There’s an interesting interview in yesterday’s Guardian with Lesley Henderson, a sociology lecturer at Brunel University, who has written a book entitled Social Issues in Television Fiction.
Soaps, she says, are hugely significant in shaping public views. "You are talking about a genre that [can] attract around 10 million viewers per episode, and a lot of them are young viewers - people who wouldn't normally sit down and watch a news programme or a documentary about breast cancer or mental illness."
That power, she says, can sit uneasily with "making good telly".
The article reminded me of the (at times) rabid discussion that went on over at Lucy’s gaff a little while back. Many people piled in to state that the only responsibility they had as writers was to the story and nothing else. However, the discussion primarily focussed on horror movies, where creating an atmosphere of revulsion and/or terror doesn’t exactly sit well with a sense of social responsibility. To my mind, soaps are different, if only for the fact that they attract an audience “who wouldn't normally... watch a news programme or a documentary about breast cancer or mental illness." In which case surely the responsibility to get things right is paramount? Or maybe not:
As one experienced scriptwriter told her: "In the end, we are drama. We are not a sociological documentary... and although we try not to go terribly wrong we sometimes ignore the truth in favour of a good story... If we always stuck to the absolute facts we'd have no drama."
The problem arises when you introduce socially realistic story lines (such as mental illness) and expect them to be subservient to the drama. I don’t think that that soap writers and producers can have it both ways. Soap is well known for dealing with everyday issues and on the odd occasion, bringing an issue to the fore that previously, for whatever reason, had not been covered. Throwing a child with Down-Syndrome into the mix, as Brookside did back in the 90s, is of course admirable: however, shuffling that particular child out of the series when it no longer provides for good drama (or leads to a decline in viewing figures) is surely an irresponsible way of dealing with the issue? If elements such as these are going to form part of the dramatic mix, then we should expect that writers and producers should at least have the courage to take the story to its natural conclusion (whatever that may be).
The one thing I can’t stand is when drama (not just soap) attempts to address ‘issues’ to the detriment of the story. However, if you are going to shoehorn in an issue in order to give your drama some much needed contemporary or social relevance, then at least make an attempt to get the detail surrounding the issue right.
At least Emmerdale isn’t considering a story line concerning necrophilia in the near future (but I wouldn’t hold your breath!).