Soap’s most controversial storylines – Channel 5

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This covered a combination of really important (I’m not sure that “controversial” was really the best choice of word) storylines that genuinely changed British society’s views on the issues concerned (Hayley Patterson being transsexual, Mark Fowler’s HIV, Colin and Barry’s relationship, Mandy and Beth Jordache’s jailing for murdering abusive Trevor), headline-grabbers (Richard Hillman’s killing spree, the Emmerdale plane crash), things that were just totally bonkers (Bouncer the dog’s dream, Dirty Den’s return from the dead) and the ones that weren’t controversial as such but got everyone talking (Deirdre Barlow managing both to be mentioned on the Old Trafford scoreboard and to get the Prime Minister ordering a Home Office investigation into her wrongful jailing).   Sadly, the American soaps weren’t included, so we didn’t get to revisit Bobby Ewing being resurrected in the shower or Fallon Colby going off in a spaceship.  This filled three hours of TV (well, minus adverts), and there were still a load of things that weren’t included but which I thought should have been!

This is serious stuff, OK!   I’ve written before about the power of soaps.  When a soap covers a major issue, it raises awareness of it.  It saves people’s lives.  The programme didn’t include Alma Halliwell’s cervical cancer or Robert Preston’s testicular cancer, but both storylines led to a big increase in the number of people going for check-ups.  It did include the male rape storylines involving Luke and John Paul in Hollyoaks and David in Coronation Street, the Bethany Platt grooming storyline in Coronation Street and the self-harming and drug death storylines in Hollyoaks, all of which led to an increase in the number of people coming forward for help – and those are just a few examples.  I’ve heard representatives of charities and support groups say how pleased they are when their issue’s being covered by a soap, because they know that it will bring it to public attention and educate people about it.

The Ashley Thomas early onset dementia storyline in Emmerdale was very well done.  So was the Ashley, Lauren and baby Daniel cot death storyline, although the programme seemed to forget that EastEnders was the first to address cot death, with the Osman family back in the 1980s.  It also seemed to forget that EastEnders had tackled assisted suicide, with Ethel Skinner, long before Emmerdale did with Jackson Walsh.  But, still, it’s not a competition (it’s not, honestly!), and these are very important issues, however often they’re covered.  Coronation Street’s just won an award for the Aidan Connor suicide storyline, possibly too recent to have made it into the programme, another one which saw a big increase in calls to helplines.  Shakil Kazemi being stabbed to death in EastEnders was another one possibly not included because it was too recent.  These are big issues of our time.  We need to talk about them.  Soaps get us talking.

The Hollyoaks schizophrenia storyline, which did get mentioned, was another one which got people talking, as did the Sarah Louise Platt teenage pregnancy (years after Michelle Fowler in EastEnders, but Michelle was older) storyline in Coronation Street.  And the Becca and Justin teacher-pupil relationship in HollyoaksEmmerdale are currently doing something similar with Maya and Jacob, but the Hollyoaks storyline was more complicated because Becca was being abused by her husband.

Then there were the storylines which, as I’ve said, genuinely changed people’s attitudes.  OK, the burying the body under the patio thing with the Jordaches in Brookside was a bit mad, but the actual storyline, about a man who abused his wife and daughter, did a lot to raise awareness of the subject – and it probably is fair to say that it helped to lead to a change in the law regarding the treatment of people who can’t take any more and end up killing abusive partners/parents.  The EastEnders storyline about Mark Fowler having HIV was huge when I was a teenager, and did far more to educate people about HIV than the ill-judged government campaigns did.  Another EastEnders storyline, about Colin Russell and Barry Clark’s relationship, genuinely helped to tackle homophobia, as did the Beth and Margaret storyline in Brookside.  And the Hayley storyline in Coronation Street did a huge amount to tackle transphobia.

A few that weren’t mentioned but perhaps should have been – although, OK, you can’t include everything.  The Diane Butcher homelessness storyline in EastEnders.  Izzy Armstrong taking cannabis to ease her chronic pain in Coronation Street.  And, given that everyone remembers the “You ain’t my muvver” “Yes I am” Kat and Zoe scene in EastEnders, I was amazed that that wasn’t included – for raising awareness of the situation of young people abused by trusted relatives or friends.

So that was the serious stuff!   We also got the sensationalist stuff.  Richard Hillman’s reign of terror.  Who shot Phil Mitchell?  Who killed Lucy Beale?  Sharongate.  The Emmerdale plane crash.  Cindy Beale hiring a hitman to kill Ian.  And the things that didn’t involve violence or huge stunts but still got everyone talking, which says a lot about how good both the acting and the writing were.  The Deirdre, Ken and Mike love triangle in Coronation Street – with the result being flashed up on the scoreboard during United v Arsenal!  Deirdre again, with the “Free the Weatherfield One” storyline and Tony Blair promising to get the Home Office to investigate.  Den serving up divorce papers over Christmas dinner in EastEnders. And Scott and Charlene’s wedding in Neighbours – which wasn’t controversial in the slightest, but which the makers of the programme obviously couldn’t bear to leave out.

And the stuff that was OTT, bonkers or both. Bouncer’s dream in Neighbours – I mean, what on earth?!!  Susan’s amnesia, also in Neighbours – although, to be fair, people were always getting amnesia in Dynasty!  Dirty Den, Kim Tate, Harold Bishop, Ross Barton and Nick Cotton all coming back from the dead.  Tanya burying Max alive – which resulted in EastEnders being investigated for showing excessive violence, but was followed up by the couple getting back together!

The other things which people complained about were quite strange.  The Tanya and Max thing, fair enough.  But the Charity and Ross dognapping storyline in Emmerdale?  And Charity’s uncle Zak’s mix-up with the vegan sausages?

