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Soap Opera

Unending stories of everyday life

Main image of Soap Opera

Sir John Betjeman famously said in the 1970s, "Manchester produces what to me is the Pickwick Papers. That is to say Coronation Street." This comment revealed more than just enthusiasm. The roots of what we now call soap opera can be traced to the success of the 'partwork' novel in the 19th century, and this serialised form of fiction became the norm for radio drama in the early part of the 20th century, particularly in the United States. Because these early daily radio serials were aimed at a predominantly female audience, they were generally sponsored by household goods companies, detergents and soap being particularly prevalent. This sponsorship, attached to the serials' particular style of heightened emotion and melodrama, led to the label 'soap opera'.

The 'soap' designation stuck with the serials when they moved to television, and their content and characteristics remained remarkably similar over the decades in the US. In the UK however, the public service ethos of both BBC and ITV ensured that soap opera had to evolve quickly, and the genre was rarely far from arguments about quality in broadcasting.

Although the BBC made forays into continuing drama serials on radio, with Mrs Dale's Diary (1948-69) and The Archers (1950-), and, later, on television with The Grove Family (BBC, 1954-57), it was only when ATV launched Emergency - Ward 10 (ITV, 1957-67) that British television had its first soap as we would recognise it today. EW10's success was such that it immediately became an open-ended, year-round serial, and the production team therefore had to engineer an ongoing sequence of intertwined plots, sub-plots and cliffhangers which allowed frequent story resolutions alongside newly-hatched storylines.

Old characters were written out, often by marriage or a trip away; killing them off was less common, as this would rule out another frequent occurrence: the unexpected return of an old character. The open-ended nature of the narrative also allowed the audience to identify with characters more strongly, as, in effect, the characters developed and aged alongside the audience. This was not something a standard drama series with a finite number of episodes every year could achieve. The result of this success and the audiences' fascination with the characters made the lead actors some of British television's first superstars, and this level of celebrity for soap stars has only become more exaggerated over the years.

The BBC was unsure how to respond to EW10 (or indeed to commercial television in general), but it eventually produced Compact (BBC, 1962-65), which, like EW10, was a rather stilted, middle-class affair set in a workplace. This immediately put it at a disadvantage, because ITV's newest continuing drama had already changed viewer expectations. Coronation Street (ITV, 1960-) was the creation of Tony Warren, an actor-turned-writer who wanted to bring his vision of the North to the screen without compromise, and in doing so changed British soap opera forever.

Realism became the watchword for 'quality' British soap, and this focus on authenticity became such a powerful yardstick that eventually Coronation Street would itself be condemned as unrealistic; in the 1980s Brookside (Channel 4, 1982-2003) and EastEnders (BBC, 1985-) would take up the tradition of realism by explicitly addressing the breakdown of the kind of community that had featured unchanged in Coronation Street for the previous 20 years. As well as the purported realism, all of these shows aspired to, and often genuinely attained, a quality that was missing from the more generic daily soaps: noted writers such as Jack Rosenthal, Jim Allen, Tony Jordan and Jimmy McGovern were allowed a certain freedom; characters were more consistently drawn; and (initially at least) storylines were low-key and believable.

Because of their perceived qualities, these shows avoided the broadcasting authorities' general concern that, unless monitored carefully, soap opera would drag television down to the lowest common denominator. But Crossroads (ITV, 1964-89) was a different matter. The brainchild of Reg Watson and Lew Grade, Crossroads was the closest thing the UK had to the daily serials of the US, and it was enormously popular. The Independent Television Authority and its regulatory successor, the Independent Broadcasting Authority, were unimpressed, and twice punished the show, eventually reducing it from five weekly episodes to three. Other shows such as Weavers Green (ITV, 1966) were similarly frowned upon and swiftly vanished. The reaction to Crossroads demonstrates that in British television at the time, success was not the only criteria even in commercial television, and that lowly soap operas were still expected to achieve a certain standard.

