My planned Night and Day rewatch earlier this year was somewhat derailed by the re-emergence of Eldorado episodes. I’d previously gotten as far as episode 50-something (the tail end of it’s “completely sh*t” period) before they were taken down, so I jumped at the chance to “get lost in Los Barcos” again when they reappeared. Based on my thoughts and on info gleaned from various interviews and articles (check out the excellent fansite for all things Eldorado) here’s A Brief History of Eldorado. The show slots into three neat-ish periods, charting it’s rise and fall (contains spoilers).
Part 1 - A False Start - episodes 1 to 50ish
In the early 90’s, the BBC was experiencing tough times in the face of a ratings war with commercial broadcaster ITV and the pending renewal of its charter. Hoping to bolster their roster of programmes by repeating the success of EastEnders a few years earlier, they put a call out for a new soap that would anchor their evening schedules three nights a week. Veteran film producer John Dark (the original Casino Royale, Shirley Valentine) had an idea for a glamorous Dallas-esque soap about rich Brits, set among the yachts and sprawling villas of sunny Marbella. Veteran TV producer Verity Lambert (Doctor Who) got involved and while she liked the idea of a sunny soap to rival the likes of Neighbours and H&A, she told Dark that Brits liked their soaps to be working class. Lambert also said that without a Dallas-sized budget, viewers would know they were watching a pale imitation (they didn’t seem to mind with Howards Way only a few years prior). Dark said that with no background in TV, he took her word for it and let her get to reworking the idea. With the setting of Spain agreed upon, Julia Smith and Tony Holland, the dynamic duo behind EastEnders early success, were brought onboard to work out the premise. Inspired by a plaza that he happened upon while in Spain, Holland came up with Little England, about Brits abroad and the fortress mentality of their little British community in the sun. Then the BBC bosses got their hands on it….
They decided to commission Little England, choosing it over a number of other ideas including Westbeach, a soap set in an English seaside resort (it would later surface, reworked as a 10 part drama in 1993). But it wasn’t long before the BBC started breaking down the walls of Holland’s imagined fortress. The show was retitled the more exotic sounding Eldorado, as it was felt that viewers in Scotland wouldn’t watch a show called Little England. Then, seeing the potential for international sales that a more pan-European soap could offer, they began adding characters from across the continent. Irish, Spanish, French, Swedish, Danish and German characters were added to the main cast. Suddenly the fortress had been overrun by the very “foreigners” they’d been trying to keep out. Initially slated to launch in September 1992, the BBC announced that it would actually launch in July (they later claimed that the proposed September launch date was a red herring to throw ITV schedulers). A flashy press launch, a purpose built village set and the promise of “sun, sex and sangria” created much buzz. And then it premiered.
Straight out the gate, ITV tried to “strangle it at birth” by scheduling an hour long episode of Coronation Street against the first episode. They needn’t have worried too much because what made it to screen initially was awful. In their hurry to get the show on the air, the producers seem to have forgotten that one essential ingredient that all soaps require - storylines. Eldorado appeared to be a series of incidents without any great continuity. Characters just did stuff and then nothing happened. Marcus was dodgy, Miss King was nosy, Trish was brassy, Drew was a drunk. But these were just character traits and nothing ever seemed to happen to expand on these. The closest thing to a plot in the early months was the age gap marriage of Bunny and Fizz, Marcus’s pursuit of Pilar and the near affair of Isabelle and Per. There were also well documented production issues, as the beautiful replica of a Spanish old town looked great but sounded awful. The set had been built as real buildings rather than soundstages, so audio was echoing and the click clack of Trish Valentine’s stiletto heels could be heard well before she entered a scene. Add to that, the awkward mix of experienced actors working alongside people who’d never seen a script before (Patricia Brake who played Gwen, said her heart sank after the first read through while Kai Maurer who played Dieter didn't know what a read through was). Producer Julia Smith reportedly fancied herself as a bit of a star maker, after giving breaks to new talent on her previous shows. She took this to the extreme with Eldorado by hiring people with no previous acting experience whatsoever (the aforementioned Kai Maurer had been selling timeshare in Spain before auditioning). Lines were fluffed, performances were wooden, the sound was terrible, storylines non-existent and the press onslaught began. “El-Bore-ado” and “Helldorado” were just some of the headlines that screamed from the British tabloids. Ratings fell and the show became a punchline for TV reviewers, only too happy to stick it to the BBC. Action (both onscreen and off) was needed. And fast.
A Brief History of Eldorado: Part 2 - Turning the Ship Around - episodes 50 to 100ish
As the barrage continued, Julia Smith went off on sick leave and Corinne Hollingworth (EastEnders) came onboard as the new producer tasked with saving the show. She recognised that there were more isolated incidents than ongoing storylines and set about getting plots into shape. Sound issues were sorted out and odd scenes where non-English characters would speak in their native tongues (without subtitles) were dropped. They weren’t the only thing being dropped, as Hollingworth began clearing the cast of deadwood. Teen bride Fizz (Kathy Pitkin) disappeared from screens with immediate effect, as her creepy age gap romance with Bunny was dropped (Fizz would later be killed offscreen, with a pre Lock Stock Nick Moran showing up to deliver the news to Bunny that she’d washed up under Brighton Pier). Arnaud was sent off to boarding school in Paris while Trine went off to Denmark and came back with a new head (now played by future EastEnder Claire Wilkie). Presumably they couldn’t drop everyone immediately, so while we knew Dieter and the Hindle brothers were on borrowed time, they hung around like bad smells until close to Christmas (Dieter ran out of money and returned to Germany while we were subjected to a badly acted schizophrenia storyline involving the brothers, before their mother came to take them back to Blighty).
