I have Asperger’s syndrome and since childhood have been watching TV soaps: mainly EastEnders and Neighbours. I found classic EastEnders from the 1980s and 1990s highly reassuring during a dark time in my life three years ago, and in lockdown. I would say, though, that in recent years these two soaps have gone downhill. They are more staged, the storylines less intriguing and the themes exaggerated. They don’t seem to be about everyday life any more.
In the EastEnders of the 1980s and early 1990s you could relate wholeheartedly to the characters and reflect on their behaviour. You would feel they were real, and also that they were part of the real life of the East End. Even the sets of the characters’ houses then seemed more convincing, as well as the plots feeling more authentic. My assumption is that the scriptwriters then had perhaps experienced and closely observed the relevant way of life. I read recently, for instance, that several actors in the EastEnders of the 1980s and 1990s would ask for Susan Boyd, a particular scriptwriter who was superb. Those actors too were of high ability and took their roles very seriously. They would become loyal to the characters they played. (I heard that Barbara Windsor based her character Peggy Mitchell partly on the Kray twins’ mother.)
But now exaggerated drama and fashionable political issues seem to have taken over modern soaps. More money is spent on over-the-top incidents in a way that makes the shows seem desperate. Last year in EastEnders there was an enormous boat crash on the Thames; in Neighbours a woman called Prue was killed when a bomb exploded in her car and a whole island was set alight by a maniac called Finn Kelly.
Recently it was reported that Janine Butcher, Frank Butcher’s daughter, will reappear in EastEnders after a seven-year absence. Witnesses who saw the scenes being filmed say her comeback involves a fireball and masses of smoke and required emergency vehicles to be on standby. These are not scenes we can relate to. But it seems as if those in charge have forgotten relatability and now aim to give us a sense of unreality: the feel of living in a James Bond film.
Storylines in the 1980s and 1990s were still sometimes dramatic, but they were nuanced. And because one could identify with the dilemmas and dramas faced by the characters, they felt like a sort of extended family. Many storylines involved families worrying about money or children refusing to go to school; for instance, Janine Butcher was being bullied due to Frank’s wife Pat going to prison for drink-driving. These old soaps were more connected to families and family issues. It was a picture of our normal lives, even if exaggerated.
Modern soaps, by contrast, seem intent on making political points. In EastEnders in 1991 Arthur Fowler objected to his son’s acquaintance, a gay man with Aids, staying at his home. However the soap did not then portray Arthur as a bad person. A year ago, when the father of EastEnders character Callum objected to his son being in a gay relationship, he was made to seem bad.
Neighbours is similar. One character, Mackenzie, has transitioned from male to female. (So has the actor who plays her.) Mackenzie’s father found this problematic. But I felt that the programme made him look bad simply so it could educate the viewers. You can call me old-fashioned, but if I had a son or one of my nephews decided to change sex, I’d be thrown by it at first and so I think would many men. And now in Neighbours three characters are gay, one is bisexual and Mackenzie has transitioned. How likely is it that this group of people would all be living in the same small street in a suburb of Australia? Why don’t soaps stop playing politics? Why don’t they get on with describing something more like daily life?
One reason for the trouble might be that the soaps are now on our screens four or five days a week, whereas they were originally on only twice. Perhaps scriptwriters are trying to churn things out too quickly and add silly incidents they think will hook viewers. Perhaps they are not taking their writing seriously enough, because soaps are not seen as a higher form of storytelling. What a pity.