Is Soapland in crisis? And where are all the pets?

As key characters – both two and four-legged – vanish from our screens, Mark Lawson has paws for thought

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One of President Bill Clinton’s contributions to public life was the popularisation of the expression “until the last dog dies”. In campaign speeches, he would reassure voters of his intention to fight for them until the day when the barking stopped. But his resonant phrase may have an ominous relevance to EastEnders.

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As a reader from Norfolk pointed out in RT’s Feedback pages last week there are currently no major pets in the BBC1 soap opera. And while we hope that the last Albert Square dog has not actually died – fondly imagining such once-trusty companions as Den and Angie’s Roly and Ethel’s Willy living in some off-screen rest kennel – the absence of animal companions coincides with a time when some people in television would now be reluctant to risk a Clintonian prediction of the show’s future endurance.

A new controller at a major British TV network has numerous worries but, until recently, the genre that practitioners prefer to call “continuing drama” was not one of them. Run BBC1 and EastEnders provided guaranteed high ratings, sparing your energy to decide what to schedule around it. Take over ITV and Coronation Street was a similarly guaranteed banker.

However, revealingly, Charlotte Moore, the new controller of BBC1, used her early interviews in the job to stress that her priority is to sort out EastEnders, which now regularly slips to audiences of around six million, or barely a third of viewers reached at the series’ peak.

Coronation Street has faced a slightly less steep decline from similar heights to averages of eight million or so, although the bigger problems for ITV’s director of television, Peter Fincham, concerns the cast.

Chris Fountain (Tommy Duckworth) was recently sacked for posting sexually offensive music videos online, while two other stars – Michael Le Vell (Kevin Webster) and William Roache (Ken Barlow since the show began 53 years ago) – were suspended, awaiting trial on charges of sexual offences, which they deny. Stephanie Cole (Roy’s mum, Sylvia) also had to be hurriedly written out last month due to a family bereavement.

The resulting sudden quadruple absence from the Corrie cast list is, in one sense, bad luck – an example of unfortunate circumstances to which all productions are vulnerable – but it inevitably disrupts and overshadows the programme: imagine the impact on internal morale and external respect for a political cabinet or a football team that lost three key members in a short space of time to such serious allegations. And so the effect of the events is to add to the sense of crisis surrounding soaps.

There is a wider relevance to what has happened at Coronation Street because control of the cast ins and outs is a vital aspect of running one of these famous drama franchises. Corrie bosses in recent years have traditionally attracted the Axe-Man tag – producer Stuart Blackburn is the latest to have the badge pinned on him by tabloids – but the problem for Blackburn is that, having made his decisions about the squad he wanted, he’s now lost actors whom he’d also planned to keep.

And, though for less dramatic reasons, EastEnders has also had personnel problems. While the nature of a performer’s departure is sometimes tactfully fudged, it seems clear that several talents – including Barbara Windsor and Samatha Womack – made their own decision to go. It is striking that one of the final changes made by outgoing executive producer Lorraine Newman was to bring back Womack (this week) and Windsor, for a one-off appearance.

BBC and ITV bosses will respond to the present panic by arguing that the multi-night dramas have always suffered cyclical shifts: in 2005, EastEnders dipped to five million and even to around three on one very competitive evening. The final decline of Coronation Street has also been predicted at regular intervals in the past; not least when EastEnders first emerged to challenge it. And it’s undeniable that viewing figures for all forms of television except talent contests – drama, sport, news – have dipped because of changes in viewing methods and patterns.

However, the persistence of dips in soap-viewing – and regular reshuffling of personnel on and off screen – suggest that this crisis is more serious than previous ones.

One problem is simply that the standard way of raising ratings – a murder, sex scandal or mass-fatality catastrophe – have already been tried so often in Weatherfield and Walford that only an alien invasion and the second coming of Jesus Christ remain as possible surprise storylines.

More fundamentally, the aspect of soap opera that accounts for much of its popularity – the sense of eavesdropping on the trivia and secrets of everyday lives – is less of a selling point for television when phones and tablets buzz with revelation, sleaze and exhibitionism from non-actors.

Some consolation for ITV is that its second soap, Emmerdale, remains a steady performer and, on several recent occasions, has moved ahead of EastEnders to second place in the ratings table. Intriguingly, Emmerdale, helped by its farmland setting, remains pet-heavy, which may vindicate Christine from Norwich’s measure of soap health.

Perhaps the new regime at EastEnders should rapidly order the patter of four feet to be heard on set.

Mark Lawson regularly hosts Front Row, Mon– Fri 7.15pm Radio 4


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