Looking back at Eldorado


Unbelievably, a full two decades have now passed since Eldorado left our screens. What happened there?

It has been heartening though, to see that interest in the show seems to be higher than ever, no doubt much to the annoyance of the BBC’s upper echelons. As a reminder, Alan Yentob was responsible for axing the programme less than a year after production began, very shortly after being appointed Controller of BBC1. He later told The Guardian he cancelled it because it ‘wasn’t good enough’, before going on to commission another soap called Castles, which was a huge success and highly memorable. Ahem.

Yentob despatched his Head of Drama to the Eldorado set in March 1993, to deliver the bad news to the cast and crew. Many have never forgiven him for the decision, with all sorts of theories as to the motivations behind it.
  
With 20 years' distance, it’s interesting to look at the history of the show, one of the most ambitious television projects ever undertaken. In conjunction with two independent production companies, Verity Lambert’s Cinema Verity and J Dark y J Todesco, the new BBC soap had been talked about for months before it arrived on screen. Creators Julia Smith and Tony Holland had previously brought the UK audience EastEnders, which had been running for more than 7 years by the time Eldorado arrived in July 1992.

Smith spoke to Radio Times about the show and what she hoped it would achieve, in the weeks running up to its launch. ‘The inescapable fact’, she said, was ‘that the English are bloody racists. They still talk of Krauts, Frogs and sneer at brilliant Spanish cooking as ‘foreign muck’’. She was asked what she would do: reflect it, parody it, or try to change it. ‘All three’, she replied. ‘But finally, I hope, the latter’.

Looking back, you wonder if she was right, and whether this attitude was a factor in much of the negative coverage of the show and its untimely and highly premature demise. Her dream of ‘people learning to be real Europeans’, was possibly just too much to ask at the time. ‘We are in 1992’, Smith said, ‘the year of Europe. But being out here you realise how little progress we have made… people are as narrow as ever’.

Much of the press coverage the show received did little to contradict this view. But anyone who actually watched Eldorado on an ongoing basis well knows that long before its cancellation, the programme had addressed its early issues, becoming a refreshingly different soap offering a variety of engaging storylines. Following the cancellation announcement, no lesser man than the late Clement Freud wrote a rather touching open letter imploring Yentob for a reprieve, clearly endeared by the show’s characters.


It’s not only its fans who recognise the show’s value. Nicholas Prosser, one of the programme’s directors, said: ‘I thoroughly enjoyed directing 9 episodes during my 4 months’ stay. It wasn't until my return to the UK in December that I really appreciated the potential for this programme. Off air, I viewed the programme until its conclusion the following spring and I observed its improvement from its very shaky beginnings to offer a real contrast to its competitors. Of course there was still much more to be accomplished in many departments but this project still had a great deal to offer. So for me, the decision to axe it, particularly with such a high degree of investment, was both a mystery and a tragedy’.

Writer Gilly Fraser also sees that potential: ‘I worked on Eldorado right from the initial concept by Tony Holland and Julia Smith. The show was to be about the Brits in Spain, with of course Spanish characters and a few from other countries, but basically about the Brit community. It then became far too overreaching and overblown, however, it was a great concept and there certainly is room for a tighter, simpler version on our screens now, possibly on daytime TV. I am sure it would be very popular’.

Former Eldorado crew member Paul Davies began a campaign to revive the programme in the BBC’s in-house magazine Ariel, in 2012. He notes the show’s enduring appeal: ‘Like the mythical city of gold, Eldorado continues to cast its spell. Audiences crave a return to quality drama under a blazing Costa sun’. It’s surely fair to say that Eldorado has a special place in the heart of its fans that most other defunct soaps simply don’t (Albion Market, anyone?)

 Nice work.

Perhaps times have changed, in these days of the EU, cheap flights to mainland Europe and Scandinavian crime dramas, and audiences are now more receptive to a programme featuring foreign accents (something of a rarity back in the early 90s). Maybe – with the subsequent rise of the internet – fans who were always there in the first place now have the opportunity to make their support of the show known.

