Can a good soap storyline change the world?

Shows like EastEnders and Coronation Street don't just entertain, says This Morning's soap expert and writer Sharon Marshall, they're a force for good...

The introduction of a Social Impact Award at this year’s British Soap Awards rewards a long-held truth – that a good soap storyline can change the world.

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All the soaps have run brilliant “social issue” storylines this year. Coronation Street tackled depression, showing that it can affect anyone, at any time. EastEnders encouraged rape victims to speak out. Emmerdale and Hollyoaks both tackled HIV.

All are likely to have been more effective and hold more resonance for viewers than any government campaign. Local health authorities reported a rise in the number of people coming for tests after the HIV storylines aired. Rape Crisis reported a 35 per cent increase in hits to its website (to 1.2 million) in October, the month the rape storyline aired in EastEnders.

One reason for this effect is the ratings – big storylines can boost them by a couple of million viewers and, unlike a one-off drama, can play out over time. There is also a unique bond between viewers and soap characters – we’ve known them for years and we care about them. As Coronation Street story editor Kate Brooks puts it: “Our characters are much loved and it’s their distinctive voices and their stories that linger long after the credits have rolled.”

When Steve McDonald suffered depression in Coronation Street, we cared because we care about Steve. A nation willed EastEnders’ Linda Carter to tell husband Mick she’d been raped. In Emmerdale, funny, lairy Val Pollard was the perfect choice to break down stigmas surrounding HIV and promote a safe-sex message for middle-aged women, the fastest-growing group testing positive.

As Emmerdale producer Kate Oates says: “Val allowed us to tell the story without resorting to stereotypes and to use humour as well as emotion to get our point across.

I hope we made people aware that a healthy life [if you’re HIV-positive] is completely normal, if you take control of your situation.”

Soaps can provide a powerful platform for debating issues, but they’re also under pressure to get it right. While soaps have a certain artistic licence, and characters can come back from the dead at will, when it comes to tackling real-life issues they need to get it right. Careless plotlines – a miracle recovery, a police investigation concluded too swiftly – risks alienating the viewer.

The key to making a story work is to make sure it’s well researched. An unsung army of advisers and researchers is used by each soap.

Writers work off commissioning documents, which outline the characters to appear and roughly what happens to them within a single episode. The writer then writes everything from dialogue, action and even the state of their make-up to bring the story alive. To help them is a raft of research notes detailing everything from what energy levels or hair regrowth a post-chemo patient might have that week to what the Church of England say Dot might do at a foot-washing service on Maundy Thursday.

Often these notes come from a close working relationship with the charities, who advise on scripts. Coronation Street worked with mental health charity MIND for the Steve McDonald depression plotline, Hollyoaks worked with the Terrence Higgins Trust when its young gay character Ste was diagnosed as HIV-positive, and EastEnders collaborated with Rape Crisis over the attack on Linda.

Rape Crisis provided invaluable materials and insights, including case studies, blogs from rape survivors and research explaining what motivates a rapist. These inspired the storylining team to include scenes such as Linda scrubbing herself with bleach in the shower, and suffering flashbacks triggered by the scent of a flower that had been on the table when she was raped.

It also shaped the dialogue for the key characters. The same charity also advised Emmerdale on its sexual assault storyline in which a 14-year- old boy attacked a woman as she slept. Again, care was taken not to sensationalise the issue. The day the episode aired, 3,265 people visited the Rape Crisis website – a 70 per cent increase.

Although some calls to the charity have been made by sexual violence survivors distressed by the stories, reveals Katie Russell, the national spokeswoman for Rape Crisis, Linda’s story clearly encouraged women to speak out: “Some people who call in to the helplines are people who have been motivated to talk to someone and seek support for an experience in their past. Sometimes that’s for the first time. Some people will have watched Linda’s story and realised they’re not alone, that other people have experienced something similar to them.”

There are barriers to realistic storytelling. Guidelines must be followed on what may be shown before the watershed; and the soaps have a responsibility to the actors, too.

Harrowing subjects such as child abuse have been covered, although these have been in retrospect, with adult characters, such as EastEnders’ Kat Slater, revealing what happened to them as a child. EastEnders was the first to involve a young actress in such a storyline when schoolgirl Whitney was abused by her stepfather Tony – though it’s rare to find as mature and talented a young actress as Shona McGarty, who was able to handle such dark material.

Some soap viewers seem to have problems distinguishing reality from fiction. Online abuse of soap actors is common after controversial plots, and not everyone is willing to accept the stigma of some storylines.

Matt Di Angelo, who plays Dean in EastEnders, admits to hesitating before agreeing to play a rapist. He was swayed because he felt it was an important enough issue to risk any possible flak. But one soap had to veto a planned “gymslip affair” storyline for a long-running character, as the actor feared being branded a paedophile himself.

Stories can also backfire if they get too close to reality. A planned Hollyoaks storyline involving child killers living under assumed identities never emerged after objections from the family of murdered toddler Jamie Bulger, who felt it was too close to their own heartache. Both EastEnders and Coronation Street pulled child abduction storylines in 2007 because they coincided with Madeleine McCann’s disappearance.

But in the drive for ever bigger, ever more dramatic storylines, one nomination in the best scene category at the British Soap Awards stands out: “Deirdre Throws the Trifle”. In the last scene involving the wonderful Anne Kirkbride, who died of cancer in January, Deirdre Barlow, driven to distraction by her dysfunctional family and a jelly that hadn’t set, threw her trifle against the wall.

Soaps need drama, but it needs to be balanced by everyday life. Go too high- octane and viewers will stop believing. Sometimes the best episodes are those where nothing much happens apart from a joyful chat about nonsense between characters in a pub. Soaps should aim to change the world, but those trifles are just as important.

Sharon Marshall is the resident soap expert on ITV’s This Morning and has written episodes of EastEnders and Emmerdale 

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The British Soap Awards will air on Thursday at 8pm on ITV

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