Television is the ultimate soap box

14th April 2000 at 01:00
Everybody needs good neighbours, especially when they've got a moral tale to tell, writes Alison Brace.

LOVE them or hate them, soap operas are part of the fabric of society and are as much the subject of debate in the staffroom as they are in the playground.

The issues they tackle often make headlines, spark off nationwide campaigns and occasionally prompt a national outcry.

EastEnders, Neighbours and Coronation Street have found a place on the school timetable, but who decides what will be the next burning issue to grip the nation's soap addicts?

"Every six months, we have long-term planning meetings and look at what should be in the programme in 12 months' time," says Phil Redmond, head of Mersey Television and creator of Brookside, Grange Hill and Hollyoaks. "We ask 'what are people talking about?'

"That process is gone through for every single character."

Pressure groups write in each week looking for a plug, says Redmond. "The editorial line is that if it is something non-contentious, like giving blood, it's perfectly legitimate to go into the programme."

Other campaigns are posted on the Brookside advertising hoardings. "It eases the pressure without affecting the editorial of the programme and it also gives us a topicality," he says.

Such direct access into the living rooms of millions has been coveted by ministers who have tried to persuade script editors to include their latest policies.

Education Secretary David Blunkett succeeded when it came to the National Year of Reading, launched in September 1998.

After Brookside's producers made mother-of-four Naimph Musgrove pluck up the courage to face up to her problems with reading and writing, 10,000 viewers followed suit.

Redmond says that if a parent can explain what is going on to an eight-year-old, then it is all right.

But not in the eyes of the Catholic Education Service, which has accused soap-makers of cynically boosting ratings by including sensational topics.

It recently said it was alarmed by the "insistent, all-pervasive influence of the media on the moral awareness and moral judgment of young people".

It is not alone. "It is about role models, and they can be good or bad," says a spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers. "Sometimes, they see as a role model the figure they are not supposed to see as a role model."

Over at EastEnders, which regularly has 15 million viewers, producers are wrestling with 15-year-old Sonia Jackson's pregnancy scare after a drunken one-night stand.

"We have to be very careful about how we handle this issue," says John Yorke, executive producer and a former script editor of the programme, "but I feel very strongly that we should be dealing with what goes on in the real world."

Yorke insists that first and foremost EastEnders is about good drama.

"If you deal with issues alone, you start sounding like a soapbox," he said.

Yet, over its 15-year run, it has dealt with everything from Alzheimer's to under-age drinking and HIV.

"We have to take our responsibilities very seriously when it comes to these issues," says Yorke. "A survey by the Health Education Authority showed the majority of 16 to 18-year-olds got information about HIV and Aids from EastEnders.

"We do our research incredibly thoroughly."

Casualty has a team of medical advisers and the National Union of Teachers says it has been consulted on everything from salary scales to a retirement package for Ken Barlow, Coronation Street's teacher.

Education is never far away from stoylines.

In EastEnders, Ian Beale is thinking of sending his son to a private school, Nicki DiMarco is having private maths lessons and Ricky Butcher is looking into doing an NVQ.

Australian soap Neighbours serves up a glossier take on life than its grittier British rivals, with its emphasis on family values and clean living.

Schools have let youngsters watch the lunchtime showing of the twice-daily programme.

Neighbours' script editor Louise Le Nay says: "There are topics we can't tackle at the 5.30 time slot so we stick to family issues, teen romances, crises of confidence and some marital problems. We can't tackle more weighty subjects."

Grange Hill, however, in its 24th year, does not shy away from tricky issues. Series producer Jo Ward says: "We pick up ideas from newspapers, including The TES. We look for things that affect young people.

"I don't want to preach, but I want to raise awareness. Because the kids identify with the characters, it makes the issues more accessible."

The last series dealt with racism, bullying and teenage pregnancy resulting from an affair with a student teacher. The next is set to tackle subjects including testicular cancer and Asperger's Syndrome.

Soaps have been criticised for serving up unsuitable role models for children, as well as easy solutions to difficult situations, but Jenny Grahame of the English and Media Centre says they allow youngsters to identify with a range of characters.

Grahame has produced a video pack, used with GCSE and A-level students, examining how an issue such as euthanasia was dealt with by Brookside. She says she was impressed by the helplines set up to take viewers' calls after the key episode in which the character is killed.

She stresses it is also important for schools to study soap opera as a form, as opposed to using it simply as a peg to get youngsters interested in a topic.

"You go into any classroom or playground and the talk will always be about last night's episode," says Grahame. "It gives them a chance to work out where they stand."

Brian Young, a developmental psychologist at the University of Exeter, believes soaps allow children to learn about issues such as ending relationships or having rows with their parents

"Although it might appear trivial," he said, "these are important things they have to learn.

"At least soaps do provide you with a set of rules and examples for learning about how to do those things.

"Whether or not that is a good thing is another matter."

The Soap Pack is available from the National Association for the Teaching of English, pound;49.50, Tel: 01142-555419 FROM BROOKSIDE TO EASTENDERS...

1994: Brookside's Beth Jordache, played by Anna Friel, kisses the Farnhams's nanny in the famous lesbian scene.

1995: The body of Brookside's Trevor Jordache is found under the patio, as 8.96 million watch. He was killed by his wife, Mandy, after subjecting her to years of domestic violence. Later, 7.3 million viewers see Mandy jailed for his murder.

1997: The mercy killing of Brookside's Gladys Charlton by her daughter Elaine and son-in-law Mick Johnson.

1998: In EastEnders, Tiffany Mitchell dies and fellow EastEnder Cindy hires a hitman to kill husband Ian Beale.

1999: Bianca in EastEnders leaves husband Ricky Butcher to take a place on a fashion and design course in Manchester. Ian Beale finds love again with barmaid Melanie, only to be jilted on his wedding night.

2000: Former husband and wife Raquel and Curly of Coronation Street meet up again.

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