The question is, should there be a new Eldorado? Could it replicate the charm of the original, without the majority of the 1992 cast? A re-run, a box set and a little contrition from Yentob would be nice, although one suspects Los Barcos may need to freeze over before any of these were forthcoming. It seems that Eldorado is still a dirty word at the corporation. The Yentob kinda lingers at the BBC and present Director of Television Danny Cohen is thought to be less than enthused about even contemplating a revival… tsk. Man up BBC and give the people what they want!

The original production may not have been without its troubles, but with plenty of public interest in the show even after 20 years, and the benefit of hindsight, could it be worth considering?

Nicholas Prosser: ‘In any consideration to resurrect it, I believe there would now need to be many questions answered, but if I was in a position to decide, certainly I would be receptive to proposals and I would make the decision based on the content of the application with a firm eye on the financial practicality’.

Find out how Eldorado’s actors feel about their experience on the show, and the idea of a revival, in brand new interviews here.

Interview with Sandra Sandri


Sandra Sandri (Pilar Moreno)

Sandra Sandri appeared as Spanish runaway Pilar Moreno from Eldorado’s opening moments – and spoke its very last word! This alone makes her a legend. Inbetween, Pilar worked at the stables, became good friends with Ingrid, got kidnapped and briefly married childhood friend Sergio. Pilar was memorably in a tempestuous on-off relationship with resident villain Marcus Tandy. Even though he was obviously a complete bastard.


How was your experience of working on Eldorado?

Eldorado was very nice. I was very very young, I think if it happened to me now I would do some different things, but it was very happy.

Did it feel a pressure, being part of something so big at a young age?

No, no, no… the people from Eldorado took care of us very well. The only problem was the press weren’t very nice to me. But the people from the cast and the crew were very nice.

Do you have nice memories of working with anyone in particular?

Well, Jesse Birdsall… and with Fizz (Kathy Pitkin), and also the crew.

Where do you think Pilar would be today? Would she have stayed with Marcus?

I don’t know, I never thought about it! I don’t think Marcus would be with a woman of 40 years old, he’d probably have two or three 20 year olds!

I can’t imagine Pilar with Marcus with children, having a family life. Maybe I would be a nasty woman, more than Marcus! Because Pilar was very nice but she was also a hard woman.

Would you want to be in Eldorado again if it returned?

Yes, absolutely…when I think about Eldorado it was great, apart from the press. These days we are used to this very bad press, people telling lies, but 20 years ago I didn’t know anything about it. I don’t remember that being very nice, but for the rest, I enjoyed it. 
 
It was hard work, really hard work. We had almost no days off for holidays but it was really fun as well.

Interview with Framboise Gommendy


Framboise Gommendy (Isabelle Leduc)

Framboise Gommendy played flirtatious French authoress Isabelle Leduc. In a somewhat open marriage with tennis club owner Philippe, they intermingled memorably with Danes Per and Lene.

Isabelle was a very feisty character, totally unashamed of her infidelity. Was there much of you in her?

No, very little. She is somebody very pretentious, also a bit of a racist, always perfectly dressed and made up. Very far away from me! Only thing that was mine, was the fact she was playing squash... Tony was happy for her to play squash, and he included that in the character.


Photo: Sarah Robine
Did it worry you when actors started to be axed from the show? Was it a difficult atmosphere to work in?

No, absolutely not. I never got worried for that. I never believed the show would get axed either. That proves how clairvoyant I was/am...
   
How did you feel about the cancellation?

't was for us all involved a tragedy when Eldorado was axed. And we, as actors, kept a bit of a stigma, as if we are that bad that they had to stop the show. Ehrrr, nope. I thought that despite the conditions we were working under - no make-up artist, locations very far one from the other, 1 or 2 takes only as we had to do so many minutes per day, texts from one day to the next, etc - we did an awfully good show. The crew certainly worked their cameras off and the actors, well, did their bit too.

