The soap opera genre originated in American radio serials of the 1930’s. (1) The soap opera is a genre originally drawn from radio rather then film. British soaps can be traced back to radio serials such as “Mrs Dale’s Diary in 1948 to 1969 and “The Archers” in 1950. (2)Soap opera as a form is more popular then ever. At least five different programmes are regularly listed amongst the top ten audience ratings and historically it was conceived as being a “woman’s genre.
” (3) A number of conventions of soap opera will be discussed in the essay to explain the continuing popularity of British soaps.
Considering the visual conventions used in soap opera to construct a sense of reality and the representations of the world they offer and their pleasures, is a vital tool in explaining the continuing popularity of soaps. According to Julia Smith, the producer of Eastenders, she states that what marks Eastenders popularity is the fact that “reality is not constructed but is reflected”(4) and this is what marks the appeal of Eastenders to its audience as the contours of the soap opera world become in many ways as familiar as those which constitute one’s everyday reality.
Eastenders style is non-intrusive as mostly diegetic elements are used in the mis en scene to create a sense of reality. For example, there appears to be use of diegetic natural lighting, there are no elements of expressionism in the filmic style of the soap opera. “Continuity editing” (5) is used and is “invisible” and functions to symbolise a natural link between audience and soap opera worlds.
Coronation Street also fulfils these visual conventions of representing reality, in order to maintain its continuing popularity.
According to Jonathan Powell, he felt that, “the East End location would provide roots and identity, an attractive folklore and a sense of history which was essential to the genre. “(6) Therefore, the fact that it is an area which has been historically populated by “waves of different immigrant groups”(7) and social issues, the East End would provide a “mobile society”(8) setting with a “background, history and culture”, (9)which would therefore contain mixture of characters and therefore function to appeal to a wider range of audience such as ethnic minorities.
Furthermore, the soap would be appealing as it would provide the viewers with a sense of regional identity that they could identify with. The concept of presenting real social issues and reflecting the realities of contemporary inner -city- life was vital in determining the survival and popularity of Eastenders. Therefore, Eastenders popularity is in Smith’s terms due to, “a realistic, fairly outspoken type of drama which could encompass stories about homosexuals, rape, unemployment, racial prejudice, etc in a believable context.
Above all, therefore it displays it with realism. Unemployment, exams, racism, birth, death, dogs, babies, unmarried mums except politics and swearing. “(10) The producer Jonathan Powell felt that the winning storyline was the story of Michelle’s baby as it was a “human story which had touched a public nerve. “(11) What marks the popularity of Eastenders in terms of social issues is that the characters behave, think and feel as we would expect them too.
For example in 1997, when Bianca and Ricky found their unborn child was going to be disabled, they were grief-stricken and unable to decide what to do. This is a realistic and understandable response to a very difficult decision, and their performances were not exaggerated with high drama but were low-key and subdued which made the realistic appeal even more convincing. The message is appealing as it matches the viewers own experiences and expectations of the world.
The viewers might not agree with Bianca’s decision about her unborn child, but the message to think carefully and make the choice that is right for herself and the baby, seems right. In Coronation Street, the character Toyah found the courage to do the right thing and go to the police after she had been raped, even though many women in society do find this difficult to do. It is this “ideological significance” and verisimilitude that soaps inherit which fulfil the viewers’ desires and enhance soaps popularity.
Peter Buckmann for instance, elaborates on this and states that soaps are pleasurable because “they offer a reassurance that the world is not changing as quickly as it seems. “(12) Eastenders and Coronation Street are popular among ethnic minorities as they consciously set out to represent diverse multicultural stereotypes that the audience can identify with. The issue of stereotypes is also therefore a significant element when it comes to ethnic minorities because they usually have some distant basis in truth.
Eastenders continuing popularity therefore is also marked by the fact that it illustrates a mainstream perception and the potency of its appeal in Phillip Elliots words, “is its ability to emphasise with audience groups of which one is not oneself a member. “(13) For example In Eastenders, Alan Jackson represented a positive antidote to the stereotype of the nomadic black baby-father, whilst still being the victim of racism and just recently the issue of homosexuality between Zoey Slater and Kelly.
In Audience also expected the serials to succeed due to BBC’S and Granada’s reputation of being highly respected public service broadcasting institutions. Eastenders success was therefore also popular as in its pre-production stage the producers found from their market research that “viewers had a number of familiar stereotypes in their heads” (14)and Eastenders fulfilled this by not only illustrating the above examples but also fulfilled viewers prediction that the serial would feature,
” large, matriarchal extended families living in a run down and overcrowded accommodation, that it would be based in a small enclosed community, thereby providing a considerable potential for conflict, intrigue and gossip, and that it would make a great play of Cockney humour. ” (15) The Slaters family is good example of this in Eastenders. Granada television produces Coronation Street, which first appeared in 1960 and through this soap it also established its own regional identity and satisfied viewers assumptions.
As Richard Dyer points out in his introduction to the BFI monograph, “Coronation Street is the product of the same historical moment as Richard Hoggarts The Uses Of Literacy. ” (16)This book was concerned to “reveal and legitimise working-class culture”(17) and was influenced by a great degree of “nostalgia. “(18) Similarly, Coronation Street “while celebrating and validating aspects of working-class culture and everyday life tended to locate its image of this world in nostalgic terms. ” (19)Therefore, it was the illustration of the “recovery of the predominantly white working- class”(20) that was a significant element in its appeal.
Coronation Street’s culture was also popular as it illustrated Hoggarts account on the “emphasis on home, everyday, common sense and the lives of women. “(21) The communal gatherings in social locations, such as the pub and cafi?? initiated this. According to Verina Glaessener , one of the most appealing characteristics of Coronation Street is its “privileging of the social and communal over the familial. ” (22)Here the characters “focus more on community rather then family relationships”(23) and this is what marks its appeal as it illustrates regional identity that the viewers can identify with.