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 Hollyoaks. Emmerdale 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?!