An irreverant look at the increasingly outlandish plots of Britain's soap operas in the wake of the British Soap Awards, 2011.
In September last year, Coronation Street, already Britain’s longest running soap opera, became the longest running soap in the world. When it started life way back in 1960, it belonged to a genré that Noël Coward alluded to deprecatingly as “kitchen sink drama”. Although it certainly hasn’t lost its gritty, working class roots, both Coronation Street and certain other British soaps have gradually moved away from kitchen sink plots to something at times akin to Psycho meets Fantasy Island. The main reason they have become so outlandish is not far to seek, a ratings war principally between Coronation Street and its chief protagonist EastEnders, with Emmerdale in third place at times threatening to overtake both.
This week sees the culmination of a plot that elevates it far above the kitchen sink when a character with all the charm of Noël Coward and a classical education to boot goes into his final free fall. John Stape first appeared in Coronation Street in May 2007 as a mild mannered schoolteacher, but in the span of four years he has been transformed into a tragic figure, a borderline psychotic who almost becomes a serial killer by accident.
His downward path began with a foolish kiss from the Street’s Lolita, Dozy Rosie, a doomed illicit affair, a kidnapping, marrying his true love in Strangeways Prison, and then giving in to temptation again, this time by stealing the identity of an old colleague to return to teaching, the profession he loved, but from which he had been permanently disbarred by his kidnapping Rosie and locking her in the attic of his late grandmother’s house.
Unfortunately for John, his former colleague, who has emigrated to Canada, returns and blackmails him, then inconveniently drops dead in John’s house, having earlier in the day received a methodical beating from the disgruntled husband of another, lady teacher. John and another former colleague – yet another lady teacher – bury him under the local knicker factory, but things turn sour, and John murders her, almost by accident, then smothers an old lady – again by accident – and come the end of this week, will have three people tied up in the basement of the house of the parents of one of his victims while John either throws himself off the roof or is dragged away in handcuffs to spend the rest of his life in Broadmoor. No, this is definitely not kitchen sink.
The storylines in EastEnders are often just as unworldly, though more often simply sordid, and the plots of all three: Coronation Street, EastEnders and Emmerdale, are at times strikingly similar. At the moment, Coronation Street has a sham marriage that is about to turn real, while in EastEnders another sham marriage is on the cards. In Coronation Street, seven years ago a psychotic lawyer set out to destroy her former lover, burning his shops to the ground, and imprisoning both him and his wife in their apartment before they were rescued by the local builders, one of whom was later murdered by his lover, while in EastEnders it was a lady doctor who became psychotic, and in Emmerdale, it was an old flame of the local vicar, who tried to murder his wife, then drugged him and lured him into bed before being carted off by the fuzz in the back of a police car handcuffed and clearly unfit to stand trial.
EastEnders and Emmerdale have also seen murders – Emmerdale saw two people killed in a fire set by a deranged detective who had been brought in to investigate the murder of the local millionaire, who had himself recently moved to the village hotly pursued by the wife he had abandoned more than two decades earlier, having been declared legally dead and bigamously marrying his second wife with a fake identity – the one who murdered him. Is that clear? EastEnders also boasted two murders in one night – totally seperate ones, one victim being the landlord of the local public house who had ostensibly been murdered some fourteen years previously but was brought back by popular demand. Later his son was murdered after murdering a gangster. One is almost frightened to ask what will happen after John Stape bows out of Coronation Street.
One other thing that has become de rigueur is the love that once dared to speak its name but is now shouting it from the rooftops; all three of Britain’s leading soaps have featured gay affairs, though the one in EastEnders will certainly not have gone down well with the majortiy of Britain’s 1.6 million Moslems, as one of the gay characters is a member of a dysfunctional Moslem family who only revealed his true sexuality after marrying the girl of his parents’ dreams. And although he was himself homosexual, Noël Coward would certainly not have approved of the overt gay kisses that it now seems can be aired before the watershed with impunity.
As well as seeking to drive up the ratings with outrageous scripts, all three soaps have tried to tackle social issues such as a paedophile grooming and having sex with an underage girl – EastEnders; underage pregnancy – all three; and cot death - EastEnders and Emmerdale – although the latter two were complicated somewhat by a hospital baby mix up in the latter and an illegal baby swap in the former, which seems to have backfired because it drew what must have been a record six thousand viewer complaints.
Last year, EastEnders won the Best Soap award for the third year in a row; Coronation Street won in 2007. The latest awards, which were announced last night saw Eastenders winning yet again, while Coronation Street picked up no less than eight awards, although the rapidly disintegrating John Stape – played magnificently by Graeme Hawley - missed out, which begs the question, what will the scriptwriters dream up next? Still, if the characters and plots of Britain’s soaps have grown more and more outlandish, they have a long way to go to catch up with America’s which have included nothing less than alien abductions.
The British Soap Awards 2011 are screened tonight on ITV.