As the new family prepares to enter Albert Square, North-East Arts Writer of the Year, Steve Pratt looks at the - sometimes unhappy - history of ethnic minorities and soaps

Few but the most fanatical soap fans will remember Albert Square's Karim family. They stayed in EastEnders for two years at the end of the 1980s, but were quickly forgotten after moving to Bristol in the wake of an arranged marriage that went wrong.

Producers will be hoping that viewers take more readily to the latest Asian clan to move into Walford. The Ferreiras arrive next week, and much is expected of them as the BBC1 series attempts to pull itself out of the doldrums and overtake rival Coronation Street again for the title of the nation's most popular soap.

Soaps do not hold a good record for introducing minority ethnic groups, although matters have improved since a 1999 Broadcasting Standards Commission report criticised TV in general and soap operas in particular for not reflecting our multi-cultural society.

Even when such characters were introduced, complaints followed of tokenism, negative stereotyping and simplistic portrayal of their communities. The Karims illustrate that point only too well. They took over the Square's grocery store and were involved in a storyline about an arranged marriage - which only served to reinforce the stereotypical image of Asians.

Two years ago the Commission for Racial Equality research found that Britain's best-loved programmes were still falling short of representing the full range of people who live in this country. Asian communities were the most under-represented.

The introduction of the Ferreiras in EastEnders is, however, not a response to criticism. More a happy accident, according to executive producer Louise Berridge. Like the last family to move into the Square, the Slaters, the new bunch were found through casting workshops over the past two years.

More significantly, perhaps, is Berridge stating that they weren't specially looking to find an Asian family. She decided that EastEnders was in need of new, young energy and some fresh faces to revitalise the market. "We needed more testosterone to balance what was, at that time, a very female-dominated cast. Frankly, we were looking for sexy young men," she admits.

What she found was a head of the family, Dan, together with three sons, Ronnie, Ash and Adi, as well as daughter Kareena and Ronnie's best pal Tariq. The reasons for the absence of the mother will undoubtedly become clear as their story progresses.

Berridge says the situation came about because they noticed a very high number of talented Asian actors appearing at casting workshops. But she acknowledges the difficulty of integrating different racial backgrounds into existing families. With enough actors of Asian origin available, she decided to form an Asian family. The cynical might point out that the publicity value alone would make the move worthwhile, even if the family didn't catch on. At the same time, the soap could be seen to be responding to criticism that it doesn't accurately reflect the ethnic diversity of the real East End of London.

While the actors chosen for the Ferreiras aren't big names like Barbara Windsor and Shane Ritchie, two previous high profile EastEnders signings, they do have an air of familiarity about them to make viewers feel comfortable. Head of the clan Dan is played by Bollywood superstar Dalip Tahil, fresh from appearing in Bombay Dreams on the London stage. Two of the family were in the hit movie Bend It Like Beckham, one was in the Ali G film, and the best known, Raji James, was in East Is East and spent two years as DS Vik Singh in ITV's The Bill.

Not everyone was pleased with the line-up. British Indian actor Albert Moses, a committee member of actors' union Equity, called the casting of Tahil "unscrupulous". He said British Asian actors had been fighting for the last five years to persuade the BBC to bring an Asian family into the soap and added that the BBC "should be ashamed" that they gave the part to a Bollywood actor.

It's another example of how trying to integrate ethnic performers into established dramas is fraught with problems. At least, Berridge appears not to be repeating the mistake made with the Karims. The Ferreiras will be treated like any other family, whatever their colour or ethnic origin. Perhaps this is the secret of winning over viewers. Give an Asian family exclusively Asian problems, such as arranged marriages, and their appeal soon wanes. Give them the same problems as any other family - unruly teenagers, man/girl trouble, a mystery missing relative - and the public responds to them much more readily.

"Although EastEnders is a drama, not a documentary, it was good to redress the balance in Albert Square to resemble the composition of the real East End more closely," says Berridge. "At the same time we are determined to treat this family like any other. We are not going to give them storylines about being Asian any more than we would give the Mitchells stories about being white."

Soaps have successfully integrated characters of various backgrounds on an individual basis, but introducing a whole family is much trickier. The last Asian family in the Square were Gita and Sanjay Kapoor, who ambled along for five years without achieving the mega-popularity of the Mitchells or the Beales.

The Square's record is better than the Street's. Tough, gritty newcomers EastEnders attempted to reflect real life while Coronation Street remained stuck in the cosy 1960s until a major revamp a few years ago pulled it into the next century.

The first Asian family in Weatherfield arrived in 1998 and - beware, stereotype ahead - took over the corner shop. The Desai clan were behind the very counter where Florrie Lindley and Alf Roberts once served. They enjoyed mixed fortunes over the next few years.

Well-known actor Saeed Jaffrey played the head of the family, Ravi, with Rebecca Sarker as his daughter Nita and Chris Bisson, recently seen on I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!, as his son Vikram. All have departed, leaving the shop in the hands of distant cousin Dev Alahan, a randy businessman, with Sunita, who fled to Weatherfield from an arranged marriage, behind the counter. They've become key characters the same as the rest of the Street folk, whose plots have nothing to do with colour and background and everything to do with matters of life and death shared with everyone else.

Soap fans are very traditional in their tastes. When Eldorado tried to foist them off with European characters speaking in their own language, accompanied by sub-titles, the sound of the off button being pressed was deafening. Before long, all the cast had to speak English, no matter how unintelligible. The Spanish-set soap flopped horribly and expensively.

The solution might seem to make a totally-ethnic soap, although some might see this as ghettoising. The BBC tried it in the late 1970s with Empire Road, set in Birmingham and reflecting that city's ethnic mix by concentrating on the relationship between the West Indian and Asian inhabitants of a residential street. It was the first drama to be written, performed and directed entirely by black artists, but lasted just two series on BBC2.

Now plans are being made for an Asian radio soap, to begin airing daily on the BBC Asian Network next year. Again, this will be set in Birmingham. "Good soaps have a powerful connection with their audiences and the success of this one will rely on its having a finger on the pulse of contemporary, urban, Asian life," says Jenny Abramsky, Director of Radio and Music at the BBC.

Sometimes soap producers get it very, very wrong. Consider the case of the Lims, Ramsay Street's first Chinese family in Aussie soap Neighbours. They left Erinsborough hurriedly two months after first appearing on screen. Hardly surprising, given the storyline that introduced them - they were accused of eating a neighbour's dog.

* EastEnders is on ITV1, Monday-Friday, 8pm.

* Tahil's film century - Page 12