Soap operas are ripping up their own rule book. The most stylistically consistent form of TV is in thrall to experimentation and using flashbacks, flash forwards and any clever way it can to step outside of their regular storytelling format.
Emmerdale’s multi-perspective ‘Who killed Graham?’ murder mystery will be closely followed by EastEnders using a similar device for its 35th anniversary boat disaster, and in recent months we’ve had Carla Connor’s psychotic episode complete with hallucinations in Coronation Street, and Hollyoaks’ year-ahead flash forward foretelling the future.
- EastEnders: who is joining, leaving and returning to the soap?
- Emmerdale: who is leaving, returning to and joining the cast?
- Hollyoaks: who is leaving, joining and returning to the cast?
- Coronation Street: who is leaving, returning to and joining the soap?
Why are these reliable cornerstones of the schedules messing around with a format that trades on familiarity and tradition?
Put simply, soaps are on a quest to prove they are still relevant in the ever-changing TV drama landscape, a field in which they were once unchallenged in setting the agenda.
Streaming dramas with their sky-high production values and shiny sheen of quality have made soaps up their game and rethink their storytelling methods, so as not to be left behind as tastes refine and audience expectations escalate - hence the genre-busting, convention-flouting departures from linear narratives, and flirting with wonky close-ups and CGI.
Does this undermine the entire ethos of the genre? After all, soap operas were conceived as realistic dramas intended to reflect the lives of ordinary people, borne out of the gritty ‘kitchen sink’ movement of early 1960s British culture that gave a voice to working class life and stories.
The format was very much what culture buffs call verisimilitude: unobtrusive camerawork and a style more akin to documentaries with sparing use of incidental music or narrative trickery, all to connote realism.
So is it a cheat to start using gimmicks more at home in a Tarantino film? When is a soap not a soap?
As we’ve crept further into the 21st century, soaps have been searching for new ways to hold the audience’s interest to future-proof themselves, and stay strong in the face of increasing competition.
A decade ago live episodes were all the rage as a way of ensuring soaps became appointment to view events again, as live talent show finals like X Factor and Britain's Got Talent stole their thunder to become national talking points.
Between 2010 and 2015 soaps went live crazy, hooking on big milestones and saving huge plot reveals or set pieces for the occasion.
Corrie did it for the 50th anniversary in 2010 (the tram crash) and again for ITV’s 60th in 2015 (Callum’s murder), and Emmerdale joined in for their 40th in 2012 (Tom’s death). Having gone live in 2010 for the 25thanniversary (Archie’s killer revealed and Bradley’s demise), EastEnders took things a step further for the 30th five years later by having live scenes included in a whole week’s worth of episodes (Lucy’s killer was unmasked and Kathy came back from the dead).
Unsurprisingly, that fad has faded somewhat (there’s only so many times you can tune in hoping someone fluffs their lines or falls over) which brings us to the current spate of experimentation to deliver the element of surprise the audience.
Hollyoaks has always stood slightly apart in terms of taking narrative and stylistic risks, especially in terms of incidental music and graphics, but they’ve led the way in terms of pushing the genre’s boundaries.
As far back as 2011 they gave us UK soap’s first flash forward. Interrupting continuity to leap six months into the future for a single episode, the murder of a major character was confirmed and viewers were hooked in to follow the story in real time as it built up to an ending they already knew. A cliffhanger in reverse.
Emmerdale then started to test the water with risky specials, notably the 2016 episode told from the point of view of dementia sufferer Ashley Thomas in which stylised effects took viewers into the character’s troubled mind. It’s a trick that was repeated by Corrie in 2019 for Carla Connor's breakdown.
In a purple patch of innovation, Emmerdale also started to favour the ‘rewind’ story, filling in the blanks on a big event by going back in time after it’s happened, and telling the same story from different perspectives over consecutive days until all the pieces fitted together. There was even a Dickensian Christmas Carol homage, where rotter Robert Sugden was visited by festive ghosts as his sins literally returned to haunt him.
EastEnders and Corrie resisted the box of tricks and were slightly later to follow suit, but now they’re fully on board: Carla’s aforementioned psychosis episode was arguably its most daring yet, and producer Iain MacLeod has said to expect more ‘genre-busting’ as the soap approaches its 60th anniversary in December 2020.
EastEnders fully embraced experimentation with the Christmas/New Year’s day flashback to Keanu’s fake death, Linda’s point of view drunken night and the upcoming Groundhog Day 35th anniversary boat disaster.
It could be argued the novelty of the ‘experimental episode’ is wearing off, and how far things will get before a new trend is sought. But there’s one thing that remains unchanged about soaps: stories.
Ultimately, that’s what they're about – compelling plots, characters audiences relate to and see themselves in, and hot topics impacting on society and families no other genre is yet brave enough to address. You can put a filter on a camera, use atmospheric music and jump back or forward in time, but none of it works without a decent tale to tell.
What these tricks do is allow soaps to delve deeper into stories, emotions and character motivation, and surprise audiences in ways that feel every bit as fresh as the first ever episode of Coronation Street did six decades ago.
Soaps remain true to themselves, just with added audacity and courage.
Personally, I can’t wait for Emmerdale’s all-musical episode told in flashback set on the International Space Station. That’s also streamed live.