Britain is known for many things, including cups of tea, red telephone boxes and black cabs, but nothing divides opinion among its inhabitants more than its soap operas. Britain’s soaps are some of the longest running television programs and are still providing entertainment for all generations, with the actors and their on screen characters becoming part of everyday language in houses and places of work up and down the country. The current British soap opera scene allows for a viewer to watch the complete listing of soaps scattered across the terrestrial television channels with the different soap operas rarely clashing. This helps with the continued high viewer ratings. Over recent years soap opera omnibuses have become more popular, allowing viewers and fans to watch a whole weeks worth of episodes joined together at weekends. There are four main soap operas currently in production and being broadcast to the British Isles, known commonly as “the soaps”.
The longest running TV soap opera in the world, still being made and broadcast, is Coronation Street on ITV having just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Set in the fictional town of Weatherfield, it follows the residents of Coronation Street, a cobbled road of houses and small businesses including the world famous public house, The Rovers Return.
Coronation Street is able to boast the longest British soap opera cast member in William Roach. His character, Ken Barlow, was first seen in the pilot episode in December 1960. Ken is still a main character with regular large storylines to this day 50 years on. Coronation Street currently broadcasts 5 episodes a week and can boast viewing figures of around 11 million, although for past major episodes, figures have been as high as 27 million. Coronation Street’s main rival when it comes to the most watched soap opera is Eastenders.
Eastenders has been entering the living rooms of UK residents since 1985. Depicting day to day life in an east London suburb, it is mainly focused around Albert Square, its pub the Queen Victoria and market. With 4 episodes a week, Eastenders is the least shown of the popular soaps, but still manages to maintain a vast audience, many arguing it is the most popular, regularly receiving the best serial drama award at the National Television Awards. Eastenders is known for its long dramatic “who done it” plots which usually fall over the Christmas period. The “Who shot Phil Mitchell?” and “Who killed Archie?” storylines are two of the biggest, which led to heated debates over dinner tables and desks from coast to coast. Cast members usually film multiple endings to these, only finding out just before the airing of the episode which one of them was to blame. The only soap broadcast on BBC1 in the evening, it has grown to become the BBC’s flagship evening entertainment show and goes from strength to strength.
The third of the major current soaps is Emmerdale, with the creators choosing the more rural setting of the Yorkshire Dales. Emmerdale began life with the longer title of Emmerdale Farm back in October of 1972, mainly following the Sugden Family. Story progression led the removal of ‘farm’ from the title and the shift to incorporate the whole village. With the most televised episodes a week, totalling 3 hours of viewing time over 5 days, Emmerdale is hot on the heels of Coronation Street and Eastenders as it gains more fans. Its most memorable storyline came from an aircraft crash over the village during 1993, which gained it some of its highest viewing figures.
The final of the 4 most watched serial dramas is Hollyoaks on Channel 4. Set in and around the Hollyoaks Community College and Hollyoaks village, it is aimed primarily at a younger audience with a younger cast and earlier time slot. Hollyoaks has taken over from past soaps and become known for tackling riskier and grittier storylines, such as male rape, self harm and schizophrenia. Showing five nights a week, Hollyoaks has regular late night spin offs to tackle issues that can only be shown after the watershed.
Over the years, many soap operas have come and gone, but Doctors is still broadcast in the daytime, doing exactly as it says on the tin and following the goings on in a town surgery. Brookside was Channel 4’s flagship soap up until its demise in 2003. Brookside was the first soap to deal with drug abuse and addiction, as well being the first to have an openly gay character, and having the added bonus of being filmed in a real cul-de-sac designed for the show. Yet all of these television soap operas are descendants from the first radio soap opera, The Archers. The Archers is the longest running soap opera in any format after first being broadcast in 1950, has amassed over 16,300 episodes and still attracts over 5 million listeners.
With the invention of online viewing, soap operas are widely becoming more accessible to anyone at anytime, as well as making sure fans don’t miss an episode.
When it comes down to it, a soap opera is just an on screen adaptation of real life. Sure, they could well be some of the most unlucky streets and villages in the world, with more than their fair share of disasters, crime and pain, but it is that constant fill of storylines and rotation of new characters that keeps the general public glued to their screens. Whether you see soaps as an escape from real life, an assurance others go through the same issues, or just an entertainment show, you are not alone. The British soap scene does not look like receding anytime soon, it has become a major part of everyday life that many would be lost without.