Too much death, not enough life

Lesbian love triangles, grave robbing and rape: it's all beginning to bore soap opera audiences. Now producers are swapping sensationalism for 'real life' storylines, reports Meg Carter
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In the dramatic culmination of a long-running storyline focusing on bullying in school, Channel 4 soap Brookside ventures into new territory later this month on 20 March when the 12-year-old church-going loner Anthony Murray kills Imelda, also 12, his classmate and tormentor.

The news should come as little surprise to soap aficionados now used to increasingly spectacular storylines in the pursuit of ratings. But don't expect the usual social-responsibility-to-air-this-issue fig leaf, employed by many soap producers, from the creator of Brookside, Phil Redmond. This storyline is no campaigning attempt to raise awareness of the issues surrounding child murder. In fact, he claims that it marks the beginning of a new, anti-sensationalist focus on real lives and everyday issues for the Merseyside soap.

For Redmond, the key to a good soap opera storyline is one that touches the viewers' everyday lives. And following a spate of high-profile, over-the-top and sensationalist stories, he is keen to bring the soap back down to earth. Brookside's ratings have disappointed both Channel 4 and its producer, Mersey TV, in recent months. So if, as Redmond now asserts, he wants the show to be "provoking rather than provocative", just where does child murder come in?

"The initial storyline came out of my usual checklist of contemporary issues," Redmond explains. "Bullying is a perennial problem but we hadn't addressed it, particularly from a child's perspective, for quite some time. After you've explored each stage – the victimisation, the self-recrimination and self-doubt – the question is: how to resolve it? I didn't want us to walk away. I felt we should push it, not into Jamie Bulger territory, but to explore the victim who does what everyone tells him to do: fight back."

The Anthony and Imelda story, Redmond maintains, "is all part of trying to re-establish our dramatic credentials". With mother-daughter lesbian love triangles and armed gunmen appearing in the Close in recent months, he believes that Brookside had become too tabloid. "We've touched on a number of strong issues, but we've failed to explore them in any great depth. The challenge for us now is to chase reality and relevance."

That's why Redmond has recently resumed the hands-on role of executive producer of Brookside in an attempt to re-focus the show's emphasis and increase ratings in the run-up to its 20th anniversary in November. And it's why post-11 September, Brookside storylines have attempted to better reflect real life and explore real issues with a move away from trivialisation and sensationalism, Redmond claims.

"Look at drama across the schedules and there is a greater taste for social comment and deeper storylines connecting back to the audience's real lives. I don't think soaps should think in terms of how much further we can go any more. The preoccupation with the next big storyline has made British soap caricature themselves."

He's not joking. Recent weeks have seen Zak Dingle turn grave robber in Emmerdale, believing that only exhumation can prove if his mother really murdered his father. Last Friday, EastEnders staged its most expensive stunt ever with Steve Owen's death after a car crash. Meanwhile, the pre-watershed audience is watching Janine Butcher descend into drug addiction and prostitution, while the Slaters come to terms with the aftermath of marital rape and uncle-niece incest. Even Coronation Street has upped its quota of headline-grabbing storylines, such as violent rape and internet paedophiles, over the past two years.

Redmond, however, is not alone in his belief that British soaps have gone too far. At Coronation Street, the executive producer Carolyn Reynolds is now working to re-introduce character rather than plot-driven storylines to inject more warmth and humanity. "There's been a fundamental shift," she says. "It's less about 'Let's tackle abortion – who can we hang this storyline on now?', more about 'Where is this character likely to go?'"

Recent attempts by Coronation Street to become more sensational have now been halted with a new writing team and a fresh agenda. "A valuable lesson we have learned is not blowing a character out of the water for the sake of a headline or two," Reynolds explains. "This leads to burnout. Then you need more and more new characters, but it takes time for an audience to get to know them. It's not a good situation to be in."

Headline-grabbing storylines, however, get the ratings – a fact that is amply proven by EastEnders, which is currently ahead of its main rival Coronation Street in terms of audience, and has featured a number of sensational plot twists in recent months since the saga of who shot Phil Mitchell.

"You have to occasionally go over the top to wave the flag – like with Mel's kidnapping, or Phil's shooting," EastEnders executive producer John Yorke explains. "But I think sensationalism kills soap. Most who've gone down that route have ended up regretting it: the plane crashes, the mystery viruses and so on destroy dramatic credibility. The stories that last are the true ones."

Extra episodes and greater competition for audiences, however, are putting soap producers under unprecedented pressure. And for all Phil Redmond's talk of getting deeper into the real-life repercussions of the stories that are tackled by Brookside in the future, the fact remains that a child killing will undoubtedly get the soap talked about. Whether this is for the right reasons, however, remains to be seen.