Is this the future of soap?

Is the new Britain of YouTube and The X Factor changing far too fast for Coronation Street and EastEnders?

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Her hair teased into a Barbarella-esque bouffant, Katherine Kelly, aka Coronation Street’s Becky McDonald, awaits the affixing of caterpillar-sized false eyelashes, prepares to slide into thigh-high PVC boots and ponders the future of soap.

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“I can’t imagine soaps will ever stop because people will always watch, as long as they have great stories and characters. But the soaps will have to keep evolving, won’t they? Corrie, I think, will grow and they’ll need a bigger cast to cope. I’m sure they’ll want to do more episodes and more things online.”

Whatever happens to Coronation Street, it will be without Kelly. ITV announced last month that she would, in a suitably dramatic storyline, depart the cobbles within the year.

After joining the show in 2006, Becky went from sly delinquent on the Street’s sidelines to first lady of Weatherfield – if not an actual lady, given her penchant for punch-ups and pints. And as her character became one of soap’s iconic women, Kelly was catapulted to fame – proof that soap can still capture the nation’s imagination.

“Just as Becky got more than she ever hoped and wished for,” says Kelly, “I’ve had more than I’d ever dared to dream from Corrie. It happened so organically – a three-month contract rolled into a six-month one, and so on – that it sneaked up on me. I always thought I’d see how it goes and I’m not the kind of person to have a plan. I didn’t have one then and I don’t have one now.”

Becky came out of that prized soap alchemy by which an actor’s performance fires the writers’ imaginations and forges an iconic character. At this year’s British Soap Awards, Kelly is once again in the running for best actress and best onscreen partnership (with Simon Gregson, who plays husband Steve). So why is she going?

“It’s a bit crazy leaving a job that’s still so brilliant and I do wonder, ‘Am I just being a madam?’ But I’ve done a lot of soul-searching and shed a few tears. It took me a long time to admit to myself that it was the right thing to do.

“I’m 30, I don’t have any commitments, and there are great parts out there that I want to play. There’s no more to it than me wanting a change, a challenge, and to get that balance back. It sounds so boring – and my brothers tease, ‘Oh poor you, pulling pretend pints all day’ – but it’s very, very long hours and you’re knackered when you get home. It does take over.”

With EastEnders and Coronation Street celebrating their silver and golden jubilees last year, and Emmerdale looking forward to its 40th anniversary next year, it isn’t just Katherine Kelly who’s pondering her future. As those who worked on Brookside – or indeed US soaps All My Children and One Life to Live, which are to be axed after 41 and 43 years respectively – know, soaps don’t necessarily last for ever.

They rarely attract audiences upwards of 15 million any more, watercooler moments now seem to come courtesy of talent shows such as The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing, and the tabloids seem more preoccupied with stars of reality shows such as The Only Way Is Essex.

So are soaps still as important to audiences as they were when Ken married Deirdre, Den handed Angie divorce papers on Christmas Day and a plane crashed right on Emmerdale? Or is a changing Britain leaving the soaps behind? Will the notion of community on which soaps are based soon be so outdated as to render them irrelevant?

“Real life changes much more quickly than representations of it on television,” admits John Yorke, BBC controller of drama production. “Soaps reach a point where they have a really big decision to make: do they stay true to the original vision or do they throw it away and adapt to a changing world? My own feeling is that the truth lies somewhere in between. EastEnders’ East End and its version of working-class life are very stylised. It’s not realistic in that respect, but you look for an emotional truthfulness.”

If EastEnders held true to the new east London, it would be unrecognisable. Hackney’s Fassett Square, on which Albert Square was modelled, has long been gentrified. Houses there can cost more than £750,000 and web designers, ad execs and fashionistas have long displaced many original residents.

In E8 – which was EastEnders’ working title – the Vic would have long become a gastropub, the café a tapas bar and the market would be chock-a-block with stalls selling cupcakes, organic meats and cheeses, and vintage clothes. Yorke shudders at the thought.

“If it was a show where every house cost a fortune and everyone drove a Lexus, it wouldn’t be EastEnders. You have to show shades of that change, but certain things are immutable, I would argue, like the Vic and the market.”

Arguably Walford has joined the flight to the suburbs, from Hackney and Whitechapel through Stepney and on to Barking – though if you were actually looking for a community as predominantly white and working-class as E20, you’d be out in Essex before you found it.

“EastEnders may be significantly white compared with the real East End, but it’s considerably more multicultural than it was even five years ago and is easily the most multicultural show on telly now,” argues Yorke. “We may have had nerves about that at one stage, but we’re very proud of it now and you have to keep going.”

