Soaps: more harm than good?

29th August 2003 at 01:00
Ever since I wrote the first episode of Grange Hill in 1976, I have been engaged in the debate about whether Grange Hill, then Brookside and more recently Hollyoaks are good, bad or indifferent for children. It has never ceased to amaze me how daft some people are.

I like the word "daft" because it is not a harsh pejorative. It enables you to describe people who are usually quite amiable and rational. I've also learned to appreciate that moments of daftness can often flow from the genuine desire to do good. Unfortunately, that does not negate the daftness itself.

I could defend soap-writers by highlighting social campaigns that soaps have supported. They help teachers stimulate debate in English, media studies and citizenship and encourage children who may not have literary stimulation at home.

To demonise any television genre is as daft as demonising books, magazines, art, video games, the internet, music, nations and creeds. They can be influential, uplifting and enlightening, just as they can be disturbing, distasteful and depressing. We choose to ignore much of what is around us because we can see no value in contextualising it in our daily existence and life experience.

Herein lies the real debate. Do children have the life experience to contextualise what they see and hear? It is this question that now governs much of what we see on television. It is also what is making television, contrary to what media observers believe, less and less of a social force.

With the best intention in the world, the protection of young people and "susceptible adults", we now have a regulatory system that is driving broadcasters along the road to banality.

Most soaps are produced with one aim: to reach as much of their intended target audience as possible. The wider that is, then the greater the range of social characters and storylines will be.

'To demonise any tv genre is as daft as demonising books, magazines, art, video games, the internet, music, nations and creeds'

And here is the rub. Most of the target audience have a much tougher life than most would-be social regulators. Difficult to face up to, but true nevertheless.

My belief has always been that children learn to contextualise life based on the examples given in their own homes. Although there might occasionally be things that we all find are not to our tastes and standards, this is a situation that faced parents long before television was invented.

All parents have to recognise the moment when their children start to become aware of life and ideas outside their parental shadows and contextualise that against their own values. It may be what happens outside their particular home, but it has to be set against what role model they project. Just because there appear to be more stimuli now does not change that basic parenting obligation.

So while there will always be things we do not like outside our own domestic settings, there will equally be a lot of things we do like.

Creativity in any form can stimulate as well as corrupt. The issue is not whether a particular genre is good, bad or indifferent, but more to do with how we help and encourage people to see it as just part of the normal parental mentoring challenge. Anyone who thinks otherwise is being, well, daft.

Phil Redmond is chairman of Mersey Television and creator of Brookside and Grange Hill

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