We Didn't Start the Fire: Peyton Place - the Soap Opera

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Though it had been a best-selling novel (Grace Metalious) and a feature film, when people talk about Peyton Place, they're almost certainly referring to the soap opera that held TV audiences in its grip in the mid-1960s. One of the first soaps to break into primetime - shown on the ABC network in the USA and ITV in the UK - its heady mix of sexual intrigue, deception and betrayal cast the mould from which evolved many other melodramas, including Dallas, Dynasty and Twin Peaks. Though initially it drew flak from critics for being morally dubious, viewers loved it - it topped the ratings in America just a month after it first launched.

Most soaps revolve around families, and Peyton Place was no exception. The filthy-rich Harringtons were the descendents of the Peyton family, the founders of the town. Martin Peyton (played by George Macready) was the head of the family and the wealthy owner of a large part of the town. Much of his involvement in the show came from the many power struggles in and out of the boardroom as he challenged opposition from other businessmen. Peyton's extended family included his grandson, Rodney Harrington (played by Ryan O'Neil in one of his first major TV roles). Rodney found himself in a love triangle, having been entrapped into an engagement by the scheming Betty Anderson (Barbara Parkins) while secretly in love with Allison MacKenzie (Mia Farrow), illegitimate-but-virtuous daughter of Constance MacKenzie (former 1950s film star Dorothy Malone). Though Rodney married Betty believing she was pregnant with his child, when he found out that she had miscarried long before their wedding, he abandoned her and ran away with Allison... and the melodrama continued for five years.

Like most soaps, popular cast members came and went. Mia Farrow's high-profile departure from the show (having abandoned her husband Andre Previn for Frank Sinatra) unsettled audiences, though her character's offscreen adventures was alluded to for many years to come (one storyline saw the arrival of a woman carrying what was claimed to be Allison's child - the story's proximity to the release of Farrow's film Rosemary's Baby was unlikely to be a coincidence). However, plenty of other actors, old and young, were keen to play a part in proceedings, including Patricia Morrow, Gena Rowlands, Leslie Nielsen, Wilfrid Hyde-White and John Kerr.

In its final years, though, changes in front and behind the cameras led to a drop-off in viewers. Too few of the original stars had stuck with the show, the schedule was changed and the show was reshaped in an attempt to capture the attentions of the lucrative youth market. When this failed, the show was given its eviction notice. After 514 episodes, Peyton Place was closed down.

There have been a number of revival attempts and TV movies in subsequent years - including one that reunited many of the original cast members and finally solved the mystery of what had happened to Mia Farrow's character all those years before. But what was once shocking and fresh seems twee and way too cosy for audiences who have grown up with HBO.

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