Mark Fowler. Hayley Cropper. Colin Russell and Barry Clark. Baby Ruairi McDonald. A few people who’ve done a lot to change attitudes in British society, despite the fact that they don’t actually exist: they’re characters in soap operas. Book Bub keeps sending me adverts for “historical fiction” which is set ridiculously recently, so, if it can do that, I can count soap opera storylines from the 1980s and early 1990s (ahem, and some considerably more recent ones) as being “set in the past”, right 😉 ?
Soap opera storylines are much in the news at the moment, amid concern that they’re becoming too dark and that soaps are no longer entertaining. Controversial storylines in the last few weeks have included the male rape of David Platt in Coronation Street, and the acid attack on Ross Barton in Emmerdale, and the next one’s going to be a knife attack on Keegan Baker and Shakil Kazemi in EastEnders.
However, no-one seems all that bothered about the death of Abi Branning in EastEnders. OK, that could be because the character was so annoying! But it’s probably because the storyline – yet another character falling off the roof of the Queen Vic – was so OTT. Everyone’s fed up to the back teeth of Pat Phelan’s serial killings in Coronation Street and the silly gangster storyline in EastEnders, but they don’t seem to be attracting the same level of coverage; and that has to be because they aren’t really part of real life. As a general rule, serial killers do not prowl the streets of Manchester and Salford, East End pubs aren’t usually targeted by gangsters, helicopters do not crash on to wedding receptions in the Yorkshire Dales and schools do not blow up in Chester. It’s the real life “dark” storylines that get people – because they remind us that these sorts of things are really going around us, and that we need to be aware of them.
A few of the subjects tackled over the past year or two. I’ve already mentioned male rape – previously tackled by Hollyoaks – in Coronation Street, acid attacks in Emmerdale and the tragedy of a late miscarriage, just too early even to be classed as a stillbirth, in Coronation Street. We’ve also had Paul Coker’s murder by homophobes in EastEnders, Linda Carter being raped by her brother-in-law in EastEnders, the grooming and sexual abuse of Bethany Platt in Coronation Street (a subject previously tackled by EastEnders, with Whitney Dean), Ashley Thomas’s early onset dementia in Emmerdale, Stacey Fowler (Slater)’s post-partum psychosis in EastEnders, Bex Fowler being targeted by school bullies in EastEnders and Holly Barton’s death from a drug overdose in Emmerdale. Coming up is the attempted kidnap of Rana Nazir in Coronation Street as her Muslim family are unable to accept that she’s in a same sex relationship: the particular problems faced by LGBT people from certain cultural backgrounds have also been covered in EastEnders, with Syed Masood. So too is the issue of eating disorders, with Cleo McQueen in Hollyoaks, which has been covered by Hollyoaks (Hannah Ashworth) previously, and also by Emmerdale (Priya Sharma)
So, yes, there do seem to be a lot of distressing storylines in soap operas at the moment. It seems to be the same with most TV programmes you watch, these days. Practically everything seems to be preceded by a warning that this programme contains scenes which viewers may find, and followed by the telephone number for a helpline. But let’s remember that soaps have a lot to teach us. Following the rape of David Platt in Coronation Street last week, the male rape charity Male Survivor reported a 1700% increase in calls. Local charity Survivors Manchester, which worked with Coronation Street on the storyline, reported receiving double the usual number of daily referrals since the relevant episodes were aired. That’s an awful lot of people who’ve been helped to speak out about their horrific ordeals, a subject which research has shown that it takes many survivors many years to talk about. Yes, soap operas are that powerful.
Every time a soap opera covers a cancer storyline, there’s a huge upsurge in the number of people seeking screening and advice – notably with the Alma Halliwell (Sedgwick) cervical cancer storyline in Coronation Street and the breast cancer storylines with Sally Webster (now Metcalfe) in Coronation Street and Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders. Within the last few months, there was a story all over the press about a man saying that Coronation Street had saved his life: he’d sought medical advice following the Robert Preston testicular storyline, and, as a result, had been successfully treated for the same condition.
So, whilst it’s not pleasant seeing our favourite characters go through the mill, it can be doing a huge amount to help someone who’s been through the same thing in real life. And, yes, it could even be saving their life. There are some things that we can’t do anything about, like the early onset dementia which led to Ashley Thomas’s death, or the loss of Steve and Michelle’s baby, but seeing these issues covered in soap operas raises awareness of them and helps people to understand how to try to cope with them and how to try to help relatives and friends affected by them. It even tends to boost efforts for fundraising into research to try to find ways of prevention or cure in the future.
