Soap Operas and Public Service Television

01/12/2014  -  11.52am

Dorothy Hobson, senior lecturer and course leader in Contemporary Media.

Soap Opera and Popular Drama are not the first genres which come to mind when thinking of Public Service Broadcasting.   It is more often the case that viewers and commentators think of serious documentaries and arts programmes as fulfilling this requirement of television production.  However, it is the British popular drama and the soap opera in particular that carries some of the most important and difficult subjects.  The reason why soap operas can carry such topics as rape, assisted suicide, mental health issues and potentially fatal medical conditions,  is that they have the time to tell all aspects of the story and present many different opinions and responses to the issues which are discussed.  Currently there are a number of high profile stories in soap opera and the show the way that serious issues can be handled and how the public can gain an understanding and hopefully empathy for the characters that carry the stories.

Soaps have a long history of tackling serious public service issues and perhaps the most famous was the storyline in EastEnders in the 1990s when Mark Fowler was discovered to be HIV positive. It was a very brave decision to handle the storyline especially as at that time there was no positive medical regime to keep the condition under control and they had no idea how they would be able to complete their story.

Now 25 years later Channel 4’s Hollyoaks is to run a storyline where Ste, a character who is bi-sexual, and married,  fears that he has contracted HIV after a night of unprotected sex. Both production companies have worked closely with the Terence Higgins Trust to ensure that their narratives are accurate and informative.  Ste’s storyline will run in January 2015.  

Recently Emmerdale shown on ITV at 7.00 has had a storyline where Val a woman in her 50s had unprotected sex on holiday in Portugal and she contracted HIV from a brief ‘affair’. After the initial shock and denial the character came to terms with her condition and spoke out in public in her small village to bring the facts to everyone. In these cases the productions are able to give correct information to the public about the issues which they are handling.

Already part of the narrative of ITV’s Coronation Street is a story which is dealing with mental health issues, specifically Depression. One of their main and long-standing characters, Steve McDonald is experiencing feelings and moods which are not familiar to his character. Normally a light-hearted joker, this change of personality is baffling for the character and those around him. In emotive and heart-breaking scenes the actor Simon Gregson portrays his confusion and despair as he is overtaken by the feelings which he is experiencing.  While he has visited his GP he is not yet accepting her offers drugs and therapy but agrees to talk to someone about how he feels.  He tries to talk to his mother but she rejects his attempts and this one episode manages to convey how the character is suffering and how other people can help.  This  storyline has a long way to go.

A major storyline which has been running in BBC1’s EastEnders is that of the rape of Linda one of the main characters, by her husband’s brother. The story is complicated and has caused much controversy.   It is due to come to a dramatic climax at Christmas, when I will cover the whole story in detail in another  blog. 

Of course, all soap operas and popular dramas now handle strong public service issues and they always show the Helpline details from the relevant organizations where viewers can find assistance and details of available information. All such organizations are pleased to co-operate with television drama as they are aware that it is one of the best ways of getting their information across to the public.   

In fact, they also approach the companies to ask them if they will include the particular areas of concern in their series. The production companies, wisely only include serious public service issues if they are something that is relevant and contemporary and if it fits in with their characters and their intended progression.