When Channel 4 launched its new ‘teen’ soap Hollyoaks in October 1995, it had a clear identity and seemed a rather different proposition from the previous programmes creator future knight of the realm Sir Phil Redmond had previously given us.
More glamorous than school drama Grange Hill, brighter than socially-aware soap Brookside, the focus at first was on fun, youth and glamour as it followed the lives and loves of a group of good-looking friends in an affluent Chester suburb.
But the new soap on the block actually had more in common with Redmond’s other famous creations than at first glance – all three were, to an extent, a product of the socio-economics of their time.
Carefree and entertaining, Hollyoaks was borne out of the hedonistic, optimistic 1990s as gritty Grange Hill had emerged from a beleaguered late 1970s Britain, and Brookie from the thick of 1980s Thatcherism.
Redmond acknowledged the influence of glossy US teen sagas of the day such as Beverly Hills, 90210 and Saved By The Bell, and saw Hollyoaks as Britain’s contribution to the genre. But beneath the shiny surface it still had a degree of social comment, and something to say about the world its audience lived in.
Once Redmond captured our attention with the promise of glamour and romance, and relatable teens like Tony, Kurt and Jambo serving as updated versions of Grange Hill’s Tucker Jenkins and Brookside’s Damon Grant, Hollyoaks began to slowly darken the tone with stories about real issues affecting the young demographic: drugs, teenage pregnancy, sexual abuse. Sneaking in life lessons at teatime, the secret task of all continuing dramas.
Hollyoaks was conceived as the sexy little sister to Brookside, characters occasionally crossed over between programmes and it was made by the same production company, and it’s that historic link that was key to its evolution: Hollyoaks quietly matured into a major player in the soap strata, and continued the good work that began on the famous Liverpool close back in 1982.
Brookie’s impact when it started cannot be overstated – real, raw and fearless, it embodied Channel 4’s original remit to rattle TV’s cage. It took the genre of soap, then dominated by Coronation Street‘s cosy, rose-tinted view of the northern working class and heightened escapism of US imports such as Dallas, and made it modern and relevant.
It’s no coincidence the BBC launched EastEnders three years later, heavily influenced by Brookside’s hard-hitting social conscience, mixed with Corrie’s more traditional template of a close-knit community. LGBTQ and mental health issues, sexual assault, religion and class clashes were explored for the first time on British screens with unflinching honesty.
By the turn of the millennium the once agenda-setting Brookside was in decline, a casualty of the changing TV landscape and waning viewer loyalty. It was then Hollyoaks stepped up and took on the mantle of its big sister show’s mission statement – to tackle the topics too taboo for other soaps.
It was as if ailing Brookie decided to leave its core values in its will to the sister show, telling Hollyoaks on its deathbed the controversy, the bravery and the ambition was now down to them. Hollyoaks was more than ready for the challenge.
The soap blossomed into a platform for difficult issues not addressed elsewhere, with Luke Morgan’s groundbreaking rape storyline in 2000 a stark turning point. Almost 20 years before Coronation Street approached male sexual violence, Hollyoaks was there first proving they were serious about raising awareness and starting conversations among the viewers.
Other risky plots followed – self-harm, teenage mental health and Ste Hay’s recent radicalisation by far right extremists were all soap firsts, which are rare in a genre that appears to have already told every story possible.
It’s not just the storylines, Hollyoaks expertly pioneered the format-busting experimentation of post-watershed episodes, flash-forwards and flashbacks, dream sequences and high concept approaches that have influenced their counterparts, particularly EastEnders who’s impressive commitment to tearing up the rulebook recently has propelled the show into feeling more contemporary and competitive with slick streaming dramas.
And in terms of diversity and representation it’s also led the way: it was the first soap to cast a trans actor to play a trans character as a regular cast member (Annie Wallace, who’s real story inspired the creation of Corrie’s Hayley Cropper, as Sally St Claire), and the first to have a gay church wedding (Ste Hay and John Paul McQueen in 2014).
Hollyoaks has now outlived Brookside by four years and reached the 25th anniversary milestone its predecessor never managed to achieve. But there’s a little bit of Channel 4’s original revolutionary soap embedded in its DNA that makes the youngest of the UK’s primetime continuing dramas the most courageous.