BBC TV’s Eldorado – 1993

A legendary lemon, Eldorado was BBC TV’s new soap opera for the 1990s. Conceived as Spain became second home to many Britons, it was supposed to replace the gritty realism of no-frills urban drama like EastEnders and Coronation Street with the sun-kissed bounty of sea, golden beach and sizzling paella.

The set was purpose-built at Coin on the Costa del Sol. With a fountain at its heart, and multi-level nooks and crannies to provide an infinity of camera angles, it was an urbanization of arches, steps and white stucco so typical of Spanish developments of the era. Its drawback was the ex-pats who ‘lived’ there: how could they be constantly complaining when they had already achieved the nirvana of living it up in lotus land? Even in Australian soaps like Neighbours and Home and Away, the beach and the glorious weather were mere extras. The action should have been head-to-head in the kitchen or garage. The psychology of an intimate, daily, domestic drama didn’t work in what looked like an open-air holiday haven.

Mismatch apart, the early scripts were nearly as awful as the amateur acting – but those were faults that could be and were (nearly) set right. Far away at Television Centre, the greater threat to Eldorado was a new Controller, temperamentally committed to restoring the BBC’s high moral purpose. Populism was fine, as long as it wasn’t just a rehash of something already covered by independent TV. Big-budget populism that swallowed funds which could have paid for more edifying drama drew scowls and pursed lips. Despite a regular audience of five to six million towards the end of its run, Eldorado closed. At a cost of £10 million, it was a disaster for the BBC’s managers – but quite good value for a national joke.

When: July 1993

Where: Coin, Costa del Sol, Spain, and London, UK

Toll: The BBC effectively abandoned Eldorado long before it was finally cancelled; and the nature of its demise explains why, ever since, the BBC has avoided launching any new soaps in favor of financing drama series like Casualty, allowing them to be developed in a soap-like fashion once their ‘brand’ has been established. As for the series itself, memory plays strange tricks, and in retrospect it has never been more popular – as it showed every sign of becoming had the BBC not had John Birt as Director General, whose unfavorable opinion nobody dared disagree with.

You should know: One of the best-ever ‘episodes’ of Eldorado was the satirical sketch on The Ruby Wax Show, starring Ruby as an ‘extra’ in mantilla and castanets. She exactly captured the so-bad-it’s-really-good response that kept millions watching the soap while it slowly improved.

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