Friday, 10 May 2013

Soap Operas

Soap Operas and social engineering

As a boy in the sixties I first became aware of the soap opera. When on parade as a sea cadet a fellow cadet who had ‘fallen-in’ late couldn’t wait to tell his friend, and anyone who would listen, that Mrs Richardson was dead. Concerned about my fellow cadet’s agitation I offered him my condolences and asked who Mrs Richardson was. Becoming slightly incredulous he said that she was the owner of the Crossroads motel on television. What struck me was that this boy was talking about characters in a soap opera as if they were real; that this was like a surrogate family or life he led in front of the television whose narrative he was carrying into his everyday life. The viewers of soaps become so emotionally evolved with the characters that they become an important part of their lives, people whom they really care about. What the producers do with the characters and the storylines they introduce around them and the empathy generated towards the characters have the power to radically change the audience’s views and beliefs. This fact became apparent to the broadcasters from very early on in the soap opera in Britain.
        What is surprising is the sheer longevity of the soaps. The longest running is The Archers, (1951 to present), on BBC Radio. At first its narrative agenda was directed at farmers and reflected government recommendations, ideas and regulations regarding farming policies. Today its narrative agenda along with that of other soaps has
Coronation Street titles -  image from Wikipedia
radically changed. Coronation Street (1960 to present), was the first soap to focus on the urban working class which was much in vogue at the time of its launch along with kitchen sink dramas in British film. However, it soon toned down its ‘anger’ and became a great success. It wasn’t until the advent of EastEnders and Brookside in the eighties that it started to use the more challenging social themes.
        It was however, Emmerdale, a rural drama, which first featured a lesbian as a long-term permanent fixture and to make to make this person more acceptable, she was the vet. Using the acquired capital of past vet dramas like All Creatures Great and Small (a popular vet TV mini-series of the 70s) the producers were able to manipulate the collective memory of viewers. It always strikes me as odd how people who have never seen a homosexual kiss in real life are prepared to accept it in a televised drama at peak family viewing time right in their front room sitting with the rest of their family.
            The television is a very powerful tool for subversion. We sit in awe of its technical ability, its famous celebrities who do not need to answer to us but simply dictate a narrative. The soap opera with long running story lines and characters that have gained our support, empathy and trust over many weeks, months, even years, can persuade their audiences that whatever they get up to they are not really so bad. The creator of Brookside (and also the school soap Grange Hill) was Phil Redmond, who said ‘I wanted to ... explore social issues, and hopefully contribute to any continuing social debate’ (quoted McCready, Phil Redmond’s Brookside: The Official Companion, 1987).  EastEnders and Brookside have been particularly adept at social engineering, challenging the nation’s attitudes to socio-political issues such as abortion, unemployment, homosexuality, infant mortality, and AIDS (as long as it didn’t involve a homosexual). I once watched EastEnders for several months as a study and I was bewildered by the sheer aggressive rudeness of many of the characters, the humourless, depressing storylines, the extraordinary cliff-hangers every episode to keep people watching.
       But what happened to Mrs Richardson you may ask? Actually she wasn’t dead after all but went on running the motel for many years to come despite its wobbly walls.


  1. A young relative of mine wants to campaign on behalf of family planning activities. She is also hooked on Eastenders. Co-incidence ?

    1. No this is not a coincidence there many writers and producers who work for soap operas who are very socially engaged. They deliberately use this genre to change people views and beliefs – just as the communists and the Nazis use film to manipulate people in the 30s it was called agitprop, emotive storylines that dictate and make people take actions.I will pray for you poor relative who is also a victem of the TV.