Soap operas are a staple of staffroom conversations everywhere. Now they're about to become a talking point in the classroom as well. 'Brookside' creator Phil Redmond tells Aleks Sierz how tales from a fictional Liverpool street can help to promote literacy.
Teachers used to warn their pupils about the evils of television; these days they're more likely to see it as a resource. As Phil Redmond, head of Mersey Television and creator of Brookside, Grange Hill and Hollyoaks, says: "I get irritated when educationists pontificate about getting kids away from television and putting their noses in books. We should be using kids' interest in soaps to develop their literacy."
After all, argues Redmond, "soap fever" is nothing new. "Good old classic authors like Will Shakey and Charlie Dickens were the soap-opera writers of their age. Dickens's novels were serialised, with each part ending on a cliffhanger. When Little Nell died, people gathered on New York docks to meet the ship bringing copies of that episode (of The Old Curiosity Shop), shouting: 'Is it true? Is she really dead?' " Redmond reckons that today's teachers can use programmes such as Brookside to encourage children to watch TV critically - "get them to talk about the programme's themes, the way the plot is structured and how the characters relate to each other. Then you can show how the classics used the same devices."
But reading assumes a level of literacy, which Redmond sees as a priority issue. "We need to reiterate what's blindingly obvious," he says. "Namely, that literacy is actually a good thing." For this reason, he's agreed to contribute to the National Year of Reading - which starts in September - by putting literacy storylines into Brookside.
"This will happen on three levels," he says. "One is about the problems and traumas suffered by people who can't read or write; any child who has reading difficulties can get branded a dunce and taunted at school. When they grow up, they need guile and cunning to get by. Many adults with reading problems are actually very bright - they have to be to survive. This will make a highly dramatic storyline."
The second level will involve characters commenting on the benefits of literacy - "how, for example, you need it for accessing the Internet. All the new technologies need a high level of literacy. Research shows that the more kids mess around with computers the more they start reading text. Literacy isn't just about some old-fashioned stuff."
The third level "is about creating positive images", which will involve male characters being shown reading to their children, "or using one of those splashtime books you can read in the bath". Once again, Redmond wants to show that reading is a skill that parents can pass down to their children.
Critics have often accused Brookside of being too concerned with "issues", but Redmond rejects this. "I can help raise the profile of the National Year of Reading simply by doing what I normally do - which is to produce entertaining popular drama that challenges the audience to look at subjects they might normally avoid." An issue is merely "something which affects a large number of people".
"We'll also be tackling literacy in Hollyoaks," Redmond says, "but our approach will be different there because the programme is aimed at a cool, teenage audience. But it's equally important. There are still a lot of people who haven't got the message that reading is not just something for boffins."
It's not the first time that Redmond has used television to highlight literacy. "About 20 years ago, I was attacked for putting a storyline into Grange Hill about a boy of 12 who couldn't read properly. They said it couldn't happen - but it did, and still does." He's returned to the issue because "I passionately believe that, after sex, literacy is society's most important tool".
Redmond has also allowed the English and Media Centre access to the Brookside studios. The result is The Soap Pack, a teacher's resource that charts the development from script to screen of the controversial episodes last July that dealt with the mercy killing of a character by her daughter and son-in-law (see box above).
And when the Department for Education asked for regional volunteers to help set up literacy clinics, Redmond was happy to let them use the "Brookie" brand name. He hopes that calling the clinics Brookie Basics will "make them more accessible".
But isn't Redmond allowing Brookside to be used to disseminate government propaganda to its 6.5 million viewers? He thinks not. "It's about a problem that every right-minded person would agree needs to be addressed. Illiteracy is a social issue because it affects a lot of people, but behind the issue there's the human stories - and they are the basis of the drama."
Redmond's passion for literacy is explained partly by his own experience. Born in 1949in Huyton, Liverpool, he passed the 11-plus and went to St Kevin's in Kirkby. One of Britain's first comprehensives, the school "was part of the great social engineering of the 1960s. The idea was that big is beautiful - so you had 2,500 boys together in a kind of detention centre. Not really the best environment for learning."
Redmond left with one A-level and four O-levels. "So because I had to go back later and reclaim my education as a mature student, I'm proud to be involved in lifelong learning initiatives.
"I knew people at school who never achieved the basic literacy skills; when we signed on the dole, they had difficulty coming up with a signature."
He says the reason he went into television in the first place was "to give kids from my type of background better programmes than I'd ever had. I wrote Grange Hill so that kids would have something real to relate to."
Thankfully, things have changed. "We've come a long way from the days when the BBC used to announce solemnly that if you have any difficulty with reading and writing, write to this address.
"Putting my media studies hat on, I'd say that all kids should learn how to read the media." Redmond sees the ability to analyse and argue about television and newspapers as a skill "which is a part of literacy".
"Television," he says, "is life's greatest stimulator of discussion - Brookie and Grange Hill are better teaching aids than most classics."
The English and Media Centre, tel: 0171 383 088
* ANATOMY OF A SOAP OPERA
The Soap Pack", produced by the English and Media Centre, is a video pack that includes two episodes of "Brookside" showing the controversial mercy killing of Gladys Charlton by her daughter Elaine Johnson and son-in-law Mick Johnson (pictured).
Background material allows pupils to study the development, from the initial idea to the broadcast and its reception by the media of the storyline. It eavesdrops on script conferences, shows rewrites and rehearsals, and provides an insight into how editorial decisions are made.
The video also shows extracts of debates about the issues surrounding euthanasia and terminal illness which underlie the story of how Gladys, in the final stages of bone cancer, asks her daughter and son-in-law to help her out of her misery. The consequences - personal guilt, family breakdown and legal retribution - are also explored.
"The Soap Pack" includes material on more general activities, such as "how soaps work", analytical reading for key stage 3 and 4 English, and extension work for media studies students at GCSE and A-level around key theoretical issues, including language and realism, audiencetheory and the debates around soaps and their social significance.
* "The Soap Pack", pound;49.50, is available from the National Association for the Teaching of English, tel: 01142 555419.