River City - Scotland's soap marks 10 years

Happy Birthday River City
roisin and Raymond
Scarlett and Billy
Big Bob
Heather and Marcus, played by Stephan Dennis
river city
river city
river city
Gina and Malcolm

River City, BBC Scotland's flagship soap is 10 years old. The weekly drama, which is set in the fictional town of Shieldinch, has transmitted 838 episodes, and had seven births, 19 deaths, 11 murders, 13 weddings and 32 affairs during a decade of change onscreen and off.

Conservative MSP Annabel Goldie says she still remembers her reaction in 2002 when River City began.

"I was so impressed I called for it to be abolished," she told the Scottish Parliament during a debate celebrating the programme's 10th anniversary.

The controller of BBC Scotland at the time, John McCormick, told her the new soap would need time to bed down.

Image caption Six cast members were with the show for the first 10 years

When Miss Goldie heard a second series had been commissioned she says she thought: "The whole thing is so ghastly it will probably self-destruct and we will be rid of the whole affair."

However, she now admits to a profound change of heart.

She says: "I could not have been more wrong. I decided to watch the new series and I was hooked."

The experience of the West of Scotland MSP, who now describes herself as an "avid fan", is shared by many.

At its launch in September 2002, 780,000 people tuned in.

But a year later that had crashed to just 157,000.

Paul Samson, who plays Raymond, one of just six characters to have been in the programme since the start, says: "It was touch-and-go for the first 18 months or so."

But somehow the tide turned for River City as people grew to love characters such as Shellsuit Bob and his mother Scarlett.

It now has an average audience of 420,000 with the Sunday repeat and iplayer catch-up raising that to about 500,000.

Image caption Conservative MSP Annabel Goldie is an avid fan of River City

One of the major changes was the move four years ago from a twice-weekly soap to a weekly hour-long programme.

Donald Mackinnon, River City's current series producer, says: "When the half-hour format became an hour things changed fairly radically because we had more space to tell stories and time to let it evolve.

"It gave the writers a lot more freedom and time to explore where the actions were going and what kind of journey they were taking."

Mr Mackinnon says: "It was originally set out as a soap and we still stand-by that but we like to think we have moved on and we are more of a single drama piece. The storytelling reflects that."

Image caption Producer Donald Mackinnon says the show is more single-drama than soap

He says: "We are telling more grown-up stories."

Miss Goldie, who was leader of the Scottish Conservatives until last year, agrees, saying River City has tackled head-on challenging issues such as alcohol, still birth, homophobia, prison and drug use and reassured viewers that they are "not alone in the challenges that confront individuals and communities".

The characters of Raymond and Eileen have been in the show from day one, although they were divorced before the first episode ever aired.

However, the plot has seen them forced back together occasionally, including the birth of a child after a one-night stand.

Deirdre Davis, who plays as Eileen Donachie, says: "The characters are so enduring because they are real.

"I meet so many women who say 'You're just like my sister' or 'You're just like my pal'.

"I think these characters just resonate with people."

Image caption Deirdre Davis (Eileen) and Paul Samson (Raymond) have been in the show since it began

Samson and Davis say a decade in the soap has seen their characters completely change.

Davis says: "We're totally different. If you look back at the first episodes we were really different. I was nice and he was horrible. Now he's nice and I'm horrible."

Samson adds rather cheekily that this is because after a while the writers "latch on to how you really are".

River City shoots 28 weeks of the year in Dumbarton on the site of a former whisky bottling plant.

Image caption Stephen Purdon plays Bob Adams - still commonly referred to as Shellsuit Bob

The Strathleven Regeneration Company, which was formed after Diageo closed the plant in 2000, has estimated £140m has been brought into the area by the Dumbarton studios, which cost about £5m to build.

River City has an annual programming budget of £8.5m and employs about 200 people.

Labour MSP Jackie Baillie says the economic value of River City in her constituency is "considerable".

The show has become an important production centre but it is expensive and takes a large share of BBC Scotland's drama budget.

Despite the shift to hour-long single drama, River City has not made the network and is only broadcast in Scotland.

John Cook, professor of media at Glasgow Caledonian University, says: "It has clearly made an impact in Scotland. It is a popular drama. Its ratings do pull in a significant popular audience."

But he says: "Its ratings hover at about 500,000, which is good, but 90% of the Scottish population are not watching."

He adds: "One of the criticisms would be that it does not pull in an audience beyond Scotland.

"It is not networked at the moment so therefore its impact is just among the local Scottish population."

Image caption River City is filmed on a purpose-built set at studios in Dumbarton

Citing the example of BBC Wales which produces Doctor Who, Mr Cook says: "The danger for Scotland is that it needs to have dramas that sell nationally and internationally."

"Scotland needs dramas for export which would give it a place on the UK and world stage."

However, others insist that the Scottishness of River City is its strength.

Paul Samson says that, before River City, Scotland was the largest area of the UK not to have a soap.

Deirdre Davis agrees that River City has filled a need for Scottish people to see their own lives on screen.

"It is the only drama where people in Scotland hear themselves back", she says.

Series producer Donald Mackinnon says: "It is very important in a cultural context for Scotland to have its own voice - to tell the stories we have as a nation."

More on this story

Around the BBC