On the subject of complaints, questions were raised as to whether or not the soaps are now getting too violent, and whether viewers are becoming inured to violence as a result.   I must say that I thought the Pat Phelan storyline in Coronation Street went a bit too far, as did the killing of Fatboy in EastEnders.  But I love the way some “controversial” storylines, and it’s not always or even usually the violent ones, get everyone talking and bring the nation together.  Headlines of the papers.  And, hey, even mentioned in Parliament!   And storylines which raise awareness of important issues play a really big role in society – they have genuinely helped people, and they have genuinely changed attitudes.

There’s more ahead. EastEnders is hopefully going to be tackling some of the misconceptions that people have about autism, whilst Coronation Street will be dealing with homophobia in football. These aren’t “controversial” storylines. They’re crucial ones.

And of course it’s real history .  Come on, everyone remembers where they were when some of this stuff happened!   Some of these storylines were amongst the biggest news events of their years.  And hey, how many people have you known as long as you’ve known Ken Barlow?!

 

Emmerdale 1918 – ITV 1, and Journey’s End

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Two very different looks at the Great War, one on TV and one a film adaptation of a play written in 1928.  I am a great believer in the power of soap operas to get messages across 🙂 , and I love the idea of exploring history via soap characters – maybe ITV and BBC could do more of this!   Personal history is increasingly popular, probably because the rise of the internet’s made it so much easier for people to become involved in genealogy, and the idea of this was to show how the war affected a number of individuals from Esholt, the Yorkshire village where Emmerdale used to be filmed, in a series of programmes presented by Emmerdale actors whose characters have similar jobs/positions.  Journey’s End, by contrast, was about fictional characters but took us right into the hell through which soldiers were living during the Spring Offensive of 1918, with almost all the action taking place in an officers’ dugout in one of the trenches.

It (Journey’s End) focussed on the mental hell as much as, maybe more than, the physical hell.  Although the action all took place towards the end of the war, we see at the beginning the attitude associated with the early months, a naïve young lad straight out of school desperate to get stuck into the action.  He was sent to the Front after only a few weeks of training.  Emmerdale 1918 showed us a video of some of the training: Charlotte Bellamy (Laurel Thomas) commented that it looked more like her legs, bums and tums class at the gym than something designed to prepare novice solders for war.

Our lad, Second Lieutentant Raleigh, was a public schoolboy with relatives in high places, and pulled strings to get himself assigned to a company captained by a family friend who’d been a few years above him at school, someone he’d always hero-worshipped and who’d got a bit of a thing going with his sister.  Only they weren’t at school any more, and the boy he knew at school was now aggressive, anxious, drinking too much, and convinced that his relationship with his friend’s sister would break her heart – either he’d die, or he’d go back to her a completely different man from the one she knew and loved.

We didn’t actually see the fighting, although we heard about the men who’d been killed: we saw how things played out in the dugout.  It wasn’t easy to watch: it was very intense and, because it was nearly all set in such a confined space, and over the course of over a few days, quite claustrophobic: it probably got the psychological hell across as well as any dramatisation could do.

The second episode of Emmerdale 1918 was also about a young lad with no military experience, going to the Front.  In this case, he was Joshua Booth, a working-class lad from a small Yorkshire village.  Of the 200 people living in the village, 50 went away to war.  That’s very hard to take in.  25% of your local community gone to war.  They don’t seem to have been in a Pals battalion, which at least was something.  In this case, we got the background: we saw the normality of this young man’s life at home, and we were read extracts from his letters to his sweetheart – who threw him over and married someone else.  You don’t expect that in a war programme, do you?  I know it sounds daft, but wartime romances are meant to end in either tragedy or joy, not in one partner dumping the other.  It was far less tense, far less intense, because it was indirect, and not so focussed on a small space and short period of time; and yet it had the intensity of being about just one person and, significantly, someone who really lived.

Different approaches, different backgrounds, and yet both stories ended the same way: neither young man survived.  Journey’s End didn’t tell us what happened to his comrades.  Emmerdale 1918 did tell us that the other 49 men from Esholt who went away to war all survived, which was incredible really … and yet some of them must have had life-changing injuries, physical or mental, and none of them could ever have been the same again.  Nor could anyone else who lived through that time.  The series is about the fact that it was a total war: we’re also getting land girls, chefs, vets … everyone’s lives turned upside down.

Do schools did get kids to compare The Soldier and Dulce et Decorum est?   It was a standard English Lit GCSE essay topic in my day.  Journey’s End was very Dulce et Decorum est: you just felt broken. Emmerdale 1918 inclined more towards The Soldier – not as sentimental, but concentrating on remembering the bravery, the heroism, the sacrifice.  More John Maxwell Edmonds – for our tomorrow, people like Joshua Booth gave their today.  So many lives lost, so many other lives irrevocably damaged.

It’s hard to believe that we’re now almost as far from the end of the Great War as the end of the Great War was from the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  25 years ago, people were starting to day that the idea of Remembrance would gradually die out, but it hasn’t.  It’s good that it hasn’t, but what a tragedy that, every year without fail, there are more and more war dead to be remembered.  And more and more people who’ve survived but suffered life-changing physical injuries and or horrific trauma.

Journey’s End is hard going, and certainly not enjoyable, but it’s worth watching.  As for Emmerdale 1918, I think this is a brilliant idea.  Soap stuff makes headlines!  We’ve seen that with so many crucial social issues. Can it now branch out into history?  OK, I think this series is a one-off, and I don’t think we’re about to see the cast of Coronation Street marking the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre or the cast of EastEnders showing us life in medieval London … but it would be great if we did.