How same-sex romances became soaps’ hottest storylines: EastEnders boss Kate Oates reveals all

Why have Ben and Callum become such a hit? David Brown on the reasons behind #Ballum's success

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Strong partnerships have been the backbone of soaps for as long as anyone can remember. If two characters with chemistry are successfully paired up, then they’ll be forever remembered by fans. Den and Angie on EastEnders, Coronation Street’s Stan and Hilda, even Zak and Lisa on Emmerdale – with duos such as these, you rarely think of one name without the other also coming to mind. But it seems that in recent years we’ve witnessed something of a shift when it comes to favoured soap couplings.

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Gay relationships – once seen by writers as a daring gamble – are now the ones making a real impact on viewers. For evidence, just look on social media where, over the last couple of years, the buzz has all been about same-sex romances. Think #Robron (Emmerdale’s Robert and Aaron), #Kana (Coronation Street’s Kate and Rana) and now, of course, #Ballum aka Ben and Callum, who are the focus of EastEnders’s most popular current plotline.

Everyone, it seems, wants the two of them to be together. However, this being a soap opera, there are certain obstacles in the way: in particular, Callum’s current reluctance to come out and his decision to instead plough ahead with a plan to marry Whitney. But what is it about #Ballum that has the audience rooting for them to unite?

“For some viewers, it’s as simple as celebrating representation,” says Kate Oates, head of continuing drama at the BBC. “A lot of EastEnders fans are liking how comfortable Ben is in his sexuality and have commented that his approach to dating feels authentic, which I think is important. Likewise, Callum feels very believable as someone who’s come from a homophobic family and is struggling with his sexuality. So, both these characters really resonate with our LGBTQI audience.”

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But what’s also interesting about couples such as Ben and Callum are that they don’t just find favour with viewers who are gay men. Having noticed that a lot of his female Twitter followers were asking him questions about #Ballum, EastEnders writer Daran Little recently asked what it was about gay male relationships in soaps that appealed to women.

A typical response read as follows: “I like sensitive men, and gay men are written as much more sensitive characters than straight men seem to be. There seems to be a lot of openness and soul searching, which I find appealing.” Another cited the appeal of following the emotional bumps in the road as Ben and Callum strive to find happiness: “Since the journey they follow is full of obstacles, they show that what matters is love. Two men showing their feelings gives hope for a better world.”

It’s also notable that many of the fans appear to be teenagers, something that, on reflection, makes sense. At a time when they’re dealing with hormonal changes and emotional anxiety, perhaps it’s reassuring for teens to watch someone like Callum agonising about his own identity?

Says Oates: “For viewers who don’t identify as LGBTQI, there is still a lot that resonates. Some relate to Ben and Callum because they feel – or have felt – unheard, unseen or misunderstood in life. The empathy and support this enables some viewers to have for the characters is huge because they totally understand what they’re going through. A lot of people feel stress or anxiety at the thought of ‘finding themselves’, regardless of sexuality.

“The story also embraces the concept of exploring sexuality and the experience of having a different kind of sex. That can feel hot and exciting to characters and viewers alike, so there’s something intrinsically appealing about that, too.”

But isn’t there one person we’re forgetting in this clamour to see Callum hook up with Ben? What about poor Whitney, who, following years of relationship trauma, now looks set to marry a gay man? She, of course, isn’t the first unsuspecting straight partner of a closeted character. We’ve been here before with Zeedan on Corrie and Chrissie on Emmerdale. So, does Oates (who previously crafted both the #Robron and #Kana partnerships during her years helming the ITV soaps) feel sympathy for those being cheated on?

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“To be truthful in any story, you need to see the pain that an infidelity causes the injured party. That’s interesting drama. But these stories work because a large part of the audience believes the ‘new’ couple should be together and that, ergo, the existing relationship is somewhat doomed anyway. Callum might try and ‘do right’ by Whitney in ignoring his feelings for Ben, but will that really ensure her happiness in the long run? But what’s important is that we get to see how the ‘rejected’ character responds – and what story mileage that gives.”

The excitement surrounding Ben and Callum is also representative of an attitudinal change that’s happened within the show’s own lifetime. Back in 1987, the BBC received numerous complaints when Albert Square’s first on-screen gay resident Colin Russell kissed his boyfriend Barry Clark on the forehead. Two years later, Colin’s mouth-to-mouth gay kiss (the first on British TV) with new love interest Guido Smith was labelled in the Sun as “a love scene between yuppie poofs” that was screened in the early evening “when millions of children were watching”.

Fast-forward three decades and Callum and Ben have been proudly positioned at the forefront of the drama on EastEnders. The advance feels seismic, but Oates believes there’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to altering perceptions. “There are so many obstacles and obstructions already built-in with a same-sex relationship because not all of society is accepting.

“There’s a paradox there because one of the things that makes viewers root for the couple and makes the story compelling is actually the thing we’re trying to change: the fact that there’s still so much prejudice. There’s still so much homophobia in our society, and we’re glad to use our voice to try and change that. I’m looking forward to the day when a same-sex kiss can be shown on a mainstream soap and the duty log receives zero complaints – because then we’ll be in a much better place as a society.”

And the secret to changing outlooks and overcoming any remaining sense of bigotry? “Well, I think a lot of viewers do have a natural sense of justice and therefore root for characters to overcome prejudice so they can be together. But when it comes down to it, the enduring and universal appeal of a well-told, well-acted love story cannot be underestimated. That’s why I’m enjoying #Ballum – and I hope others are too.”

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