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Soaps Interview

Paul Marquess (Producer, 'Hollyoaks')

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Hollyoaks series producer Paul Marquess

© Lime Pictures

Hollyoaks has undergone massive changes in the past 12 months as new producer Paul Marquess has steered a significant revamp of the soap, writing out a number of characters, introducing new families and creating popular new storylines including Ste and Brendan's dark relationship, Jasmine's transgender struggle and a new serial killer plot. DS recently caught up with Paul for a chat about his work on Hollyoaks to date and what fans can expect from the coming months.

How would you sum up the work you've been doing since you arrived at Hollyoaks 12 months ago?
"I think Channel 4, Lime Pictures and I all felt that it was time to change Hollyoaks a lot - not to change what the essence of the show is, but I felt that there were quite a few characters who were played out, and when I spoke to the actors in question they all agreed. It's a show that's known for its youthful energy, so I just felt that it needed a new injection of energy - it needed new characters and new stories. So we ended up doing an awful lot of changes all at the same time. When you ask people about which characters we should have kept, people often name Steph and Malachy - but Carley [Stenson] and Glenn [Wallace] both wanted to go, so it was their decision and those are characters we could have done more with. And the ones who were written out were played by some really, really good actors in every case, I think - but we just felt that it was time to reinvigorate and re-focus the show. It's been one hell of a year!"

After so much hard work in revamping Hollyoaks, how close are we to seeing the finished product in terms of your vision for the show?
"I've always been very firm about 2011 being the year of consolidation for Hollyoaks. I think we've got the right people in place, I think we've got the right storylines now - and we've got our big serial killer plotline, which will run all the way through 2011. The hard work that we've done in 2010 will really start to pay off in 2011."

Brendan and Ste
Can you name anything that you're particularly proud of from your time at Hollyoaks so far?
"I think that the Brendan and Ste storyline has been fantastic - they're both brilliant and, God, you couldn't have asked for stronger chemistry than what they've got on screen. And what happens with that story in 2011 is that it really opens out - we bring other characters into it. There's a new love interest for Ste, so it turns into a something of a classic triangle. And we really explore not only what Brendan's like, but why he is the way he is. We start to explore what his fundamental problems are. So I wouldn't want to look back and say that we've done the Brendan and Ste storyline - I think it's only just started. I think regular viewers definitely feel the connection between Brendan and Ste - and even if they're apart, it's really, really, really powerful.

Jasmine Costello as Jason from Hollyoaks
"I think the other standout storyline for me - which, again, goes right through 2011 - is the transgender story. I'm really, really proud of that. That came from me saying, 'This is something I don't understand - and therefore I'm interested in it and how we'd tell the story'. And the key was during our research when we met two transgender boys who really humbled us with the hell that they'd gone through to be who they want to be and who they feel they are. That was when we knew why we were telling the story, and we've worked really hard in respecting their experiences and the fact that they shared it with us. And then we've been blessed in having Victoria Atkin, who's just amazing. In under a year, to have the story as strong as it is, I'm really proud of that and I feel really lucky to have put it together like we have."

Out of all the new characters, Brendan has received the strongest reaction by far - has his popularity come as a surprise to you?
"No, because I cast him! (Laughs) When we said that we wanted to bring in Cheryl's brother, Dorothy Andrews who does our casting said, 'I have the actor!' When she said he was from Dublin, I said, 'He can't be from Dublin - she's from Belfast!' But she said that I had to meet him, and he made an impression within about a minute. He was wearing the most mental jeans - they're quite hard to describe, but maybe it was the jeans! (Laughs) Emmett Scanlan is a really, really good actor and a fantastic character in himself. He walked in and got the part, basically. And we changed the story so that Cheryl is from Belfast and Brendan is from Dublin!"

When did you realise Brendan was becoming so popular?
"Always with Hollyoaks, you cast someone and then you wait for what feels like about ten years before you see them on screen. And then the initial reaction wasn't very positive - people thought, 'God, who is this guy?' But I could just feel the reaction turning round - and my family and friends were saying to me, 'God, who is he? He's amazing!' I think with a character like that, you have to hook the audience in with a good story. When the episode aired where he punched Ste for the first time, I think clever viewers started to get it. So it's been a good actor, a good story and he just seems to be very popular. One of my better decisions, as they say!"