In the 1970s and 80s, serials such as Coronation Street, EastEnders and Brookside were seen as the 'least worst' soap operas in the world. Also, despite fears to the contrary, the introduction of daytime broadcasting in 1972 led to the creation of quality continuing dramas such as General Hospital (ITV, 1972-79) and Emmerdale Farm/Emmerdale (ITV, 1972-); both of these made the transition into peak-time schedules. Other daytime shows that went on to have long-term success included Pobol Y Cwm (BBC/S4C, 1974-) and Take the High Road (ITV, 1980-2003), but Australian imports such as The Young Doctors (1976-83) and Sons and Daughters (1982-87) also made an impression. Although the latter were very different to the glossy and popular US imports of the time such as Dallas (1978-91), Dynasty (1981-89) and Falcon Crest (1981-90), they were similarly derided for featuring overripe performances, preposterous cliffhangers and unbelievable storylines - all characteristics that were held up as a contrast to quality homegrown serials.

The US series were vastly popular but arguably the greater lasting impact on British soap opera came from Australia. Neighbours (1985-), a Reg Watson production, was initially shown on weekday lunchtimes, but a daily tea-time repeat drew huge ratings, and for a time Neighbours dominated the media, probably reaching its apogee with the wedding of Scott Robinson (Jason Donovan) and Charlene Mitchell (Kylie Minogue). ITV responded by importing the Australian rival Home and Away (1988-) and the result was an early-evening schedule full of cheap and cheerful daily serials. The audience for these shows had a younger demographic, and gradually the traditional soaps began to try and appeal to the same audience; a trend which eventually resulted in a new soap, Hollyoaks (Channel 4, 1995-), aimed directly at teenagers. More importantly, the broadcasting authorities were no longer in a position to intervene on issues of quality, and the television companies were slowly able to increase the number of serials until continuing drama became the dominant form on British television.

In the past the question of quality had plagued the BBC, and the corporation struggled to develop a successful soap opera partly because it was never quite sure if it wanted to be associated with a genre so heavily identified with commercial television. Nonetheless, it had a reasonable success with The Newcomers (BBC, 1965-69), the story of a family relocating from London to the country, but after the misfire of The Doctors (BBC, 1969-71) the BBC abandoned attempts at continuing drama for a number of years until, following a scheduling experiment with Angels (BBC, 1975-83), it eventually struck gold with EastEnders. This success gave a vital boost to the BBC's audience share, and with a newfound enthusiasm for continuing drama, the corporation decided to launch a new soap which, if successful, would dominate the ratings on alternate nights to EastEnders.

The omens for a new show were not good. Granada had made a similar attempt when it launched Albion Market (ITV, 1985-86) specifically to capture audiences on Friday and Sunday nights as a complement to Coronation Street, but the show managed just 100 episodes before folding. The BBC's own folly, Eldorado (BBC, 1992-93), about British expats in Spain, fared no better and was widely perceived as an expensive disaster (Eldorado is now a fixture in 'worst TV ever' lists).

Both channels therefore, had little appetite to try and create another peak-time serial, and so began the process of increasing the number of weekly episodes for their existing shows, eventually reaching five episodes a week of Emmerdale and Coronation Street, and four episodes of EastEnders. This expansion has resulted in significant changes to production processes to the point where (ironically) all three major soaps are made in a way that would immediately be recognisable to the Crossroads production team of the 1970s. Many have argued more episodes has meant lower standards, and a breaking down of the distinction between the quality soaps and the traditional daily soaps.

However, soap opera was still a powerful influence on other genres. Partly this was due to personnel: writers Jimmy McGovern, Paul Abbott and Kay Mellor all worked long apprenticeships on soaps, and their series such as Cracker (ITV, 1993-96; 2006), Band of Gold (ITV, 1995-97) and Clocking Off (BBC, 2000-03) demonstrate this: all were realistic, socially engaged, agenda-driven and at least partly serial in form. Meanwhile, the production processes and formats of soap began to infiltrate other drama: The Bill (ITV, 1984-2010) became a continuous twice-weekly, thirty-minute series for a considerable time, and Casualty (BBC, 1986-) and Holby City (BBC, 1999-) effectively became open-ended, year-round shows. Even documentaries were not immune. Shows such as The Living Soap (BBC, 1993), Airport (BBC, 1996-2005) and Driving School (BBC, 1997) embraced soap characteristics to such an extent that a new genre, 'docusoap', was born.