If Eldorado were to return, would you want to be part of it?

Yes, definitely. Well, why would it be bad really? A bit of fun, gorgeous girls and boys next to the pool, under a warm sun, that can't be all bad, can it? As for Isabelle, I would love to see her back, creating trouble again! Although I'm no writer and would luuuuve to act whatever would be thrown at me, I would see her working with young people - organising tennis camps in her clubs, gorgeous boys and girls, or running a model agency on the coast. We have several in Nice, France, and it would bring the opportunity to get young attractive actors and actresses on the set.

Have you stayed in touch with any of the cast?

Faith Kent (Olive King) and Mervyn Cummings (director).

Is there anything else you would like to mention?

I so miss John Maynard, Tony, Verity and Julia. They will always be a part of me, a part of my present, just because they gave me my chance.

Interview with Patch Connolly


Patch Connolly (Snowy White)

Patch Connolly played Los Barcos’ Irish handyman, Snowy White. On the surface a rather eccentric, happy-go-lucky type, always on hand to paint your wall or fix your fridge, Snowy hid a tragic past which led him to leave Ireland and start a new life in Spain. While always one to spread the local gossip, he didn’t appreciate others prying into his own business. 

 
How did your casting as Snowy come about?

Being cast as Snowy White led to one of the most remarkable and eventful engagements after 22 years of theatre, television, films and light entertainment. I had just completed a world tour of The Tempest for the Oxford Stage Company and was working at the Liverpool Playhouse on Once a Catholic when Julia Smith and Tony Holland requested me, through my agent, the late Sheridan Fitzgerald, to audition. I travelled down on the early train, met them at midday and by the time I got back to Liverpool for the evening performance they had rang to say I had been successful.

The audition comprised a lengthy informal chat and the character Snowy appeared to be right up my street – slightly eccentric, a very un-handyman with a good ear for gossip. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and if playing the character now I would approach it very differently, using my own personality and voice, with a shifty ingredient of annoyance and frustration.

How did you feel about the way the BBC was handling the project?

Because the original concept of Eldorado was moved from 9, to 8 and eventually a 7 o’clock showing, it lost most of its impetus in original gutsy storylines. Consequently, the new watered-down scripts were arriving the night before shooting and still had to be performed the next day. And, unlike a ‘soap’ produced in England, these new scripts had to be shot in 35 degrees of heat. On top of this, someone higher up on the executive side had decided to bring the programme forward by 6 months, even though the set was not completed and no essential pilots were planned.

Of course, as the weeks and months passed characters did develop, including Snowy, but by then, the hierarchy had decided it was not to their liking. There were justifiable complaints about the £10 million lost in setting up the project - small fry compared to the recent losses of £100 million on some unsuccessful computer program for the BBC.

When the late Julia Smith, the producer and creator, with the experience of Angels and EastEnders behind her, was abruptly removed after 6 weeks, another strange executive decision, many of the actors were deeply upset and the natural development of Eldorado’s long-term future lay in tatters. The parasites of the press had a field day but everyone, even those actors who knew their days were numbered, carried on working in the most professional manner.

Improvements were implemented, storylines tightened and sound difficulties resolved – even some of the buildings were now completed. The working day was reduced from 15 hours to 10 and we all had a little more time to absorb the new scripts and even relax on the Sundays by the swimming pool.

How was the experience of living and working in Spain?

I personally loved working in the warmth of the sun, visiting places of interest on my day off such as The Alhambra Palace in Granada and delights of Seville. My family joined me and worked as extras in many of the episodes, enjoying a strangely extended holiday, mixing with the other actors and their families.

All the directors and crew were extremely patient, in very difficult circumstances. Among them, the inexperienced actors, the mixture of accents, the incomplete buildings, sound problems, the 25-mile journeys between locations and the unseen pressures from executives and press. Although I had worked before in television these particular directors were most understanding and I have much to thank them for, especially Ian White, Nick Prosser and Henry Foster.

