Coronation Street, Eastenders - In Defence of The Soap.

Adam Shenton 12/09/2008

Like most families of my generation, a worryingly large proportion of my time was spent sat about the telly with my family. Soaps were just part of the furniture. My mum watched them religiously, my autistic sister, by nature a creature of habit, grew used to the same characters being on the TV screen night after night and my Dad enjoyed sitting on his chair, complaining about the crap that was on the telly box.
Now I could carry on in this tone all article, getting all nostalgic about Ian Beale or some such soap mainstay like a nostalgia drenched list program that Channel Four might have commissioned in 2005. I refrain from doing this for two important reasons.

Firstly: most Television Soaps are far, far shittier then any television program has the right to be.

I'm referring to the turgid sludge of misery that is Eastenders and the glorified modelling school that is Hollyoakes, or dreary nostalgia of Heartbeat (it's been on the box for eighteen years, why is it not the seventies yet?), or the light, trite, sunshine shite of Home and Away and Neighbours.

These are the realities of producing two hours plus of TV every week, with no seasonal breaks, whilst constantly under pressure chasing ratings. Whatever the budget, resources are always going to be stretched. The show has to be shot in as little time as possible, on a limited number of sets. All that means is that they're never going to be that slick looking, the biggest problem though is writing the damn things.

To churn out that much material you need a big, unwieldy team of writers all working very quickly. They will all have their own ideas, they've all got a storyline in their head that will make Television History and understandably, they want their ideas to be the ones that will shape the program in the coming weeks. Then they are all subject to the will of their bosses, who will have some sort of Great Idea of their own to boost viewing figures.

There's only result one should expect from any this: an unfocused mess, where one writer's meticulous planning is derailed by someone else deciding a pivotal character in a storyline should suddenly become addicted to some vague drug over the course of a week, only for that storyline to be derailed again to make way for a new family with an Elvis impersonating dad and a pregnant twelve-year-old daughter.

Secondly: Once you strip away all the irony and nostalgia, the soap opera is a format heaving with potential and nearly impossible in any medium other then television. Appealing to everyone isn't the same as appealing to the lowest common denominator.

Soaps can be all things to all people, versatile with massive casts that need be connected by only a handful of locations. Nowhere else can characters be introduced and developed, in real-time, over the course of years and decades. These strengths are very rarely utilized, but that hasn't prevented the genre giving birth to the most critically underrated show on British television:Coronation Street.

Coronation Street, with its deep sense of place and history rooted in the North, understands the importance of long term planning. The greatest example of this I've witnessed is the 'Richard Hillman, serial killer' storyline. This involved months of careful build up that included Street stalwart Gail Platt marrying a man who ends up killing half the street, yet at no point was the ridiculousness of this obvious. A plot like this requires the foresight and planning associated with a big glossy show like 'Lost.'

<>'Coronation Street' and 'Lost' have more in common than you'd think. Both use intricate plotting to realise what would otherwise be fairly silly storylines. Both have extremely well-rounded characters that let them get away with a diverse tone that allows them to be by turns dramatic, funny, romantic or whatever is needed to resolve the aforementioned storylines.

To put what makes 'Coronation Street' so good into context, you need to look at what makes 'Eastenders' so bad. On 'enders the writing-by-committee is painfully obvious - characters undergo complete personality changes with alarming frequency, and events are blatantly contrived to push a storyline embarrassingly quickly.

A case in point is Billy Mitchell. There are two types of Billy Mitchell storylines. One revolves around the incompetent Billy doing something wrong in a comic manner: the storyline ends with a hilarious pratfall, someone saying 'Oh, Billy'; cue shot of Billy looking embarrassed. The other revolves around the incompetent Billy doing something wrong in a tragic manner: this storyline ends with disastrous circumstance, lots of people hurt and Billy pleading that his intentions were good.

The same character trait that has him falling into wedding cakes and hatching get-rich-quick schemes have also seen him leave his family homeless, abandon one wife and abuse a minor in his care. Neither scenario is dramatic, neither is funny. It's clumsy scriptwriting.

Whilst no soap is ever going to be much more realistic than, say, 'The Clangers', a perception of reality should be possible. Whenever 'Eastenders' introduces a one-dimensional bran flake of a human being with less character traits then the Argos catalogue, they might as well be introducing the Soup Dragon to Albert Square.

Corrie isn't perfect; it can occasionally suffer from similar problems to Eastenders. That doesn't stop it from being miles ahead of any other soap, and more then a few prime time dramas look a little rubbish. The fact that most of the two-and-a-half hours it puts out a week are as good as they are is a massive achievement. Shame about the other twelve hours of soap opera on terrestrial, every bloody week. That's all bollocks!