Have British soaps become too unrealistic?

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16 February
16:47
Photo: ITV STUDIOS
16 February
16:57

The problem is that when you have a soap that’s been around for years, compared against the “real world”, it becomes questionable. Yes, everybody in EastEnders would in reality be able to sell their houses for a great deal of money, and the place would be well gentrified by now, yes, there probably wouldn’t be that amount of murders in one small community… but there always has to be a certain amount of cheating and dramatic license employed.

The Rover’s Return doesn’t exist – did it ever really? But it taps into a time we think existed, probably didn't. A nostalgic view of a fictionalised past. It’s also a practicality, a way to get stories to overlap, for people to interact, have drama, fall out, have arguments. It’s a device. it isn't very real, However, you still try to cling on to some reality. All the stories are based on reality. Soaps are always on the lookout for issues and subjects that resonate with the viewer: “That could be me.”

It can be melodramatic at times, yes, in the same way that Dickens could be. The great thing about EastEnders, and all the British soaps, is that you can relate to them and say, What would I do if that was me? That’s always been the kind of drama I’ve been interested in producing and writing, so that people go, “Wow, how did you know I was feeling like that? How did you know what it was like for my mum to have dementia?”

“The Rover’s Return doesn't exist – did it ever really? But it taps into a time we think existed, a nostalgic view of a fictionalised past.”

Phil Redmond and I used to call it “Real life with the heat turned up”. It’s a slight exaggeration, but everything’s based one something real. So, when we buried a body under the back patio [in Brookside], Channel 4 at the time said, “Are you sure you’re not going too far and have jumped the shark?” Then we suddenly had six different women accusing us of stealing their real story, saying, “I did this, I slept with a knife under my pillow for years.” So we knew we’d tapped into something very real. It wasn't common, it wasn't happening in every road in every town but it was real enough – it said something about domestic violence.

The story was based on us finding out that one in four women, at that time in the 90s, would be subjected to domestic violence of some sort. That just completely threw us, that 25% of women would go through something like that. So we said, “OK, lets explore that as a story.” We took it to extremes, but even those extremes, of killing an abusive husband and burying him, were still based in reality and so had a huge impact on the audience. More people watched that difficult subject than would tune into a documentary.

“Soaps never give you a neat and tidy ending. You want some resolution? Go to a movie.”

The next section of the story was based on us discovering that the court system was weighted against women, and that you couldn't use cumulative provocation as a defence for killing an abusive husband. The judge would have said, “You should walk away.” Well, they couldn’t. We interviewed women and they all said “Where are we going to go? He’ll find me and kill me!” So you stay with him, and you think you’re going to fix him. So, the law actually changed because of Brookside’s Jordache story starting a debate.

Soaps never give you a neat and tidy ending. You want some resolution? Go to a movie. A soap never has resolution. Soaps are ongoing, 52 weeks a year, often six nights a week. You never end them. You can never really have a happy ending. You’re always left asking “What happens next?”

I always had a rule, in every soap I worked on: never finish an episode on an exclamation mark, finish on a question mark. Also, whenever anyone leaves the show, don’t leave with them. You have to cut back to the people they leave behind. So, when you’re in the taxi (because everyone always leave the square in a taxi in EastEnders) with one more shot you cut back to the person left behind, to say what’s going to happen to them next. This is the stuff of drama. What happens next?

That is the mirror image of our own lives. 

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