If, as Henry Fielding suggested, love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea, the cuppas clasped in hand as we sit down to watch soaps are sweet to the point of syrupy. Whether approached with noble intentions to highlight contentious issues or with more sensationalist motives, controversy is courted by soap producers even if they occasionally underestimate the furore their story may cause – as was the case with grieving Ronnie’s baby-snatching exploits in EastEnders, which eventually generated more than 6,000 complaints.
But which plots have caused the most outcry and uproar – not to mention ratings boosts?
1. Mark and HIV (EastEnders, 1990)
From Michelle’s teenage pregnancy to paedophile Tony’s grooming of Whitney, EastEnders rarely shies away from scandal, but none has been more challenging – or possibly done more good – than Mark Fowler contracting HIV. Announcing his condition to his family on Christmas Day 1990, Mark lived with HIV and the stigma surrounding it. Arguably, he did more to educate than countless government campaigns.
2. The body buried under the patio (Brookside, 1993)
When battered wife Mandy Jordache and abused daughter Beth murdered Trevor and stashed his corpse in the garden, the nation was captivated until the body was discovered two years later. The story made a star of Anna Friel, who went on to share British TV’s first pre-watershed lesbian kiss with Nicola Stephenson in 1994, and wedded the name Trevor to soap wife-beaters (see EastEnders’ Little Mo-basher Trevor Morgan).
3. The plane crash (Emmerdale, 1993)
Planned to signal a racier revamp of the soap and provide the excuse for “Farm” to be dropped from Emmerdale’s title, the stunt garnered the show’s biggest audience, of 18m viewers, though only four characters were actually killed off. It also attracted criticism, occurring around the fifth anniversary of the destruction of Pan Am flight 103 above Lockerbie.
4. Male rape (Hollyoaks, 2000)
In the soap’s first late-night episode, Gary Lucy’s Luke Morgan was sexually assaulted by three men who were, after much trauma and tribulation, tried and convicted for their crime. With fewer than one in ten male rapes reported, the storyline was praised for raising awareness, but also criticised for doing so in a soap aimed at teenagers.
5. Sarah-Louise Platt’s pregnancy (Coronation Street, 2000)
In its early years, the very existence of Coronation Street and its representations of working-class lives caused outcry, though Weatherfield has often and unfairly been deemed coy and cosy compared with its bolder counterparts. When Sarah-Lou got pregnant at the age of 13, it wasn’t just her mum Gail whose head was sent a-spinning.
Following near death in a car crash, abduction and almost murder by Gail’s serial-killer husband, and her boyfriend coming out, Sarah left Weatherfield for Milan. Perhaps even Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga parties seem like a quiet life compared with the Weatherfield rollercoaster.