Whenever the quiz question that starts “name the radio soap....” comes up you know the answer’s going to be The Archers. But BBC Radio 4 did have another drama serial, another soap. Citizens is largely forgotten as it ran for just under four years and clocked up only 300+ episodes. Next month The Archers will hit the 20,000th episode.
Citizens has gone down in radio history as the drama experiment that didn’t work; the series that was “grey, drab and miserable”. But is that assessment fair?
The programme had been commissioned in March 1987 by the recently appointed Radio 4 network controller Michael Green. He thought that there was room for a second serial as the station’s drama output was skewed towards the single play. He also wanted to address the issue of the mid-morning audience dip and to attract a younger audience, those in their twenties and thirties. Aiming for something to balance the rural setting of The Archers the new serial would, perhaps buoyed by the recent success of EastEnders, be more urban, more working class and grittier.
Tasked with getting the series on the air were drama producers Marilyn Imrie, who’d been working for the BBC in Scotland, and Anthony (A.J.) Quinn, a more recent recruit and former RSC assistant director. According to publicity at the time Imrie and Quinn “decided from the start that the story would be based on five young hopefuls living in London but that it would not revolve exclusively around the capital. The lives of the central characters are inextricably linked with those of their families, in East Anglia, the Midlands, Merseyside and Scotland, and regular listeners will get to know their families on their home turf”. A working title for the series had been Mind the Gap but that was rejected (1) and a last minute decision was made to call it Citizens.
By May of 1987 a synopsis was ready but it wasn’t until July, just three months before transmission, that the characters were set and cast auditioning started. Two researchers joined the team to build up files on the characters, their back stories, their likes and dislikes, their habits. Script meetings were held nine weeks before launch and episodes recorded six weeks ahead, though this dropped to three weeks to ensure some degree of topicality.
The initial setting was 5 Limerick Road, a shabby South London house – “no proper heating and the wiring’s about to blow-up” - in the fictional London district of Ditcham, a prophetic title as four years down the line Radio 4 would indeed ‘ditch ‘em’.
The characters living at that address were:
Alexandra Parker played by Kate Duchêne. Alex is the daughter of a well-off family from East Anglia. She is the ‘landlady’ of the group. Her father is letting her live in the property but that she must be self-supporting. She has a three-month old baby, William, but the father is absent. She managed a poor degree in English just before the birth and spent a miserable summer with her folks before leaving for London. She juggles motherhood with her job at the Bread Street community arts centre.
Anita Sharma played by Seeta Indrani. Alex’s friend from university she’s the youngest daughter of an Asian family from Birmingham. She’s spent the last five years studying medicine in Leicester and now has a houseman’s job at a nearby hospital.
Julia Brennan played by Beverly Hills. From a Liverpool Irish Catholic family she’s down in London with her twin brother Michael. Julia read history and is determined to fulfil herself professionally. She’s a retail management trainee at Bott & Co. department store.
Michael Brennan played by Russell Boulter. Julia’s idealistic twin brother is the apple of their parents’ eye. Studied philosophy but dropped out before his finals and goes to London to search for direction in his life. Unlike Julia, who rejects her Catholic upbringing, Mike has a great interest in the church.
Hugh Hamilton played by James MacPherson. A working class Scot from Kilmarnock with a first in economics he has secured a job with a merchant bank. He is drawn to the idea of a high-powered lifestyle with all the hi-tech trimmings but always short of ready cash.
Ernest Bond played by Brian Murphy. The freelance catering manager lives in the basement flat with his cat Salome. (2)
Episodes of Citizens, running at about 22 minutes, aired at 11.02 each Tuesday and Thursday with an omnibus edition going out at 18.25 on Saturday evening. Many of the weekday editions were heard on long wave only (FM carried schools programmes) so will have impacted on audience engagement. A synopsis of the current storylines was on CEEFAX page 144.
