Soap operas are cultural punctuation points. Big plot lines unite colleagues, neighbours and distant family members in shared conversation starters. Den and Angie’s Christmas divorce? Brookside’s before-the-watershed lesbian kiss? Tony Blair’s support for the wrongly-imprisoned Deirdre Barlow? I was there for it, along with millions of others.
I even got caught up in Rob’s coercive control of Helen over in Ambridge. But not any more. When drama gave way to a continual stream of awareness-raising, I got bored. And if ratings are to be believed, I’m not alone.
Now soap’s directors and script editors are fighting back: unfortunately with a plan to ratchet up the political messaging still further. They are working together to highlight the issue of climate change. Over the course of this week, carefully co-ordinated plot-lines will see characters from Casualty, Coronation Street, Doctors, EastEnders, Emmerdale, Holby City and Hollyoaks all discussing the environment. This on-screen event kicks off tonight and is designed to coincide with the COP26 conference in Glasgow.
Don’t reach for the off button just yet! There’s a novel idea to get us all engaged with the campaign: swapping characters. During these special episodes we might see the cast of Hollyoaks rolling up for a drink in Albert Square’s Queen Vic, or the residents of Coronation Street crossing the Pennines for a day trip to Emmerdale. Perhaps Ken Barlow and Ian Beale will compare the price of heat pump installation, or Sharon Watts and Rita Tanner will swap tips on recycling.
There is so much wrong with this plan it makes me want to cry more than an episode of Casualty. For a start, who is not aware of climate change? Never mind saving the planet, soap opera script-writers clearly think their audience lives on another planet. Whether it’s net zero, carbon neutral, recycling, renewables, St Greta or COP26, climate change is discussed incessantly. From local councils to supermarkets, schools to health centres, all the public institutions we interact with promote green ideas and practices. Whatever the problems currently facing the environment, a lack of awareness is surely not one of them.
Sadly, soap operas have long been viewed as little more than a convenient way to ram a message down the throats of viewers too ignorant to pick up news from elsewhere, or too backward to reach the right conclusions left to their own devices. Just last month, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined with our own Sir Lindsay Hoyle on a visit to the set of Coronation Street. Cast and politicians came together to raise awareness of the evil of hate crime, a storyline which had been playing out on the show over a number of weeks.
Sir Lindsay praised the power of soap operas to influence people’s behaviour. Referring to the hate crime plot he said:
‘So when we send out that message from this street, we know that others will learn from it … and that’s why that storyline is so, so important.’
Seriously? Are there really people who think the only thing stopping the soap-opera watching hordes from attacking each other is the right awareness-raising storyline? This doesn’t just insult the intelligence of viewers but their morality too.
Yet rather than pushing back against the preaching, TV execs seem only too happy to open up their scripts to anyone with a cause to promote. Nudging is not new but the coronavirus pandemic saw it ramped up; behavioural scientists were given free reign to manipulate us into compliance through a combination of peer pressure and fear. Now, the eco-warriors want in on the act: they have soap operas firmly in their sights.
Soap opera fans may have grown used to plots that revolve around social issues. But there is something creepy about the co-ordinated climate change plots. We put up with the crude attempts at awareness raising when storylines develop organically, perhaps over months or even years, and when they are played out by characters who have convinced us to suspend disbelief. The week-long plan to swap characters and discuss climate change breaks all of these rules.
The cast of EastEnders is not supposed to venture over to Coronation Street on a whim; the doctors in Holby City are not meant to discuss what’s going on in Hollyoaks. This is just wrong. It rudely interrupts a moment of escapism and breaches the contract between audience and actors.
What’s more, there’s just no evidence that viewers actually want in-your-face lectures on protecting the environment, even if they agree with the cause. Politicians and television directors alike: please treat us viewers with a bit more respect and spare us the preaching. Even soap-addicts deserve a bit of entertainment once in a while.
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