The popularity and relative cheapness of docusoap and other 'reality television' forms has undoubtedly had an impact on soap audiences, as those formats tend to display heightened emotion and exaggerated characters in a way that might not even be credible in drama. However, although individual serials have had their ups and downs over the years, soap opera itself remains the dominant force in television drama. The increasingly varied audience watch the serials in a more knowing way; viewers slip easily between character names and actor names, and although extensive coverage in magazines and the media generally means plots are known long in advance, the pleasure comes from finally seeing how the events unfold, and, more importantly, recounting the story to workmates and fellow viewers after the programme has finished.

But despite these changes, a powerful characteristic of the long-running soap opera remains - as the programmes grow old, so we grow old. A subtle reference to a past event can trigger a rush of memories, just as the death of a long-running character can lead to consideration of your own mortality. This unique aspect of the open-ended form continues to fascinate huge proportions of the public, and the effect shows no signs of diminishing.

John Williams

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Albion Market (1985-86)

Albion Market (1985-86)

Shortlived soap set in a Manchester covered market

Thumbnail image of Appleyards, The (1952-57, 1960)

Appleyards, The (1952-57, 1960)

Children's drama series that was one of Britain's earliest TV soaps

Thumbnail image of Bill, The (1984-2010)

Bill, The (1984-2010)

Police drama series set in London

Thumbnail image of Brookside (1982-2003)

Brookside (1982-2003)

Early Channel 4 hit that changed the face of British TV soap

Thumbnail image of Casualty (1986-)

Casualty (1986-)

Hugely popular, long-running BBC medical drama series

Thumbnail image of Compact (1962-65)

Compact (1962-65)

The BBC's second soap opera, set in the world of magazine publishing

Thumbnail image of Coronation Street (1960- )

Coronation Street (1960- )

Britain's longest-running soap opera marked its half-century in 2010

Thumbnail image of Crossroads (1964-88, 2001-03)

Crossroads (1964-88, 2001-03)

Motel-based soap, much-mocked but hugely popular in its day

Thumbnail image of EastEnders (1985- )

EastEnders (1985- )

The BBC's most successful soap - a serious rival to Coronation Street

Thumbnail image of Eldorado (1992-93)

Eldorado (1992-93)

Notoriously short-lived soap intended as a European EastEnders

Thumbnail image of Emergency - Ward 10 (1957-67)

Emergency - Ward 10 (1957-67)

British TV's first long-running medical drama series

Thumbnail image of Emmerdale Farm / Emmerdale (1972-)

Emmerdale Farm / Emmerdale (1972-)

Enduring, ever-changing rural soap - never as sleepy as its early reputation

Thumbnail image of General Hospital (1972-79)

General Hospital (1972-79)

Daytime hospital soap, intended to replace Emergency - Ward 10

Thumbnail image of Grove Family, The (1954-57)

Grove Family, The (1954-57)

Britain's first true soap, which counted the Queen Mother among its fans

Thumbnail image of Market on Honey Lane / Honey Lane (1967-69)

Market on Honey Lane / Honey Lane (1967-69)

Shortlived ITV soap set in a busy Soho street market

Thumbnail image of Newcomers, The (1965-69)

Newcomers, The (1965-69)

Small-town serial that was the BBC's biggest pre-EastEnders soap hit

Thumbnail image of Pobol y Cwm (1974-)

Pobol y Cwm (1974-)

A village in the Welsh valleys is home to the BBC's longest-running soap

Thumbnail image of Take the High Road/High Road (1980-2003)

Take the High Road/High Road (1980-2003)

Scotland's longest-running soap

Thumbnail image of Weavers Green (1966)

Weavers Green (1966)

ITV's first rural soap, more than six years ahead of Emmerdale Farm

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Thumbnail image of McGovern, Jimmy (1949-)

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