I think the “hard-hitting” storyline which did the most to change my generation’s attitudes was the Mark Fowler HIV storyline in EastEnders. Mark was diagnosed as being HIV positive shortly before my sixteenth birthday, in 1991. The government hadn’t made a very good job of its HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, quite honestly. “Don’t Die Of Ignorance.” That picture of the tombstone, which looked like some sort of memento mori from an outbreak of bubonic plague in the 1660s. All right, it got everyone’s attention, but it also scared the hell out of people. And, not helped by the infamous Section 28, there was a perception that it was mainly gay men who were at risk.
The Mark Fowler storyline portrayed a young man who had contracted HIV whilst in a steady relationship with an opposite sex partner. We saw his father bleaching everything in the family home – not an inaccurate portrayal of beliefs at the time –and then learning and accepting that that was excessive, and the prejudice he faced from other characters, notably Peggy Mitchell, before they eventually accepted that they were wrong. And we saw Mark leading a full life, until his eventual death about thirteen years later. Mark Fowler did more to educate the people of Britain about HIV and AIDS than anything that the government ever did. Even a better-planned government campaign doesn’t always work that well. People aren’t always ready to accept what they’re told by the authorities. And “personal and social” education lessons in school … teachers are embarrassed, kids are embarrassed, some kid always decides to wind everyone up by asking awkward questions, everyone’s whispering and giggling, and some very strange (and untrue) rumours went round our school about a teacher demonstrating things with bananas. Er, no. It’s not always great. But soap operas can really get the message through. And they do.
Mark Fowler’s first girlfriend during the early days of the HIV storyline was Diane Butcher. A year earlier, she’d been at the centre of a storyline about homelessness. At the time, charities were saying that it had done more to raise awareness of the issue of teenage “runaways” and homelessness than anything since Cathy Come Home in 1966. Homelessness is something that’s perhaps overdue for being covered again in a soap, but both Coronation Street (Anna Windass) and EastEnders (Denise Fox) have shown in recent years how hard-working characters can, due to redundancy or low pay, come to need the services of food banks, and how there should be no stigma attached to doing so: it’s the system that’s at fault, not the individuals.
Soap operas can also do a huge amount to reduce the prejudices against groups of people who are just living ordinary lives but who, for whatever reason, are not always accepted or understood by some members of society. Both Emmerdale and EastEnders currently have Down’s Syndrome children amongst their characters – Leo Goskirk in Emmerdale and Janet Mitchell in EastEnders. Both soaps have shown the issues faced by the children and their parents in terms of schooling. And soaps have done a considerable amount to try to reduce prejudice against LGBT people.
Everyone knows about Colin and Barry in EastEnders, and Margaret and Beth in Brookside, because there was so much talk about those storylines at the time, but the first major soap storyline shown in Britain to involve a gay character was actually in Dynasty. The glitzy American soaps of the late 1970s and 1980s are remembered for their crazily OTT storylines like Bobby Ewing coming back from the dead in Dallas, the Moldavian Massacre in Dynasty and Fallon Carrington Colby being kidnapped by aliens in The Colbys, but the big dramatic storyline at the end of the first series of Dynasty involved Blake Carrington attacking his son Steven’s boyfriend Ted Dinard because he couldn’t cope with the fact that Steven was gay. And that was when Alexis first showed up. Alexis, the most famous superbitch in soap history, showed her softer side in her complete support of Steven, one of the nice guys of the Carrington family – and, when Dynasty finally ended, Steven was living happily ever after with his boyfriend Bart Falmont, and Blake was OK about it.
Incidentally, Dynasty‘s often criticised for being about white wealth and privilege, but the critics forget that Blake had a mixed-race half-sister, Dominique Devereux. That was a big deal in 1980s America. And, of course, Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan in Dynasty and (when she’d stopped drinking) Sue Ellen Ewing in Dallas, not to mention Avril Rolfe and Jan Howard in Howards’ Way, all showed that women could be just as powerful in business as men were. I went for my first ever job interview wearing a bright red jacket with gilt-edged buttons and shoulder pads. I looked absolutely bloody ridiculous and, no, I didn’t get the job … but, hey, that jacket just showed that young women back in the day really were inspired by Alexis Colby! Joan Collins rocked the look a lot better than I did, it does have to be said. I sometimes wish I had the confidence to wear a bright red jacket now. Maybe not. They’re not really a thing these days, unless you’re Michael Portillo.