Jesse Birdsall (Marcus Tandy), Faith Kent (Olive King), Patricia Brake (Gwen Lockhead), Bill Lucas (Stanley Webb), Kim Romer (Per Svensson) and Darren Newton (Gavin Hindle) were consummate professionals and a joy to work with and ‘Trish’ kept us all in high spirits in those moments of madness and mayhem.

In 11 months I had learnt so much about the technique of television, what goes on behind the camera, the editing, scripting etc, but most of all about actors themselves, their egos, temperaments, ambitions and lifestyles.

The dear departed Verity Lambert fought so hard for us all and I did think the programme would survive, but a month after my departure it all ended in tears. I was personally sad for those left behind to face the final episodes.


What have you been up to since Eldorado?

Life was a little difficult on my return to England but worked slowly picked up and I was soon back on stage in The Cherry Orchard. This eventually led to films including Edgar Wright’s cult masterpiece, Shaun of the Dead – playing a tramp, eating pigeons!

I wonder what Snowy would have thought of that or even my roles in Sketchy, a delightful Irish television sketch show, playing an undertaker, randy sailor and gentleman of crime? Other recent roles have included an old farmer, John Lester, in a film called The Race and more recently, a gravedigger, in the touching Oscar-winning short film, The Shore, directed by Terry George.

How would you feel about Eldorado returning? Would you want to be involved?

There are many untold gritty stories still awaiting on the Costa del Sol – crime, murder, madness, love, passion, distress and the Eurozone to name but a few. Perhaps, beginning with a smaller cast, a return of Eldorado is possible. The Norwegians appear to have cracked a splendid format which, with a little British adjustment, could be what Julia Smith and Verity Lambert’s vision would have been. And some humour – what our current ‘soaps’ sadly lack is some real humour.

Perhaps Snowy, on returning after a long journey from Ireland, and in a deeply drunken state, finds a stiffened body which resembles the inimitable Bunny. Without hesitation, Snowy proceeds to organise ‘The Wake to end all Wakes!’ inviting a few of the old characters along as well some new ones … and … Bunny turns up … for his own wake! This is just to let you know I am available now!

Interview with Polly Perkins


Polly Perkins (Trish Valentine)


Real-life expat Polly Perkins played club singer Trish Valentine. Best friend to bar owner Joy, she worked in Marcus Tandy’s video shop, and was initially seeing young German surfing instructor Dieter, later reuniting with old flame and Marcus’ dodgy boss, crimemonger Alex Morris.


How did you come to be cast as Trish?

I bumped into Tony Holland and Julia Smith, the producer, and I said I would like to change my career - I was doing cabaret all over the coast and I was already 48 and thought it was time to do something else. I said to Tony, ‘Can I not change my career now and become a researcher on Eldorado?’ He said ‘No, because I’ve written you in it!’ He said, ‘We’re going to call you Trish Valentine, and you mustn’t tell anyone about it’, which as everybody knows I never did (!)

I said ‘Tony, does it have to be Trish? I’d really like to be Rose’, and he said I couldn’t be Rose because there was already a Rose written into EastEnders. She had never appeared at the time but she was mentioned. And bugger me, 20 years on who do I play? Rose! Dot Cotton’s tarty, geriatric sister!


You were quoted at the time as saying your only problem with doing sexy scenes with Dieter was there weren’t enough rehearsals!

I said that because it’s the sort of thing that Trish would say. She is closely based on me, except for my personal life! When I said it, it didn’t occur to me that people would believe it, but I do generally play rampant heterosexuals of all ages! 

On rehearsals, I don’t remember ever doing a rehearsal, only a read-through and a technical run. Also the same in EastEnders. I’ve never known it in soaps. They might do it for big, important scenes, but I had a few important scenes and there was no rehearsal.


Did you feel the criticism of the younger actors was unjustified if they didn’t get a chance to practice?

