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‘Milford Haven’ Takes On Life of Its Own : Radio: Mara Purl’s mix of a soap-opera format, environmentalism and fascination with a small California town is a hit in Britain. Now it might find a home in Canada.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It may be the unlikeliest smash hit since Andrew Lloyd Webber took a notion that “Old Possum’s Book of Cats” could be turned into a musical.

A California actress with an intense interest in environmental affairs revived the virtually extinct radio soap-opera format and produced a series based on a small California coastal town. The really odd part: This thoroughly, almost excessively, California-rooted show became a hit in Britain.

The show, “Milford Haven,” is the work of Mara Purl--the tall, brunette sister of short, blond actress Linda Purl of the “Matlock” and “Happy Days” TV shows. The cast includes both Purl sisters; Ed Begley Jr., Mara’s ex-fiance; Michael Horse; Erin Gray; John McFee; and songwriter (“The Rose”) and actress Amanda McBroom.

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After being heard sporadically on a handful of small American radio stations, “Milford Haven” found a home in England--"the first American soap opera ever bought by the BBC,” producer Purl says. But it is no longer heard anywhere in its native land.

The series was first broadcast on a local radio station in Cambria, the artsy small town on the coast between Santa Barbara and Big Sur, near the Hearst Castle. Originally making use of local environmental issues, it eventually took on a life of its own.

The stroke of luck that made the show a hit in Britain, aside from its quirky wit, came from William Shakespeare.

When she conceived the show, Purl intended to base it on Cambria. She recalled that when she appeared in Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” one of her lines was: “Meet me in Cambria, in Milford Haven.” Cambria, in Shakespeare’s day, was a Welsh name for Wales, and so she appropriated the associated name.

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“Milford Haven” went on the air in Cambria--the California one--in July, 1987, but struggled in obscurity until Purl’s parents made a visit to London in June, 1991, inspiring her to try to sell the show there.

“I thought the BBC would have zero interest in my little California soap opera,” Purl said. But she also wondered if she could use the existence of the real Milford Haven--an oil port on the Irish Sea in modern Wales--to help hook the British broadcasters.

Knowing little about the place, she asked her parents to check it out. On a half-hour visit, “they stopped in at the town hall and mentioned that I had this show,” she said.

“So pretty soon I get a letter from the head of the town council. ‘Dear Miss Purl, we hear that you have this show that carries the name of our town. Please let us know more about it.’

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“The result was unbelievable--they went over the moon with excitement. They wanted to create a relationship between the two towns, mine on the radio and theirs in Wales.”

Luckier yet, when she accepted an invitation to visit the real Milford Haven, she was interviewed by a local radio reporter.

“It turned out that the head of Radio Five, the most experimental branch of the BBC, had been hearing about my show for two years and had been trying to find me,” Purl said. “They were looking for me in the States and suddenly I popped up being interviewed by the BBC in Wales.”

The show began running on the BBC in October, 1992--at first twice a week, then three times--and was pulling an audience of 4.2 million a day from throughout the British Isles by the time its 60 episodes had been aired in May, according to senior BBC producer Neil George.

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The real Milford Haven’s town council “provided gifts and prizes for the winners of quiz competitions,” said D. B. Griffiths, the town clerk. “The creation of the soap opera had a tremendous impact on our town of 14,000,” he said, bringing in a wave of tourism by fans of the show.

Indeed, a Milford Haven restaurant now advertises itself in a tourist guide as “the place where Mara Purl’s parents ate,” reminding the show’s fans of the quirky way their visit helped bring it to Britain.

Purl had fallen in love with Cambria while performing in a play there in 1986. She continued visiting periodically while working on the TV soap opera “Days of Our Lives” and met the owner of KOTR, a small radio station there, who remarked that he had “always wanted to have our own little soap opera.” With that, she had set out to blend her fascination with the soap-opera format with her longstanding interest in environmental issues and her growing fascination with Cambria.

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She persevered through a change of ownership and sold $600 worth of ads herself to local merchants to get the show launched. It eventually was heard in San Luis Obispo, Rochester, N.Y., and a few other small American cities, but efforts to sell it to American syndicators for wider distribution were unsuccessful.

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Now, however, the series may be about to begin a third life. Purl recently signed a deal with Chuck Camroux, a Canadian syndicator, who said he hopes it will take off there as it did in Britain and eventually return to the United States, on bigger stations.

The British success means the show “is not an unknown quantity” to prospective buyers “and it’s proved it’s properly produced,” he said. “Lots of stations (in Canada) like it and with 60 shows in the can, there’s no problem showing we can supply a station for a year.”

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Meanwhile, the sister-city relationship between Cambria, Calif., and Milford Haven, Wales, continues to thrive on the afterglow of the show’s popularity in Britain.

A travel agency is setting up a tour to both cities for the show’s fans. “They’re calling it the ‘roots and branch’ tour,” Purl said, “for the Welsh roots and the California branch.

“It’s sort of art imitating life imitating art imitating life--a symbiosis that after a while you’re not sure where it starts or ends.”


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