Anyway, back to the subject of LGBT storylines. These days there are gay characters at the heart of the action in all the soap operas – Robert and Aaron in Emmerdale are particularly popular with viewers (even though Robert is a git and Aaron really deserves someone nicer!) – and the fact that they’re gay is not a big deal, and not usually the main focus of their storylines. And, of course, that’s exactly as it should bet. But it wasn’t always like that. The Colin and Barry storyline in EastEnders in the mid-1980s was controversial at the time. There was a fuss in some of the more right-wing newspapers when one of them kissed the other on the forehead! And, as with Mark Fowler, a lot of nasty comments were also made by other characters – in this case, particularly Dot Cotton (later Branning). But that changed. The other characters came to accept Colin and Barry, and the storyline, and all the talk about it, did help to change attitudes generally.
The same was true of the very popular Hayley Cropper (neé Patterson), who first appeared in Coronation Street in 1998, the first transgender character in a British soap. Shortly after Coronation Street showed Hayley Patterson and Roy Cropper’s blessing ceremony in 1999, which emphasised the legal problems faced by transgender people, the government set up a Parliamentary Working group to look into the issue of rights for transgender people. OK, it’d probably be going overboard to say that that was because of Hayley, but her storyline certainly did a huge amount to raise awareness of the subject, and also to tackle prejudice against transgender people. Apparently, the organisers of LGBT History Month named Hayley as one of the most famous LGBT people in history. That’s pretty good going for someone who isn’t actually real!
Both Coronation Street (Gina Seddon) and EastEnders (Stacey Fowler) feature characters who have bipolar disorder, Emmerdale has shown Zak Dingle suffering a nervous breakdown, and I’ve already mentioned eating disorders. A lot of work’s being done at the moment to try to improve attitudes towards those of us who suffer from mental health problems, but the message doesn’t always get through, and soap operas can do a lot to try to help with that. And, at a time when prejudice against Muslims was on the increase because of terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalist group, EastEnders showed a lovely episode in which Tamwar Masood explained to Nancy Carter that Islam was really a religion of peace.
I’m not saying that soap operas can change the world, that they can save the lives of everyone who’s got a serious illness, that they can help everyone who’s suffered a violent attack or that they can change the attitudes of everyone who’s prejudiced against others. But, daft as it might sometimes seem, they do have a huge amount of power. I’ve watched Coronation Street since I was born, EastEnders for over thirty years and Emmerdale for a good twenty years. I know some of these characters better than I know most of my own family and friends! When something happens to one of them, or one of them does something, it affects me.
No, I don’t want to see Pat Phelan going around murdering anyone else. No, I don’t want to see any more gangsters in the Queen Vic. And, yes, I would appreciate a bit more humour – and I’m talking about sensible storylines, not this ridiculous storyline with Gail Rodwell (or whatever Gail Tilsley goes as these days) getting messages from Richard Hillman from the other side. And, please, please, stop splitting up all the happy couples! It’s great that Cain and Moira are back together, and it’s great that Robert and Aaron are back together (even if Robert is a git …) but, please, get Tyrone and Fiz back together and get Billy and Honey back together! Let’s have a bit more happiness. I don’t think anyone, except, unfortunately, the scriptwriters, would argue with that!
But listen to what the charities who support male rape survivors are saying. The David Platt storyline has really helped people. And acid attacks are on the increase, and we all need to be aware of that. Katie Piper has done a wonderful job in raising awareness of the subject, but Emmerdale can help too. No, it’s not nice. But a lot of things in life aren’t nice. And, before Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells puts pen to paper, or finger to keyboard/telephone keypad, to complain about some of the current plots, maybe he or she should stop to think about the man who said that the Robert Preston testicular cancer storyline changed his life, or all the people who’ve contacted the Male Survivor charity since Josh Tucker’s attack on David Platt. Soap operas are powerful. They get us talking. They can do a lot more than entertain, and, because they can, they’ve got to.