I think it wasn’t their fault, it was the casting. Julia had this idea of getting real type of people, but real people can’t act, necessarily. It’s not a documentary. I think she felt that because it was a real place, she would get real people. I don’t know what was behind it but she wanted it very real.

The problem wasn’t the young actors - it wasn’t their fault, they were cast above their level. Kathy Pitkin, who played Fizz, was a sweetheart. She was having lessons and doing quite well while she was doing Eldorado, but some of the others were under the impression they were marvellous just to have got the job! But they weren’t bad people, they were fine.


Did you feel the scripts reflected the ex-pat lifestyle? Did the writers ever come out to Spain?

The writers did come out to see us, John Maynard came out, and Gilly Fraser and some of the female writers. Over the year there were so many stories. All of the extras were my neighbours, they could have all told fantastic stories! And everything that happens over in England happens here.

I had a meeting with the writers - Tony Jordan, Tony McHale and others - and they wrote for me absolutely brilliantly. They wrote for Trish, and it was right. It’s the persona I use doing what I do, and they also got the person behind that. And I think a lot of that was because they came to see me work. At one pub performance, I had just broken my foot, and then that got written into the script!

When Dieter left after 6 months, they said they were going to keep me on. I said, ‘Thank God for that!’ And I asked them, ‘Do I have to have another young boy?’ I was really worried I would get a lot of write-ups about this worn-out old tart with this pubescent boy! I said, ‘Can you not get me a Mr Big, someone from Trish’s past?’

Luckily they got Derek Martin who was a joy to work with. It was so right and made the soft side of Trish come forward, and all her back-story. If they bring it back, he’ll have to come back and I’ll have had a secret love-child that he never knew about because the show didn’t run long enough for me to tell him!

Alan Yentob?

The BBC have been very good to me lately, but I feel that Alan Yentob was entirely the wrong person to be in charge. He’s an artsy-fartsy person, who prefers to be in front of the cameras by the look of it, doing intellectual programmes – which I do enjoy - but what has a man like that got to do with soap? I worked with David Liddiment once (former ITV director of programmes and Coronation Street executive producer), who was an expert on soaps. And I’m a bit of an expert on them too, because I really like them.

You look back on it all as more positive than negative?

Oh totally, I think it was just a waste. They made a lot of mistakes and there were 3 different companies involved for no particular reason. John Dark (executive producer) told me he was disappointed the show wasn’t more glamorous, more ‘Marbella’. I think that would have been a good contrast, and show it wasn’t just the Brits who had brought England with them, like Campbell Morrison and Patty Brake’s characters who moved their house to the sunshine.

If the show had run longer they could have done more, and there are all sorts of characters they could have found, who I see here in Spain. If they had had more time and more knowledge of what goes on here, they could have developed these characters who have an interesting past. With other soaps, like Coronation Street, you find out about the characters’ backgrounds and they’re in it for years… Eldorado never had a chance in 1 year.


Do you feel there has been more interest in the show in the last couple of years?

Yes, I’ve noticed that. People have come up to me and said, ‘It’s you, you’re Trish!’ When they ask what I’ve been doing and I say, ‘I’ve just been in EastEnders’, they say, ‘Oh yes, I heard about that!’ But they know me for Trish, and I thought, ‘That’s Eldorado for you!’ But the BBC won’t give it a go for whatever reason, perhaps because they consider it failed. No one’s ever told me.

Have you kept in touch with anyone from Eldorado?

When I was doing some work in the UK, I was in touch with Leslee Udwin (Joy Slater), I loved working with her. It was a lovely relationship we had, and nobody questioned it – which was odd, because she was playing a middle-class, posh woman of status, and Trish was as common as - whatever. It was wonderful the way they wrote that. The writers, like Tony Jordan and Tony McHale, were what I call old-school, they got into the nitty-gritty of the characters. With writers like that, if they had kept with the same people, in another year Eldorado would have been fine.