Newly arrived characters including Freddie’s long lost daughter Natalie, Rosemary’s suspicious son Stephen and Joy’s sponging boyfriend Terry added a bit of gravitas to proceedings, as they were played by people who could actually act (although some may dispute that re: Terry). Around Christmas, things finally felt like they were coming together. The new year saw new, coherent plots as Ingrid considered an abortion, devastating her devoutly Catholic in laws, only for them to soon be facing a similar dilemma. A “Who Attacked Joy?” mystery also kept things chugging along as they continued to iron out the issues while original cast members Snowy and Bunny were both written out. But it would be the shock death of another original character that would signal the show’s turning point.
A Brief History of Eldorado: Part 3 - The Sun Rises (and Sets) On A New Eldorado - episodes 100ish to 156
For me, two incidents signalled the point when Eldorado turned a corner and became a pretty good soap - the sudden death of Javier on the morning of his wedding to Ingrid and the arrival of crime kingpin Alex Morris (played by Derek Martin, who later became Slater patriarch Charlie on EastEnders). From this point on, everything felt better onscreen. The scripts, the storylines, the acting, the location shooting. The ante was upped on every level and the show really hit its stride as the deadwood was cleared out and the show began focusing on the stronger original characters, as well as the more capable newcomers & guest characters. Ironically, just as the tide began turning onscreen, the sh*t hit the fan behind the scenes. BBC had a new controller in the form of Alan Yentob and he wasn’t a fan of the sun soaked saga. As the fallout from Javier’s death played out, news broke that the show was being axed. Fans and the cast & crew were furious. Yentob offered to come out to Spain to speak to the team directly but was advised against it for fear of the reception he’d receive on set. There was talk of BBC giving the show an extra 6 months to wrap things up (meaning it would end during Christmas 1993) but the idea was rejected by the production team. Eldorado would end in July, one year after it had begun. Which was a shame, as layers were finally being added to the cardboard cutout characters that had been knocking around. The source of Marcus’ ill gotten gains was finally revealed as we discovered that he was running a people smuggling operation as well as a brothel disguised as a health club. Randy housewife Isabelle Leduc fell in love and considered leaving sex pest husband Phillipe for Rosemary’s married son. Gwen stopped moping around and began biting back at wastrel husband Drew and wayward son Blair. Roberto discovered his deceased son’s secret life on the gay scene of Costa Eldorado and began trawling the gay bars looking for answers, before confronting Javier’s secret lover Freddie. However, when the axe fell and with nothing to lose, producers started going running amok with the soapy shenanigans. After a minor argument with Marcus, Pilar ran home & married a childhood friend on a whim. Marcus slept with teenager Trine in retaliation (age gap relationships seemed to be the order of the day on Eldorado and a lot of the men were quite creepy in a way that wouldn’t fly on TV today), Trish unwittingly found herself on a yacht bound for Venezuela, as new husband Alex was trying to flee the law and Gwen suddenly announced that Drew was not their daughter’s father. Ratings actually improved in the show’s last months but it was too late for a reprieve. In the final weeks, we got a lot of satisfactory conclusions for our favourite characters but in true soap fashion, there were still plenty of cliffhangers and loose ends to leave us guessing what could happen after the sun set on Eldorado. Not that we had much chance of finding out. Unlike today, where axed series often have a chance of being revived on another network or streaming service, there was no such hope for Eldorado. A brief “Save Eldorado” campaign was launched by hardcore fans, but in the days where satellite TV was in its infancy and there were only two other terrestrial channels outside of the BBC, Eldorado would only live on via fan sites and the occasional speculation in later years that it could be revived (the purpose built village is still standing, having being used variously over the years as a film set and a paint balling venue). The will also wasn’t there among some of the cast and crew. William Ingram (Stanley) was planning on leaving after his year was up anyway, as he was unhappy with his character. There had also been ongoing battles behind the scenes over working conditions and contracts that would rage on in Spanish courts after the show had left the screens. Polly Perkins (Trish) involvement in the contract saga apparently annoyed new producer Hollingworth so much, that she said she would have sacked her if she could. Offscreen dramas aside, it’s what was onscreen that we remember nowadays. For the general public, Eldorado became a byword for bad TV. For those in the TV industry, it must make a great study in how not to start a TV show. And for us soap fans, it’s an enjoyable curiosity that’s worth the watch, mainly to see how it was salvaged to great effect after a catastrophic debut. But also, because for good and for bad, it had a mix of characters that just weren’t being portrayed on any other soap at that time. Seek it out while you can, as episodes aren’t always freely available.