Great drama is about conflict, challenges and thereby, most often, great misery. I produced a Channel 4 show years ago called Brookside. It was always referred to as “the miserable Merseyside soap” and in fact we repeatedly had an argument with The Times who’d always put that in their TV listings: “Brookside. 8pm. Miserable Merseyside soap”.
Phil Redmond and I were always working to change the perception of the show, which we felt was always very out of line with what the show really was. We were always saying, “Actually, the show can be very funny, because of the dark Merseyside humour.” Miserable? British soaps like EastEnders are more in line with the Ken Loach-style of gritty storytelling going right back to the kitchen-sink dramas of the early 60s.
“Soaps are about our need to see ourselves. That’s now reflected horribly – and ironically unrealistically – in reality TV.”
Coronation Street came into being in 1960, on the back of grittier pieces such as John Osbourne’s Look Back In Anger and films like Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. People had never seen anything like it: real Northeners, played by real Northerners, cast from the music halls, cast to look like you; Ena Sharples, Minnie Caldwell, iconic soap models we now take for granted. They looked like us, sounded like us, dressed like us, their houses looked like ours. Corrie was the first to say, this is how you live. It’s about our need to see ourselves. That’s now reflected horribly (and ironically unrealistically) in reality TV, but I’d say soaps like EastEnders are still closer to reflecting our real lives than reality TV.
We come from generations of families who were bombed in the war, who were at war twice within thirty years. With that, we like a bit of misery. It’s the minutiae of life which we Brits love to read about and watch. We like to see everyday life depicted on the screen, and everyday life can be pretty miserable. But it can still be very funny - a particularly dark British humour. At EastEnders we used to refer to it as the Blitz Spirit. No matter what life throws at us, we get back up and fight on.
Good soaps don’t try to answer life’s difficult questions, they just ask them. Like all good contemporary drama they hold a mirror to society and say ‘There you are. Warts and all. Discuss.’ Misery in EastEnders can actually be quite therapeutic: ‘Hey, my life’s not so bad compared to this bunch’.