This month as UK soap fans well know, a helicopter crashed into Emmerdale causing untold death and destruction, much tabloid media coverage, and a temporary spike in ratings. But whilst the ivory tower ensconced television producers of Emmerdale will no doubt have been celebrating, this sensationalist grab at a summer ratings boost hails yet another nail in the coffin of what was once the great British television soap opera.
How do we know? Because ‘Brookside’ – that pioneering Channel 4 soap of Liverpudlian cul-de-sac life - also resorted to a similar stunt back in 2002 in a last desperate bid for survival. But nothing could prevent it from accelerating towards its ultimate demise. And why? Because viewers were past caring.
Many mistakes can be learned from Brookside’s final years, from when the show peaked in 1995 to when it was finally put out of its misery in 2003. For in its dying years, Brookside truly created the template for modern British soap opera, as Emmerdale has proven this month. But with their careers clearly based on their ability to pull in high ratings, the producers of all the UK’s top soaps are blind to the lessons that can be learned and are instead veering towards destruction taking our much loved British soaps with them.
Soap operas were once the great tent poles of the British terrestrial TV schedules, episodes regularly attracting audiences of between 15 to 18 million back in the glory days of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Whether you were glued to the daily goings-on of life in Albert Square, or hooked on the cobblestoned comedy of Coronation Street, the thrice weekly diet of great characterisation, dramatised trivia, and fantastically devised cliff hangers had audiences tuning in in their millions.
And most telling of all, it wasn’t sensational helicopter crashes, tram crashes, serial killers, arsonists and murderers that had us returning to these shows on a regular basis; instead it was their very ordinariness and relate-ability that made them such compelling viewing.
For they told us stories that we could relate to, that weren’t too removed from our own lives. And in doing so they told us about ourselves. Whilst Albert Square and Coronation Street may share a greater sense of community than we can ever experience in modern society, the shows once revolved around nothing more than dramatising the characters daily lives, with the odd bit of romance and broken heartedness thrown into the mix. Nothing was ever too far removed from our own lives, nothing seemed absurdly false, and it was this almost parallel soap universe existing alongside our own lives that made them such a lure.
Even when Brookside ‘jumped the shark’ as many saw it and buried wife beater and child abuser Trevor Jordache under a patio, it still remained true to its principles by detailing the very ordinariness of the characters lives as they struggled to conceal their dramatic secret. Scenes showing Mandy and Beth walking on Trevor’s grave as they chatted casually to their neighbours whilst hanging out the washing gave the show a huge subtext, and proved that soap opera could indeed deal exceptionally well with bigger contemporary subject matters than it had ever tackled before. This was proven true when in late 1994, Fred West was found to have buried not one but nine bodies under his patio, making the gruesome secret of 10 Brookside Close seem inconsequential in comparison.
But what Brookside demonstrated so well with this plot is that ANY subject can be tackled by soap opera, so long as it is handled with truth, intelligence, respect and sensitivity by the storyliners.
This storyline ran for two and a half years, and as well as showing the daily agony of the Jordache family trying to keep their secret, it plausibly developed the characters, helping the audience understand the true psychological ramifications that years of cumulative domestic violence and abuse can bring.
This storyline brought Brookside to its peak, running from spring 1993 to autumn 1995. But from then on it was downhill all the way, binning compelling intelligent storylining and plausible psychological character analysis, instead resorting to accelerated shock tactics in an attempt to gain mass press coverage and pull in the viewers. Sound familiar?
In its final years, the residents of Brookside Close witnessed numerous explosions; a lurid brother and sister consensual incest plot which seemed more based on the producer’s own fantasies than any probing social evidence (I've still yet to meet anyone who is shagging their own brother or sister, but I imagine it would be a good ice breaker); the deaths of two young children in a road accident simply to shoehorn in a surrogacy plot; constant repetitious drug dealing plots that were boring beyond belief; and the already mentioned helicopter crashing into Brookside Parade.
This may sound riveting but unfortunately all this drama was accomplished at the expense of any plausible psychological character study; was often devoid of any wit or humour; and involved trite, crass, superficial writing devoid of any great social insight or contemporary analysis. It was as if the show was trying to emulate a Playstation game than be a great television soap.
