ‘set-up’ only without the physical congress.

Of course, sex was a selling point of Eldorado. But even this, they got hopelessly and wretchedly wrong. So wrong. When Bunny Charlson, played by a balding, moustachioed middle-aged man familiar to viewers as a dungareed member of the Rainbow team, Roger Walker, returns to the ex-pat community from his jaunt to the UK, he has a surprise. A 17-year-old bride.

Bunny’s relationship with Fizz prompted derision from every quarter and rightly so. An early scene of Bunny giving Fizz – his honeymooning bride, remember – the kind of stilted peck on the cheek usually reserved for visits to a hospice, was excruciating. Even the actors knew they were involved in something truly hideous. When the Beeb promised us ‘sun, sex and sangria’ nobody was expecting this kind of filth.

The show did improve a tad, once Corinne Hollingsworth replaced Smith as producer and many of the original cast were jettisoned. Kai Maurer (Dieter), remembers being delivered the ‘Spanish Archer’ with the poetically-constructed: ‘You won’t be taking any windsurfing lessons this winter.’ More followed, including Kathy Pitkin, who played the ironically-named Brummie Fizz.

An amateur whose previous notable credit had been a Level 42 video, it’s hard to recall an actress who struggled so much with the art of acting, and indeed communicating. Everything fell clumsily from her mouth as if she was reading the small print from an insurance application. Fizz was to be the biggest scalp of the fire sale – dispatched in an off-screen death – but it was all too little, too late.

The cast thought Eldorado was to be their biggest payday ever when they signed their three-year contracts prior to production. The show had a massive budget, a prime-time slot and masses of hype. ‘This was my pension,’ said the seasoned Campbell Morrison who played sozzled Scot Drew Lockhead. The reality was that each new script delivered to the cast was but more kindling on the out-of-control BBQ that was flame-grilling their careers.

Back then, a success had to be a stone-cold killer, although shows now would kill for Eldorado’s figures, which were climbing steadily near the end. However, new BBC1 controller Alan Yentob wasted no time in pulling away the raffia mat almost exactly a year after the show’s launch in July 1993.

The final episode of Eldorado played out as the Spanish tried and failed to murder cockney gangster Marcus Tandy, with a car bomb. Even the hosts had had enough. The European experiment, the impossible dream, had been rejected by the British people. Sound familiar? [Cue flamenco guitar.]

Andrew Woods is a journalist, author and copywriter who has worked for the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and the Mirror; follow him @andrewjwoods

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