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Himbos,bim bos and raunchy story line; As Hollyoaks celebrates its 1,000th episode, star Nick Pickard reveals why he is as hooked on the soap's winning formula as its three million viewers. Peter Elson reports.

Byline: Peter Elson

IT HAS shamelessly built an appeal on presenting hunky young blokes and gorgeous young women to a teatime television audience. But Hollyoaks' godfather, executive producer and original writer Phil Redmond, is far too smart an operator to rely solely on sex appeal.

He has had the no us to deliver entertaining story lines to keep the audience interested in what the fictional Chester bimbos and himbos are up to.

However,many might think that some of the raunchy story lines perhaps go a little too far in the name of entertainment. Especially as the main viewers at this time are jaded mothers keeping one eye on the set and the other on junior's consumption of fishfingers. Still, who are we to carp? After all,more than three million addicts are now hooked on the drama. It has survived the departure of some of its biggest stars, besides the early sneers of TV critics,and is now celebrating its 1,000thepisode.

Taking as its template the casual style of the Australian soaps and the raunchiness of the American older teenage product could have been a recipe for disaster. Somehow Redmond and his team have pulled off a British version that has gone from strength to strength since it was launched in 1995, and soon it will be screened five times a week.

Nick Pickard, who has played hapless Tony Hutchinson in the soap since it started,admits that, in the early days, the drama's future looked less than secure. He says: ``When we started,it took a bit of a hammering from the press.

``I think it was seen as a bit of a joke - people were always laughing at the show and telling me it was rubbish. We never ever thought it would still be going strong eight years later.''

The first contract for the Channel 4 show, which was penned by Redmond himself (having already launched Liverpool-based soap Brookside and the school drama series Grange Hill), only ran for six months and it was then taken off the air.

``We thought that might be it, but then we camebackand did two episodes a week,'' says Pickard.

Nestled into an early evening slot, the show proved a teatime ratings winner and its weekly output was boosted from two to four. The Sunday omnibus edition is a boon to hung-over students, apparently.

PICKARD, 25, who is aLondoner, is frank about why the drama has become so popular (and it's not the IQ of the cast). He says: ``There's a lot of eye candy on the show - why do you think I've stuck around so long?

When I come in for work,I'm surrounded by eight or nine gorgeous girls. They've always cast good-looking girls and boys on the show. Sex sells.''

Hollyoaks also offers something else that steals a march on the other soaps on TV, he believes.

``The show's livelier and more humorous than soaps like EastEnders which is more true to life than Hollyoaks,'' he says.

But the show has gone along way to shaking off its frothy, frivolous image by tackling increasingly sensitive and gritty issues over the last four years.

Pickard says Hollyoaks' defining moment over the last eight years was when it tackled one of the last remaining taboos of British TV,male rape.

The assault itself wasn't screened in the usual teatime slot but during a late night special with actor Gary Lucy as the victim. Even then it was not to everyone's liking, but it shifted Hollyoaks up to a new level of status.

Pickard says: ``You see a lot of the same types of story lines doing the rounds on the soaps,but the male rape story was quite ground breaking. MPs were even asking questions about it.''

The actor does feel a sense of responsibility to the programme's audience when he has covered sensitive issues like testicular cancer.

He says: ``You do feel responsible but Tony is the token doughnut on the show and he's always getting into trouble so I don't get a lot of the serious stuff.''

After nearly eight years on the show, Pickard admits he has thought about following in the footsteps of Will Mellor (now in Casualty), Jeremy Edwards (Holby City) and Gary Lucy (Footballers' Wives) and leaving the Hollyoaks family.

``I've been tempted,especially when you see where Gary and Jeremy havegone. But I like what I do and when that stops then I'llmove on. I'll probably regret it one day.''

Pickardhas had a lot fun over the years on the show but, unsurprising-ly, the highlight has been going abroad to make specials.

He en thuses: ``When we've been away to film in Ibizaand Barcelona it was like going on a schoolouting.''

Though Pickardloves to see what the script writers will come up with next, he admits he was ``shocked'' when he read Tony was about to embark on an affair with middle aged mother-of-two Helen Cunningham.

``I'm going out with the old lady at the moment. I get on well with Kathryn (who plays temptress Helen) but it's weird when you suddenly have to be necking her. We just got on with it and did it. It's embarrassing when there's a cut and you don't really know what to say to eachother.''

The chirpy actor is loving life as an adoptedLiverpudlian.

``I live in Liverpool and I love the city. Scousers just crack me up as they've got such a great sense of humour.''

Away from the camera he loves playing squash and football and regularly plays and manages Mersey TV's football team. Pickard thinks the show could go on for another 1,000 episodes. But will his character Tony still be around then? He smiles: ``We never know but I hope so. I'm really enjoying it here.''

8 Hollyoaks celebrates its 1,000th episode today,on Channel 4.

CAPTION(S):

A TOUGH LIFE: Apart from his steamy new plot-line,top left, Nick has to work with some of the best looking co-stars on television
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Apr 21, 2003
Words:1003
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