As its end beckoned, Brookside became the victim of a disease that now infects all UK soap operas: the virus of sensationalism and incident over plot and plausible character development. For an explosion or a helicopter crash is an incident, not a plot. If proceeding episodes show us the long term psychological effects of such a disaster on a community coming to an eventual conclusion, this would be a story. But modern day soap characters are now such ‘one note’ depictions of humanity that any long term impact of the dramas they live through are quickly ignored, as the show’s producers scramble desperately towards stealing the next front cover of the TV listings magazines.
Look at EastEnders Phil Mitchell: he’s been shot twice; married countless times; been a crack addict. Has he changed over the years? Of course not because the writing of modern soap has all the depth and psychological complexity of cardboard. Anyone can be a murderer these days; forget the haunting mental guilt of Lady Macbeth, in Albert Square murder has become as generic as leaving in a black cab. One episode of South Park has more insight and truth than a year’s episodes of the UK soaps nowadays! Plausible, intelligent character examination has long gone out the window, to be replaced by plastic attractive one note characters who either remain the same regardless of what circumstances they live through, or who are drastically rewritten overnight to shoehorn in the latest contrived storyline.
Modern UK soap operas have become nothing more than cartoons. For while the onslaught of overly sensational plots that seem to be stolen from weekly tabloid magazines such as ‘Take A Break’ may sound great drama, they bear absolutely no relationship to the viewers or the writers lives. Weekly arsons, kidnappings, hostages, explosions, murders and returns from the dead defying the very domestic ordinariness that underpins great soap opera. The writing is thin because the writers have zero connection to anything they are writing about. It’s as if so long as the screen is kept busy - filled with shouting, violence, murders and explosions - no one will actually notice that nothing of any great substance is actually happening.
The worst thing is, soap producers now play the ‘How Do We Top That’ game, meaning their next job is to come up with even bigger dramatic stunts in the quest for media/viewer attention. So once again any sense of contemporary truth is jettisoned for sensationalism.
Viewers crave great storytelling. When soap opera is great it’s about the world we live in, a social commentary on our lives. None of the UK soaps do this now, being more about ratings and Playstation type violence than telling insightful, zeitgeist stories. Yet ironically the more the soaps scream for our attention the more we ignore them, as the increasing drop in ratings across the board proves. Any show that whispers, using subtlety, is now more likely to get my attention.
The rise of Reality TV – the land of TOWIE and 'Made in Chelsea' - depicting the trivial dramas, romances and dilemmas of modern life are closer to the great soaps of the past, and look how popular they are. Made on a micro budget, they detail the progressive lives of a relatable cast of characters living in the modern world. In fact it is true to say that the very success of Big Brother on Channel 4 is what killed Brookside, viewers more enthralled with the daily gossip of the ‘Diary Room’ than the gun toting antics of Lindsey Corkhill (who for five minutes turned lesbian by the way!)
It is argued that the huge decline in television audiences in recent years is due to the explosion of digital channels and the rise of the Internet. I disagree. I believe that people are still committed to watching hours of television a week, but are only willing to devote their valuable time to quality content, not the cartoon-like, brain dead dross that TV companies still think they can peddle out to the viewing audience. The huge word of mouth success of shows such as ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ proves this – people will actively seek out shows that satisfy their need for truthful, insightful, surprising, intelligent drama; choosing to ignore the infantile nonsense currently being dished out by our once great soaps.
The demise of Brookside is a premonition of what is ultimately set to befall the other UK soaps, unless they can get themselves back on track and start telling us the truth of our lives again. Start creating relatable stories and characters with insight, surprise and intelligence and you’ll soon see your viewership rise. But are the producers of EastEnders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale too ensconced in their unaccountable ivory towers to heed this warning? I think they are.
So what of the future? Online Web Television can offer a lifeline to this much loved but recently maligned genre, its interactivity enabling viewers to suggest the plots themselves, taking true events from their own lives to nurture original, compelling, zeitgeist narratives. This is what E-Drama’s going to do, launching in 2016.
If you’ve got a story you think is worth telling, log onto www.e-drama.co.uk and send it to us. Be part of the fight against soap froth and help bring the relevance back into soap opera, restoring it to its true power and glory.