The jazzy theme was written and performed by Harvey Brough, of the vocal jazz group Harvey and the Wallbangers fame. The group had already had a couple of series on Radio 2 and they’d provided the music on two BBC Scotland dramas, one directed by Marilyn Imrie and the other by her husband James Runcie. (3)
For the first year each set of episodes were all titled and the writing duties mostly fell to one of Leigh Jackson, Charlotte Keatley, Marcia Kahan, Mark Power or Mike Walker with either Marilyn Imrie or Anthony Quinn directing. Others who contributed scripts in that year included Meera Syal, Kay Trainor, Ginne Hole, Rona Munro and Alan Clews. (4)
To introduce the series Radio 4 broadcast the feature The Making of Citizens. It looks at how the characters, plots and even locations were researched, the script meetings and workshops. This is a recording of the Saturday evening 24 October 1987 broadcast. It was repeated the following Thursday morning.
The first episodes, titled A-Z, are of course, the scene-setters that focus on the key characters, all friends linked by their time studying at university in Leicester. Mike Brennan is down from Liverpool but there’s a question as to why he’s left the family home. Expect nothing too dramatic other than a lost London A-Z and a builder’s estimate for £15k. This is the omnibus version from 31 October 1987. The writer is Leigh Jackson and the director Marilyn Imrie.
The next recording I have is part two of Couples from 18 August 1988. This was from one of the weeks, every third week at the time, where some of the action moves away from Limerick Road to one of the families. Here Alex is back in Norfolk with her father played by Jack Hedley, grandfather (James Grout) and grandmother (Mary Wimbush). There are some other familiar names in the cast such as John Baddeley, Anthony Jackson (a veteran of Waggoners’ Walk), Stuart Milligan, Jane Wenham and David Rintoul. Meanwhile Hugh has financial worries. This story was scripted by Mike Walker and directed by Anthony Quinn.
Unusually Citizens was also heard on the World Service with the episodes also going out on Tuesday and Thursday (each having two repeats). (5) It garnered a cover on London Calling for October 1987 though oddly the title wasn’t given as, apparently, it was “cloaked in mystery – only the producers know and they aren’t telling until the last minute”. The World Service carried the series until it bailed out early in March 1989. One correspondent to London Calling missed it. Writing from Saudi Arabia Mrs E. Jalal said: “I’m very disappointed to see that the BBC has decided to take Citizens off the air...tuning in every Tuesday and Thursday has become very much a part of my life here. I know there are other dramas on World Service, but it’s not quite the same.” Merchant Navy man Fred Laugharne was scathing: “May I say how delighted I was to hear that the detestable series Citizens has at last been axed from the World Service. I can hardly express my loathing with which I have long regarded this programme and pray it will never sully the air waves again. The idiotic posturing and supermarket philosophies of the lifestylers of Limerick Road would be more appropriate to a teenage girls’ magazine.”
It’s fair to say that Citizens was not the success that was hoped for. Radio 4 listeners are largely change averse. The twice-weekly scheduling wasn’t great. Younger listeners were unlikely to be tuning in at 11 am on weekdays. And to cap it all the storylines were seen as “more soap box than soap opera” and “radio’s answer to watching paint dry.” Critic Hilary Kingsley summed it up as “excellent dialogue and outstanding acting but the effect is slightly dull.”
According to Michael Green, speaking in January 1989 on Call the Controller, the weekday audience for Citizens was ½ million- no worse than other programmes in that slot - whilst the Saturday omnibus, which had been between 100,000 and 200,000,had increased to 300,000 by Autumn 1988. However The Archers omnibus grabbed one million. (6)
Discussions on how to sharpen the scripts and the characters continued and early in 1989 Clive Brill, who’d been directing The Archers, was drafted in. The cast of characters was expanded and more locations introduced including the local bar The Chariots of Fire. Brill himself would direct some episodes but as Imrie and then Quinn moved on the directing duties fell to David Hitchinson, Sally Avens, Adrian Bean, Tracey Neale and Mike Adams.