The Costellos hear Mitzee on the microphone
Out of the new families you've introduced, which would you say has been the most successful?
"I think it's hard to say as they're all really different. I think the Costellos are probably the most successful because they came in with a lot of story. And when we first saw the Costellos, there was no Jasmine. I'm not for a moment saying that being transgender equals adolescence, but there is something about Jasmine's story that we can all relate to in terms of defining yourself not as your parents define you, but as who you really are. So I think that's a very universal story and a real touchstone for younger viewers. That, plus the Mitzeee story, and Riley going out with Mercedes has made them really plugged into the show.

"I think that the teenage pregnancy story has been really strong for the Sharpes, and I think that the O'Connors are still relatively new - but there's great stuff coming up for Diane and Sinead. The thing with Hollyoaks is that you live and die by your younger characters, and I think that Sinead will be really central in 2011. And I think you'll see much more of Seth, much more of Riley and much more of the Costellos."

The O'Connor family were quite quiet in terms of storylines after their debut - was there any reason why they had to take a back seat?
"With Hollyoaks, it's normally just the schedule! It's pretty dull! Because we shoot single camera, it takes us about three times as long to shoot as the other soaps. Due to that, I've had to learn how to tell stories on Hollyoaks - it's been quite a learning curve. We do five episodes per week on single camera, and all of our sets are built as real, so there's all sorts of noise issues. It's like three-dimensional chess, storylining Hollyoaks - so if you don't see somebody for a while, that's usually why and it usually means they're about to become really busy!"

What kind of challenges have you faced in the past year?
"It's been new for me to do something that's so focused demographically - that's taken me a while to get my head around. As we sit and beat out stories, it's about ensuring that - for example - the Carl, Mercedes, Riley love triangle is really about Riley and Mercedes. Many of our writers are male and a little bit older, so it's really easy for them to identify with Carl - but actually it's not his story.

Silas
"And that's why I think the serial killer story is a perfect Hollyoaks story, because we're playing the serial killer as the bogeyman. It's actually not about him - yes, he's quite interesting because he's killing people - but it's about what Texas feels about it, what Nancy feels about it and which of the young people might be murdered next. So for me, I've had to be really focused on who the show's about and how our stories will resonate with our key demographic. It's not as easy as it sounds, and there are stories that are pitched for Hollyoaks that I would play somewhere else, but I'd say no to here for that reason."

You've injected the fun back into Hollyoaks but also explored some quite dark topics like the domestic abuse, Jasmine's self-harm and the new serial killer storyline - can we expect more dark plotlines to come?
"I think there has to be a balance. There's lots of things that we wouldn't do, and when we do come up with a murder story, we try to think quite hard about why that's a Hollyoaks story. So the serial killer storyline is about someone who's picking off young girls - it started as a stranger danger story, which is absolutely key Hollyoaks territory, and I was slightly surprised that we hadn't done something as big about stranger danger on the internet before, or at least recently.

Leanne and Lee
"There's also plenty of comedy in 2011 - there's some really funny McQueen stuff coming up and some great Lee and Leanne stuff. Leanne is fast becoming one of my favourite characters - she turns into a real bunny boiler in 2011 and does terrible things to poor old Amy. The other thing that we'll be playing a lot of in 2011 is first love - classic teen love stories that are absolutely at the heart of Hollyoaks and ought to be - and perhaps there wasn't enough of them in 2010. I've been pushing the story team to focus on a really sweet love triangle we've got going on in 2011 with really cool characters."

The fans recently noticed that some changes had been made to episodes at the last minute - looking back, do you think that was the right thing to do?
"Absolutely. Hollyoaks is made by an independent production company and we reserve the right to make the episodes as good as they possibly can be. If you've got a good idea, why not just do it? I think the main irritation for people was that the spoilers were wrong and some of the billings were wrong, and I know that's a pain. But I think what's been on screen has been really exciting. It's something that we reserve the right to do, but we'll only do it if we think it will make your viewing experience better - at the end of the day, that's all that matters. It was just a couple of things where we thought an idea was too good not to do, and just saying, 'Well, it's all shot' wasn't a reason not to change it."

What do you think about the viewing figures at the moment? Do you have a target for where you'd like them to be?
"We never have that discussion, because the demographic is as important to Channel 4 as the actual figure. I think that they've consolidated and, of course, we'd like them to go up. We feel very strongly that we've got some big, meaty long-running stories coming up in 2011 that should gradually drive people to the show. The feedback for Hollyoaks has definitely changed - it's so much more positive now. People are talking about the stories and talking about the characters - not just being negative about the show. That was always the job, what I call the word of mouth effect. 2010 was about word of mouth, and 2011 is about really building on that goodwill and pulling in new viewers. I think we're on plan."

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