Frances Marsh | Comment Editor
North or south, rural or city, village or hospital; there’s a soap out there for everyone. Whether you like your scandals to take place with a Yorkshire accent or cockney one, there’s no denying that soaps are as popular as they’ve ever been and they’re tackling tougher stories than ever. In the last year alone the soap world has seen brain tumours, serial killers, sexual assault, money troubles, car crashes, child murderers and several returns from the dead. There’s just something about a camp soap villain that everybody loves, and I can’t say I blame them.
EastEnders and Emmerdale are my personal favourites, though I’m the first to admit that Emmerdale isn’t at its best currently. Neither has been known to shy away from a tough topic and it’s this recognition of real-life issues that keeps people tuning back in. EastEnders’ current main storylines revolve around fan favourites Lola, who has been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour, and Whitney, whose unborn baby has been diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder. For both, the BBC is working closely with charities focused on the conditions to ensure that not only is the story told accurately, but that viewers know where to turn if they want to seek further information on the topic.
An important storyline which seems to have been placed on the back burner for the time being is Zack’s HIV diagnosis. This was praised for being particularly important as it raised awareness that the illness can be contracted by anyone, and not just from having sex, as Zack is straight and was exposed by sharing needles. It was confirmed that google searches looking for information about HIV increased dramatically after the storyline aired, and the Terrence Higgins Trust (the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity) had a 75% increase in website traffic. It’s clear that these stories matter to viewers.
Even with all the dramatics, it’s the characters that lie at the heart of every soap. Characters that viewers care about are the reason that these storylines work. We root for their relationships and are genuinely upset when things don’t go their way. Fan favourite relationships spark intense discussion and viewers tune in specifically for the characters they care about. When a re-cast Robert Sugden departed Emmerdale village for the second time in 2019, fans of his relationship with Aaron Dingle (affectionately nicknamed ‘Robron’) were devastated. To this day there is hopeful speculation about whether actor Ryan Hawley will ever reprise the role.
Fans of soaps are also extremely vocal about which characters they feel are not being blessed with enough screen time. Callum Highway is such a hit with EastEnders viewers that it was met with celebration (and several news articles) when his character was seen on screen last week after a short period of absence. There is speculation and theories about the reason for his lack of screen time since his last big storyline in 2022, but many viewers are hoping for a story based around the character this year.
Hard-hitting themes are at the core of soaps, and they continue to be recognised for their importance. But, it’s the balance struck between characters that feel incredibly real and the distinctive over-the-top drama of the genre that keeps people tuning in. Writers can throw every shocking plot twist they like into a script, but none of it matters if the characters aren’t ones we can root for.