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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 January 2008, 10:35 GMT
ITV's high concept soap gamble
By Mark Savage
BBC News entertainment reporter

Martine McCutcheon, Hugo Speer, Ben Miller and Jason Donovan
The soap and sitcom go together but will viewers get the concept?

What kind of salacious behaviour do you imagine takes place behind the scenes of a soap opera?

Well, former EastEnders scribe Tony Jordan is about to spill the beans in Moving Wallpaper - an ITV sitcom about the backstage egos, affairs and in-fighting on soap series Echo Beach.

In case anyone is in doubt about his pedigree, Jordan points out: "I was there at the birth of the Mitchell brothers, I killed Pauline Fowler, and I buried Dirty Den twice."

During his time on Albert Square, he says, it was "hard not to make notes" when he heard "grown adults arguing whether a character should be shagged or shot".

The result of that note-taking is Moving Wallpaper, a spoof behind-the-scenes expose that promises to do for soaps what Drop The Dead Donkey did for news.

Jason Donovan in Echo Beach
Echo Beach makes great use of Cornwall's coastline
The twist is that Echo Beach - which stars Jason Donovan and Martine McCutcheon - is a real soap, and will be shown back-to-back with Moving Wallpaper on ITV1 for 12 weeks from Thursday.

"It's event TV," says Donovan, who plays Daniel Marrack, a blond-haired, blue-eyed surfer not a million miles away from his 1980s Neighbours character Scott Robinson.

"No-one's going to cast me as a Geordie, are they?" he jokes.

Marrack's arrival in the Cornish surfing town of Polnarren after a 20-year absence is the event that sparks Echo Beach's central drama.

He finds himself at the centre of a love triangle with former flame Susan Penwarden (McCutcheon) and her husband, Mark (Hugo Speer).

So far, so soap opera.

Ben Miller
Ben Miller's character is described at the puppet master of Echo Beach
But viewers of Moving Wallpaper will know that the Echo Beach's plot was originally supposed to be a "metaphor for how Cornwall and its fishing industry have been let down by successive governments".

That storyline is scrapped by hotshot producer Jonathan Pope, played with scenery-chewing gusto by comedian Ben Miller.

"Ben's hilarious," says co-star Susie Amy, who plays aspiring actress Suzie Amy. (She is keen to point out the altered spelling.)

"He makes me laugh so much, which isn't hugely professional."

On arrival at the Echo Beach production office, Pope plans to sex up the show by making the writing team adopt a checklist of British Soap Awards categories as their bible.

But he soon finds most of his time is spent dealing with the demands of his cast, with Echo Beach's stars appearing as themselves in the sitcom.

Hugo Speer and Martine McCutcheon
Tony Jordan wrote many of McCutcheon's EastEnders storylines
McCutcheon makes light of her controversial exit from EastEnders in a sequence where, threatened with the sack, she bursts into tears and locks herself in the toilet.

"It was fabulous," she says of the scene.

But while she admits things ended "pretty badly" at EastEnders, she insists: "I've got too much pride and too much dignity to ever let myself go like that."

Despite the shared cast, there is no requirement to watch one show in order to understand the other.

'Like Where's Wally?'

"I only had one dream for this idea - and it is also my biggest fear - and it's that you could watch either show individually and they still work," says Jordan.

But there are pay-offs for attentive viewers.

It is great fun to watch Suzie Amy promise all manner of favours to Jonathan Pope in the hope of getting a part in Echo Beach - then watching the soap to see whether she makes the cut.

Elsewhere, unwanted gifts exchanged in Moving Wallpaper mysteriously appear on the set of the soap.

"It's very clever, almost like Where's Wally?," says Speer. "I find it very appealing."

It's a long time since I've done 24 scenes in one day
Jason Donovan
At times these knowing winks threaten to derail the very straightforward, emotionally honest drama of Echo Beach, and viewers could find themselves waiting for a punchline that never comes.

But it helps that the two shows are very different.

Moving Wallpaper is a mockumentary-style sitcom, while Echo Beach is much more polished - with aerial shots of the Cornish coastline giving it a Hollywood-style air of glamour.

"It was shot on a rather larger scale than a soap," says Donovan, who admits: "It's a long time since I've done 24 scenes in one day."

'Blue lips'

ITV will be hoping the shows get a warmer reception from viewers than the cast got on the coast.

"It was the worst summer ever," groans McCutcheon. "We did one scene where Jason's lips were literally going blue."

But Tony Jordan is convinced the concept is easier to sell on screen than it is on paper.

"It's not breaking new ground," he concludes. "It's a sitcom and a soap."

Moving Wallpaper airs at 2100 GMT on Thursday on ITV1, with Echo Beach following at 2130.

Actor Donovan cast in ITV1 soap
26 Jun 07 |  Entertainment

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