Soap operas are a staple of British television, with the longest-running on its 61st year of broadcasting. Soaps are popular with all ages, and fans of them spread from North to South, East to West. British soaps are known for storylines exploring taboo subjects. Storylines that are met with both praise and disapproval.
Today we are looking at the best British soaps and seeing how far they have come since their inception.
1. Coronation Street
We begin with the aforementioned world’s longest-running soap. Known as Corrie to fans, the show has been on our screens since 1960. It continues to draw in hefty viewing figures even in the age of streaming services. Corrie’s first episode was not a critical success, with one columnist predicting it wouldn’t last longer than 3 weeks. However, viewers flocked to the show and it’s still going strong 61 years later.
Coronation Street began serialising the lives of the working-class residents of a street in Salford. It begins with the character, Ken, (whose actor is still in the programme today!) having secured a place at university. Thus he becomes embarrassed of his working-class background. Corrie characters use typical Northern dialect. Some praised it for its portrayal of working-class life, others said it was an outdated representation of the working North. Like all soap operas, Corrie features dramatic and perhaps unrealistic storylines including many love affairs, feuds, and even murders.
Coronation Street has aired many controversial storylines and, as it has been on our screens for such a long period of time, it is interesting to look back at episodes that would have been controversial in the previous decades through today’s lenses. The 1960s’ most controversial Coronation Street storyline was the attempted suicide of Sheila Birtle. It was so controversial in fact that the scene was never aired, simply implied. However, it was later released as part of a documentary about the show in 2011, where it was deemed inoffensive compared to today’s storylines. When it was written in the 1960s, however, open dialogues surrounding mental health were not the norm. Corrie’s controversial plots in the 70s and 80s mainly surrounded affairs. However, in the 1990s, the show made headlines and history by featuring the first transgender character in a British soap.
Eastenders has been Coronation Street’s rival since it was first broadcast in 1985. The two British soaps have constantly battled for viewing figures. While Eastenders has been on our screens for a far shorter amount of time, it could be said that it has seen more controversies and changed from its original plot than Corrie.
Like Corrie, Eastenders began by serialising the lives of the working-class, but this time in the East of London. Eastenders has seen its fair share of controversy. Some hailed it as a negative stereotype of the working class in London, while others praised it as accurate and gritty. However, in recent times, Eastenders has come under fire for its lack of realism. Sometimes this is for its absurd storylines. More so, the criticism of its ‘gentrification.’ Gentrification is a topic discussed frequently in regard to London. However, Eastenders does not change its landscape so much, but its characters.
Viewers enjoyed Eastenders because, despite its dramatic storylines, they could relate to the characters who would often speak of their financial difficulties. However, this has not been the case for at least the past few years. The Eastenders characters remain working class but live in large houses. Their appearance is groomed and well kept, and they indulge in many luxuries. This has been criticized repeatedly as not being realistic of the East End for the working class and is probably why Eastenders’ viewing figures have been dropping quicker than Corrie’s recently, despite rivalling them before.
However, despite its critiques, Eastenders has always been a the forefront of British television for exploring taboo subjects. In 1989, they featured the first ever gay kiss in a UK television show!
Eastenders is also available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
Upon its inception in 1972, Emmerdale was known as Emmerdale Farm. It was based in a fictional village in the Yorkshire Dales, serialising life on a farm. Critics called it a ‘sleepy soap,’ without a lot going on. Yet Emmerdale Farm attracted a steady crowd and once its initial three-month run was up, it was commissioned for another, and another, eventually being on our screens for 14 years! However, in 1986, a new executive producer arrived. Keith Richardson scrapped the ‘Farm’ part of Emmerdale and began introducing more dramatic storylines, similar to the ones featured on Coronation Street and Eastenders. Thus, Emmerdale as we know it today was born.
Emmerdale’s popularity continued to climb. In 1993, a storyline was broadcast that “allowed the writers to get rid of much dead wood, and reinvent the soap virtually from scratch.” It was the infamous plane crash episode, which managed to gather an audience of 18 million viewers – the show’s highest ever ratings.
Just as its two counterparts have, Emmerdale has faced many years of both praise and critique for these more controversial storylines. Significant ones include a 2014 storyline with a character’s HIV diagnosis. This storyline highlighted the prejudice those with a positive HIV diagnosis face; the episode garnered a lot of attention from online trolls. Emmerdale was also the first British soap to feature a lesbian main character in 1989 with Zoe Tate.
Then Vs Now
From our look at where these great British soaps began and where they are now, it is easy to see they have all changed significantly over the years. Maybe this is inevitable. Unlike TV dramas, soaps have a never-ending plotline and run for a far, far longer period of time.
It appears as if Coronation Street has transformed the least out of the three British soaps we have looked at today. Nothing has changed significantly on the cobbles besides the coming and going of characters. Eastenders’ transition has been slow but steady and the gentrification and less ‘authentic’ East End personas are becoming more prevalent as the years go by. Emmerdale’s revamp was quick and intense. However, this was a deliberate and clear decision by producers to bring it into the new age. It may seem like these shows need to make significant changes to keep up with their audiences. However, what we see from viewing figures is that Coronation Street gathers around 1-2 million more viewers per episode than Eastenders or Emmerdale.
Is this because British soaps are, for the most part, light-hearted escapism? Are fans simply fond of their creature comforts? Or could it be that the British soap operas hold onto their original viewership and do not welcome younger fans? After all, around 50% of British soap viewers are over 45. Perhaps they are not so interested in the modern age problems? Maybe it’s simply that Coronation Street has the best writing and storylines. What do you think?
Note: This article was updated on 13/09/2021 to reflect current information.