Yorke’s determination to reflect a changing Britain is shared by Coronation Street executive producer Kieran Roberts. “The ethnic mix is something we’re always conscious of,” he says. “Statistically, we’re probably getting it about right, but I don’t think that’s the way you should judge things. It’s about how things feel. I’d be very worried if viewers – especially viewers from ethnic minorities – were saying they didn’t think the show represented them fully.”

Roberts perhaps has the more difficult job in future-proofing his soap, simply because it has so much more past. “You keep one eye on tradition and heritage and the other on the world around you,” he says, agreeing with Yorke, but maintains that “if we tackle an ‘issue’, the issue emerges out of a story that emerges out of character.

“Sophie and Sian’s relationship is a really good case in point. I’m proud we have our first lesbian couple and that they are in no way peripheral or tokenistic; that one of them is a Webster is very important. It’s fair to say we wouldn’t have done it ten years ago, though there’s another argument that says we should have done it ten or 20 years ago.

“But the way we’re doing it – with warmth and humour – is pure Coronation Street. Yes, it might be very contemporary, but it’s also a good old-fashioned love story.”

Roberts concedes that “Coronation Street presents a warm and cosy version of the world around us – to a degree, it’s got nostalgia written through it – but I’m proud of that. It’s a community that’s sufficiently real and sufficiently recognisable that people are drawn to it. I doubt there are many streets in Britain that function quite like that, but it’s not that alien an existence.”

For all their deference to soap heritage, both Yorke and Roberts are understandably more concerned with the future and the need to attract new and younger audiences. And to do that, soaps must employ the technologies that are transforming television. As Katherine Kelly says, “When I started, Corrie didn’t even have a website and now they’re doing more and more online and interactive things.”

From the popularity of YouTube (launched in 2005) to the arrival of BBC iPlayer at Christmas 2007, the internet has fundamentally altered the way people – especially younger people – watch TV. Add the explosion in social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter and the days when vast audiences were given two 30-minute doses of soap each week look like ancient history.

As soaps build impressive websites, with messageboards that allow fans to chat, and individual actors (including Kelly) engage with the audience via Twitter, there are more opportunities to interact with soap stars than just writing in for an autographed photo.

“I’m very aware that younger viewers in particular are watching in different ways now,” says Roberts. “When I was a teenager, there was one television in the house and we all sat round it. Now kids watch on laptops in bedrooms and on mobiles and we have to deal with that. We’re looking for ways to extend Coronation Street content and the brand.”

As well as their Facebook page, which has more than a million fans, he cites Ken and Deirdre’s Bedtime Stories – web-only vignettes set in the Barlows’ bedroom – as an example of the way the soap is updating. “And we’re developing a new multiplatform piece that will involve Rosie. In terms of online, I admit we’re playing catch-up to EastEnders, but we’re getting there.”

The BBC soap by contrast has long been involved online – most successfully with its spin-off E20, which was also written by a group of young writers at a BBC summer school and is now heading for a third series.

For Yorke and Roberts, the creative possibilities technology offers are exciting, coupled with the increasing diversity of Britain. Yorke says he’s very proud that one of the most watched TV dramas of last year – EastEnders’ New Year’s Day episode featuring Syed Masood – was about a gay Muslim coming out at his own wedding. “That the British population will embrace that and aren’t scared of it says a wonderful thing.”

But does it? Or is this wonder a combination of political correctness and optimism on Yorke’s part? And could soaps’ bid to get us to go online be just a last-ditch attempt to engage increasingly uninterested viewers? Perhaps ultimately, as our notion of community changes and we live more isolated lives, we’ll tire of the imaginary communities of Walford and Weatherfield.

Conversely, these surrogate communities could become more important for the same reasons. Tony Warren, who created Coronation Street 50 years ago, says, “The sense of community we had is gone. Not that we knew the word community – it just was. When I was a child, Aunty Polly Duck next door would always say whenever anything was lost, ‘Get Tony. He knows where everything is in this house’.”

Warren says Coronation Street often appeals to audiences when they’re in need of comfort. “While many people form an attachment to the show in their childhood as an escape from homework, many grown-ups form an attachment to it at a low point in their lives, whether that’s a divorce or a bereavement or a serious illness. They don’t necessarily stay with it, but they come back. It’s another world, to which audiences escape. It always will be and it always has been.”

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And perhaps he has a point. For as long as we all have trials, tribulations and traumas in our lives, we need escape from them – and that’s unlikely ever to alter, irrespective of technology. A case, perhaps, of the more things change, the more they remain the same.