A look at how Soaps are struggling to create propper conversation in a wider and varied TV landscape from Alex Osborne from Walford Weekly Podcast
Everyone has an opinion about soaps. What’s right? What’s wrong? If their ratings start to suffer then Streaming is
the culprit! Whilst Netflix, Amazon, Disney+ and NOW have undoubtedly changed the way we consume our television, they can’t be blamed for the recent sluggishness our soaps have been going through.
Our soaps have always kind of been our little secret. Of course, they have some success
outside of our little island but nothing near the familiarity that they have here back in the UK. As dramas get bigger and bolder in their scope, our soaps provide a daily dose of ordinary life. They have the luxury of telling long-form stories with no worry about whether they’ll be coming back for another series. When they’re at their best they can get the whole nation talking, but, no matter how hard they try of late, it’s clear something has changed.
I’m going to focus on the BBC’s flagship soap EastEnders. It’s a show I’ve watched, obsessed over and even do a podcast on every week. In that sense, I’m not your average viewer. I dissect every inch of the episodes that air across the week. As a fan/obsessive, I’ve always championed the power of Soap as a genre. I don’t take kindly to those who see it as a lesser being in the TV landscape. Some of the UK’s most talented and celebrated writers got their start learning how to tell stories in Soap. Kay Mellor, Paul Abbott, Russell T Davies, Sally Wainwright, Jimmy McGovern and Sarah Phelps have all spoken about the importance of Soap not only in our schedules but as the best training ground for new writing talent.
EastEnders has been struggling of late. Like every other production, it was forced to shut down when the country went into lockdown and since its return, it has struggled to maintain its regular viewership. The episode that aired at the end of July attracted just 1.7 million viewers, minuscule in comparison to the show’s heyday, which saw 30 million tune in on Christmas Day 1986 when Den Watts told Angie he wanted a divorce. Even ITV’s Coronation Street and Emmerdale, which are the backbone of their primetime schedule have seen a big drop off in viewers.
It’s hard to say why this has happened and I don’t profess to have any of the answers. It can’t be all down to there being more choice because we’ve had
a choice for a long time. With cable and Sky, we’ve had hundreds of channels and we
could record shows to watch at a later date, but we couldn’t binge before. Now,
maybe that’s the problem, keep them relevant by throwing them all at once for everyone
to see. When the BBC announced that a whole week of EastEnders would be available on the iPlayer for viewers who didn’t want their nightly visit to Walford to bit interrupted either by The Olympics or the Euros I shuddered. I worried that this was perhaps something the BBC was trialling. I worried that if soap fans were consuming a weeks’ worth in one night it would take away from the thing I enjoy most about soap and television in general: the communal viewing experience. More than almost any other genre of television, soaps provide a community of fans. If we were all at different places it’s impossible to have a proper chat about the episodes. It makes those ‘doof doof’ cliffhangers lose their impact when you can immediately scroll into the next episode. Putting it on iPlayer, whilst novel at first, didn’t feel right and certainly didn’t help the serial’s relevancy.
A cynical thought would be something that I personally have an issue with and that is: “It’s
not what it used to be”. Let’s be fair, soaps aren’t. I am all for changing and updating a
programme but not at the expense of the heritage of the show. Style over substance, it
leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
Recently the only stories that get the attention in the press are “Issue-Based”, why does
the production feel the need to preach? I’d be much happier if soaps talked with us rather than at us.
I feel as if most soaps lack the confidence to think ‘inside the box’, always striving to find the
next story that hasn’t been covered. What’s missing is the representation of the everyday. The stories that fit the category are the ones that seem to get written as a B plot and yet they’re always the ones that I can watch without rolling my eyes. All modern drama has an obligation to reflect our world, but as a long time EastEnders fan, I’ve enjoyed the show when it has shone a light onto the problems of everyday people. Soaps are better placed to cover this than most dramas because we can follow characters we’ve known for a long time and have a history with. A recent example, again from EastEnders, came when it was revealed that long-time character Billy Mitchell (Perry Fenwick) was sleeping rough. Keeping his living situation a secret from everyone in the square, he’d sneak off and make up a bed in the car lot when he knew no one was around. It was a dark, and instantly believable story. Billy has never really had a lot of money. He’s never been very stable, working on an antique stall can’t bring much in. It was the quietest of stories. The camera would capture Mitchell fixing himself up in a car mirror and a character would occasionally mention that had let himself go, but it felt true to the character. Sadly, as is the case with a lot of the stories EastEnders are doing at the moment, it wasn’t given time to grow and develop. Kat Slater (Jessie Wallace) discovers his secret and convinces his cousin Phil (Steve McFadden) to allow him to ‘kip’ on the sofa. Against his better nature, Phil agrees and the story ends there. A few weeks later, Phil’s house burns down being Billy is technically homeless again, but the writers don’t ever really address this. In other era’s of the show, we’d follow Billy as he found himself on the streets again, but in this era, they appear to forget what has come before in favour of ‘big stunts’ that whilst, impressive at the time, end up feeling hollow.
Perhaps it’s us fans that are the problems. Perhaps we’re wishing for the soaps to be everything. The
swiss army knife of TV and they have been burdened by the responsibility to keep a large
What’s wrong with the soap having a small(er) audience after all? If it’s pleasing the
viewers who are watching it, but I think I made the case that it potentially isn’t.
Soaps thrive with word of mouth and conversation. That’s true of all television, but with soap, and EastEnders, I feel their need to create a buzz on social media has led to the shows doing things that don’t feel true to the show. The fire at the Mitchell house hasn’t had any impact on anyone involved. Phil Mitchell hasn’t been seen since. Kat has moved back to the Slater house and it feels as if the show has forgotten it entirely. How can they expect the audience to remember it too?
People talk about EastEnders on forums, Twitter and Facebook – Why aren’t the
production team lapping this up? A post once a day with a clip does not make a buzz!
This is all pie in the sky though. The only way anything can survive is by giving it the
oxygen to breathe and sadly their lack of direction, presence, fearlessness and attitude
to strive makes us all feel “What’s the point” and slowly see it suffocate and go forever if
not tended and cared for.
…Unless… There’s always the return of “Waterloo Road”; Plan B!?