Corrie, ‘Enders and Brookie are all one. Family Affairs and The Archers are too. These shows are all a part of the great institution known as the British Soap Opera’s. Originating from when they were U.S. daytime drama programs sponsored by soap manufacturers, they were aimed at 1930’s housewives with Opera ironically mocking the storylines that were thought of as being trivial and domestic.
Soaps have always remained melodramatic, outrageous and containing high emotional content. They explore the domestic and personal worlds of their characters, which make the audience become more fascinated with the everyday drama of relationships and communities then with apparent ‘serious’ events such as politics or current affairs.
Soaps are mainly revolved around an established location (a street, close, square or an area). Some Soap, such as The Bill and Casualty are known to be occupational soaps, revolving around a workplace. The key factors in Soap are the community – places where everyone knows each other making storylines a lot more possible.
The Local pub is a place where gossip can be spread fast and enemies cannot avoid one another. Meaning a confrontation (a la Mike Baldwin and Ken Barlow) is inevitable – providing a worthwhile appearance in soap.
A big part of the Soap Opera’s popularity is realism, which is the dominant mode of representation in Television and Media. The term usually implies that the media text attempts to represent an external reality; Soaps are realistic because it is accurately reproduces the part and culture of the world its referring to.
The uses of conventions aid this representation. A series of conventions is used to charm the audience into the world. Locations, narrative structures and mise-en-scene conventions are a few which attract the audience. If everyone in Eastenders drove Mercedes convertibles with the top down in October, it wouldn’t match the reality of it happening at the same time in East End London.
Whilst still being dramatic, soaps have always connected to their audience using realism. To achieve this the audience should feel the Soap should be set in contemporary setting meaning it should be set in the present day or at least modern times which the audience can recognize. The drama should contain people who the audience can identify with; a character like Phil Mitchell is more believable then someone having superhero powers (think Superman, Buffy). This means the audience are able to believe the characters are real people too, because of their possible human existence. Realism is also constructed by Soaps revolving around the working class, who make up the majority of the audience. Storylines and activities such as popping into the local are believable. These conventions are evident in popular soaps such as Coronation Street (1960-), Eastenders (1985-) and Brookside (1982-2003).
Storylines in Soaps make realism more realistic; the social issues conveyed are usually negative. These things that are significant in society and in the news at one time or another, these controversial storylines prompt quick conflicting response. Some issues are long-standing such as alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, abortion, drugs and rape. Soap operas tend to reflect as many social issues as they can, which can be seen as a attempt to educate and support viewers.
Often there is a help line number for victims who have suffered the same fate as the character after the episode. The long storyline of Mark Fowler in Eastenders being HIV positive was started in the 80’s – a time when the disease was being discovered and the show took the issue and proved that the suffering characters are like real people and aren’t protected by their fictional state. The storyline was followed until Marks eventual death in 2003. This also shows that every single dialogue written in Soaps can influence the future plots.
However, some storylines aren’t so reflective. We’ve just seen ‘Dirty’ Den Watts reappear in EastEnders, despite having ‘died’ 10years ago. The writers wrote him back in by revisiting the day when his body was dragged out of a river and that cryptically his body wasn’t identified. If he had been identified, this storyline wouldn’t be gripping 17million viewers currently. Notice that there was no help lines for viewers who have had people come back from the dead, proving that the writers aren’t using realism to illustrate this storyline.
Adding to the realism is the location, many small communities have basic meeting places – the shops, pub and repair garage are just a few. This provides the characters with a assembly point where storyline titbits can be exchanged and the viewer more informed. These local public places are magnified in the Soap. Almost every woman in Coronation Street works at Underworld, which would almost never happen in a real street. This unrealistic setting employs the realistic storyline – The woman at underworld would be gossiping about a wedding or other storyline that would inform the viewers more detail of the story. The gossiping and bitchy female workplace is also evident in the ‘real’ world.
Also Soap has the proximity of everything being so close to one another. Rita in Coronation Street goes from working all day in a Newsagent to having a night out at the Rovers. Nobody goes very far away. In a ‘Truman Show’ style it is almost as it the characters do not know of a world outside Weatherfield.
Important in adding to the realism is sound. It is always diegetic, like when the train goes past the market stalls in EastEnders. This can make the show seem more real because the 5.35 train to North London has just gone past a busy market. This makes the whole concept more believable.
Representation of the characters is also important. East end London is full of different ethnicities, different genders, sexual preference, ages, occupations, incomes and backgrounds and the characters in Eastenders are meant to be a represent society. The more different characters in the Soap, the more authentic it is. Soaps mostly rely on conflict with one another, as do most things; it comes down to Good vs. Bad. Audiences all go through conflict with one another, believing they are right. To have characters do the same provides the audience with a reassurance that everyone disagrees and that conflict is inevitable.
There is a disagreement about the value of Soap Opera. Some say Soaps are ‘Junk’ TV – predictable and limited in stimulation of the mind. For others they are examples of realism, reflecting the society they depict by tackling social issues in a dramatic form. Thus, the importance of realism in soap operas is vital to their success.
Cemented as their own institution, avid fans can cling onto story lines and events in a bid to relate to scenarios in their life. Although a strong example, the HIV Mark Fowler storyline has the possibility to help and support victims so much that if they actually remembered that Mark Fowler is fictional the story crumbles and they may feel vulnerable and alone. Having the empathy of someone else going through the same can encourage an audience so much that the realistic features found in Soaps should be exact, so the audience can accept the story and relate. To me, it seems anything but trivial and domestic.