Twenty-five years ago, soap operas were delivery systems for melodrama, cliffhangers, women’s issues, comedy and social critique, and, best of all, white-knuckle rides on the narrative express. Now? “Soaps are now just seen as something to fill the schedules,” says Phil Redmond, the TV producer who brought us Brookside and Hollyoaks. “There’s been a loss of vision.”
In the early 80s, the most popular soaps – Crossroads and Coronation Street – lost the plot: they had nothing to say about a Britain mired in Thatcher’s austerity years. Then, Brookside (1982-2003), set in a Liverpool suburb, and later EastEnders (1985-present), set in a fictionalised east London, gave the British soap a new lease of life by returning the genre to its manifest destiny: right down to the specially built cul-de-sac in suburban Merseyside and the faux-East End Albert Square in Hertfordshire, the new soaps were simulacra that told us about how we really lived. Brookside was, at the time, especially radical since it junked that staple notion of the British soap, that the action must revolve around the local pub. Instead, it depicted an all-too-recognisable, fragmented owner-occupying non-society of the kind for which the then prime minister proselytised.