In 1990 a regular Radio Times Backstage feature introduced some of the actors and the characters they played in Citizens including:
Tara Dominick as Mireille ‘the Joan Collins of Citizens’
Ben Onwukwe as Colin Jones ‘a likeable, likely lad’
John Hollis as Joe Sweeney, Ditcham’s Mister Big ‘a self-made man who hasn’t made a very good job of it’
Adjoah Andoh as JJ ‘a black Yuppie’
Mark Fletcher as Steve ‘a young Jack the lad scratching around for a few bob here and there’
Marcella Riordan as Pat Brennan ‘long-suffering wife to feckless Tony’
Richard Tate as Tony Brennan ‘he’s a compulsive gambler and a terrible womaniser’
Hetty Baynes as Suzi, ‘a bit of a lost soul who’s been through all sorts of phases and crazes, trying to find herself’
Scott Farrell who, in July 1989, took over the role of Mike Brennan ‘used to be a very right-on Christian, but he’s really upset his mother recently by getting involved with Mary (played by Alice Arnold) and her baby’
The next episode moves the action forward to July 1991, the final month for the series, and its now high drama with a kidnap situation at Limerick Road with Helen Morgan (played by Jenny McCraken) held captive by Cliff Crowley (Jeffrey Gear). This episode was written by Mark Power and directed by Adrian Bean. (7)
Other well known actors popping into the series included Adrienne Corri, Polly James, Nicholas Courtney, Sean Barrett, Norman Beaton, Carmen Munroe, Margaret John, Jo Kendall, Cyril Nri and Holly Aird. Lenny Henry appeared as himself in a Comic Relief themed episode on 4 February 1988 and Alexei Sayle on 20 December 1988.
By 1991 the axe came down on Limerick Road. According to Michael Green “to schedule something twice a week wasn’t enough” and that “we all agreed in the end, the storyline wasn’t absorbing enough, those characters were not characters that people felt sufficiently close to.” Green reflected that: “It created the opportunity to start to do more series and serials, to demolish one or two bricks in the edifice, and that allowed you to try other experiments. Citizens was an attempt to say something a bit more contemporary about British life, but I would argue that it has allowed The Archers to come of age in some ways. And radio drama suddenly became slightly more open and contemporary. So all was not lost even in things that didn’t quite work at the time”. David Hendy sums it up as “Citizens had failed to establish a foothold but...it had not really disappeared without leaving a footprint”. (8)
The final episodes aired on 23 and 25 July 1991. There are fractious rehearsals for a show at the arts centre. Julia is heading off for Spain and Hugh is heart-broken. Alex is breaking up with Neville and in the final scene it’s just her and son William. This recording, kindly donated by Nigel Hall, is of the final omnibus version. It was written by Christophe Reason and directed by Adrian Bean.
Citizens 27 October 1987 to 25 July 1991
(1) Mind the Gap wasn’t totally forgotten as it was used as episode titles in June 1988.
(2) Three of the original cast went on to play TV law enforcers with Seeta Indrani joining The Bill to play WPC Datta in September 1989, just a month after Anita’s character was written out. Also in The Bill was Russell Boulter as DS John Boulton. Meanwhile James MacPherson would play DC Mike Jardine in Taggart.
(3) The productions were Archangels Don’t Play Pinball (1986) and Porch Song (1987). For Citizens Harvey Brough composed a short opening and closing theme plus a slower piano only version that I’ve tagged onto the end of The Making of Citizens.
(4) Other writers included Christopher Reason, Graeme Curry, Scott Cherry, Christina Reid, Greg Snow, Shaun Prendergast, Jonathan Wolf, Steve Chambers, Carolyn Sally Jones, Jonathan Myerson and Shelagh Stephenson.
(5) By default Citizens was also on Radio 5 when it started in August 1990 as they took some Radio 4 programmes during the day. The simulcasts ended in March 1991.
(6) That edition of Call the Controller became infamous as Victor Lewis-Smith posing as Harold Coltart of Driffield harangued Green about Citizens.
(7) I had this labelled as 4 July 1991 but I think it’s actually from 9 July or possibly 11 July
(8) Quotes from And now on Radio 4 by Simon Elmes and Life on Air by David Hendy. It’s also worth pointing out that Citizens was recorded in stereo at a time when The Archers was still in mono and it didn’t switch over until 1992.