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Thursday, 27th January 2011

TV producers know the tension of waiting to see whether Series One will be followed by Series Two. But none have experienced the hurdle facing the man who produced 'Byker Grove' for nine years W Matthew Robinson.

It's not whether the ratings are good enough W more than half the population is tuning in. When Matthew checks his audience research, it's to see whether millions of viewers have changed their lifestyles. Have people started using condoms to avoid HIV? Are more mothers choosing to breast feed their babies? The fate of his 60-part drama series depends on whether there is evidence that they have changed their behaviour.

The viewers under the spotlight are in Cambodia. Unprecedented budgets have been provided by western governments and agencies to see whether a TV soap series can tackle two huge health problems. 'Taste of Life' has to take on the worst AIDS crisis in South East Asia and educate mothers to improve the current poor mortality rate for toddlers.

The audience at the RTS February event heard from the man spending that money, which includes £1m from the British taxpayer. Matthew Robinson had to get 'Taste of Life' on air after just three months' intensive training for a youthful production team including former dentists, law students, karaoke operators.

There was no trained media industry in a country which until then had mainly Chinese imports dubbed by just three people W two men and a woman. "In a scene with three women, they would all have the same voice." The first person he enlisted to get the show on air was the restaurant manager who served him breakfast. "I knew I needed the local equivalent of Andy Snelgrove to fix it W 'Byker Grove' couldn't have managed without Andy". He decided the restaurant manager was a great organizer and made him Production Manager.

They drew plans on the restaurant table and started building the next day. With no planning rules, they threw up the biggest studio in South East Asia W a huge warehouse outside Phnom Penh to house a hospital set and all the production units. Part way through, Matthew realized he'd forgotten editing W in three weeks he had two suites and a dubbing theatre.

"I quickly decided to rip off 'Angels' W we couldn't have covered so many medical themes if we based it on one or two families." But by making the lead characters student nurses, a large number of peripheral patients could bring story lines into the hospital.

Matthew set about introducing the same powerful story-led approach which he outlined to our RTS Centre some months ago before he left for the Far East. All 60 episodes were storylined, then developed by his totally inexperienced young writing team. Production values were not the only shock for the population. The content is totally new in a country where sex is not discussed. 50% of marriages are arranged; devout Buddhism means many youths spend four years as monks; prostitute hotels operate on most streets under the guise of massage parlours.

Other huge themes influence the storylines. It was only 30 years ago that a quarter of the population was murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Half of the population is younger than 20. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world W the average wage is less than $1 a day. Corruption is widespread W a Government Minister recently sacked for selling porn asked how he was supposed to live on $20 a month.

These impoverished people are used to watching television (on their battery-powered sets) costing $150 dollars per hour. The new series costs $20K a half hour. The response has been instant. After ten episodes, 60% of the population is viewing W some people watch all four repeats shown each week. Already Matthew has introduced the Cambodian equivalent of the 'Eastenders' slogan: "Everyone's talking about it". Coming up: child labour, sexual harassment, drugs, road safety, abortion and mob violence.

"I've got incredible freedom," says Matthew. Each week he takes the Mini-DV transmission tape to the broadcasters himself, and it goes on air without any checks by the authorities. His one burden is the imperative to carry those two key health campaigns. Those scripts are checked meticulously to be sure they match the messages also being carried on radio. Altogether £3.5m is being spent on the media drive co-ordinated by the BBC World Service Trust.

Will 'Taste of Life' deliver the big changes in behaviour required by the funders? That's the cliffhanger facing Matthew and the team. Tune in after Episode 60 to find out.

By Olwyn Hocking

[Matthew Robinson directed the very first 'Byker Grove' in Newcastle. He became Exec Producer of 'Eastenders', then Head of Drama for BBC Wales where he won success with 'Hearts of Gold' and 'Carrie's War'.]

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