Should soaps change their storylines to reflect coronavirus outbreak?

A genre renowned for raising awareness faces a new challenge

coronation street geoff metcalfe yasmeen metcalfe

The impact of coronavirus on the entertainment industry is being increasingly felt, and ordinarily it’s the kind of topic you might expect the UK’s soaps to insert a last-minute insert in which characters discuss the situation.

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However, when production of the shows themselves are potentially at risk from being disrupted due to the outbreak, it’s no wonder our continuing dramas have so far steered clear of addressing it.

Until tonight’s Coronation Street, which featured coercive bully Geoff Metcalfe checking wife Yasmeen Metcalfe had washed her hands for the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice after cleaning the toilet.

However, it transpires this was merely a coincidence, as the scene was filmed back in January before the Prime Minister issued it as official government advice as to how to prevent the spread of the illness. Little did writers realise evil Geoff’s comment to belittle his wife would become a zeitgeist-seizing moment by the time it aired, and we were all encouraged to keep our hands clean as per his suggestion.

John Whiston, ITV’s Creative Director who works across both Corrie and Emmerdale, acknowledged the genre’s reputation as a platform for raising public awareness on important issues, and what that means in the current climate.

In a statement to RadioTimes.com he said: “Because we script and shoots so far in advance we generally don’t reflect contemporary issues. However, we are going to use the soaps to remind people of important public health issues such as the need to wash their hands. We’ll try and do more such messages going forward.”

Coronavirus

Whiston raises the very good point that soaps are well-oiled machines run to tight schedules, with scripts largely written six months in advance and episodes filmed around six to eight weeks before they hit the screen. These intricate production models have a degree of flexibility to build in any last-minute tweaks deemed absolutely necessary, for example if a cast member falls ill while involved in a big storyline and scripts have to be rewritten, or for dialogue to comment on news or cultural developments.

EastEnders, in particular, are renowned for filming on-the-spot rewritten scenes referring to current affairs to make their fictional world feel more like the real one. But slotting in a nod to the World Cup, general elections, Brexit and Michael Jackson’s death are a far cry from the current global spread of Covid-19, a story so fast-moving any reworked scenes may become out of date in a matter of hours.

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While soaps should reflect society and tackle social taboos, they are still fictional dramas meant to provide escapist entertainment for the audience. After a day of rolling coronavirus news and speculation, do we really want it seeping into our daily fix of cosy continuing drama?

If you’re looking for more to watch check out our TV guide.