Life, but not as we know it: Are British soaps a mental-health hazard, as Roy Hattersley claims? David Lister sees signs of hope

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LAST Sunday afternoon I should have been depressed as I watched Arsenal concede three goals to Liverpool on television. But, fortunately, I was already numbed. I had just watched the omnibus edition of EastEnders.

By 3pm I had seen Ghita, the Asian woman whose husband had had an affair with her sister, tottering on the edge of a nervous breakdown as suspected racists threw bricks through her window; Ricky - whose father has run off after paying a friend to burn his own used-car yard as an insurance fraud, killing a man in the process - start an affair with his stepbrother's illegitimate daughter; Mark, who is HIV positive . . . well, you get the picture. Come to Docklands, as they say on the posters.

Roy Hattersley, as the Labour Party's deputy leader for nine years, should be no stranger to depression. But he claimed yesterday he would not be surprised if the British suicide rate reached its peak between 1.30 and 2.50 on a Sunday afternoon.

The BBC seems to be equally concerned about the deleterious effects of its highest-rated soap opera on the nation's psychological health. It is reported to be considering changing the storylines, which recently have featured Aids, murder, armed robbery, racism and homelessness, to make them less issue-laden. This may not be unconnected with the fact that viewing figures for EastEnders have fallen from 16 million per episode last December to less than 13 million. ITV's Coronation Street, with its homelier storylines, is 2 million ahead.

But the BBC should pause before turning EastEnders into a cross between Coronation Street and Baywatch. First of all, Mr Hattersley is an interested party, a longstanding Coronation Street man with a world view that can hover bizarrely and precariously between Aeschylus and Mavis Riley. Citing an episode in Coronation Street in which Alma Sedgwick, doyenne of the corner cafe, warns her lover, Mike Baldwin, of the humiliation that will result if he becomes involved in a dodgy deal, Mr Hattersley, a literary man, remarks that Anna Karenina said the same thing to Vronsky, concluding: 'Hope is an essential part of life. Without it, as the ancient Greeks said, the people perish. So do television series.'

Perhaps Mr Hattersley should chat with his colleague Tony Banks, MP for Newham in London's East End, the area where the fictional EastEnders is set. Mr Banks thinks the programme is all too true to life, adding, 'only, in the real East End, the acting is better'.

According to Mr Banks, 'the idea that there's some sort of happy community with everyone mucking in, having a good time, is rubbish. This isn't a fun place to live. It's a shitty area. There's a lot of stress around, a lot of housing problems, a lot of unemployment. It doesn't mean to say there isn't any vitality there, but I'm dealing with the casualties all the time.'

Perhaps it needs a Manchester MP to be as honest about Coronation Street.

British soap operas have, thank goodness, never aped their American counterparts, which concentrate on extravagant love affairs and super-rich lifestyles with a cavalier disregard for realism. British audiences even turned their backs on the expats of Eldorado, who promised steamy romance in glamorous settings, but in the end achieved neither the fantasy appeal of Dallas nor the empathy of characters from British-based soaps.

Mr Hattersley, of course, has a point in his assertion that drama, as opposed to documentary, should not be unrelieved gloom. It should reflect the hopes and aspirations of its characters, their strength in adversity, and the tenderness and humour that infiltrates even the depressed area that Mr Banks describes. Indeed, looking at the social history of areas such as London's East End and Liverpool's inner city, and the humour they have produced, I would say especially the sort of area that Mr Banks describes.

But is true drama the stuff of Coronation Street, with its anachronistic, traditionally all-white cast swapping northern homilies in a pub largely unchanged since Ena Sharples supped milk stout in the snug? It is relaxing, it is amusing, it is occasionally touching, but it does not hold a mirror to life and life's emotions.

EastEnders deliberately set out with a different agenda, a gritty realism aided by strong casts and scripts. Like Coronation Street, it produced characters that became a part of the furniture and at the same time explored through those characters issues that have meaning well beyond a fictional east London. The inclusion of a gay couple, who turned out to be neither camp, freaks, nor in any way discernibly different from their neighbours, was an important advance for a soap opera, as was the inclusion of black and Asian families.

Recently the series has dwelt too much on the seamier side of life: violence, crime, drugs and loveless teenage sex. A ratings battle that extended the format to three episodes a week in line with Coronation Street is tangentially responsible, as existing storylines were stretched and beefed up.

But there are other reasons, a key one, I believe, being the departure of some of the older characters, the gossiping matrons Dot and Ethel, who gave the series warmth and humour. The BBC would do well to bring back some of that warmth, but at the same time not desert the issue-led approach that has given the series its distinctive quality over the last decade.

But this debate, I believe, obscures a much more important one that should be taking place. As anyone with teenage children will know, the temptation is for them to absorb an undiluted diet of soap operas, moving from the sun-drenched, teenage traumas laced with optimism of Neighbours and Home and Away, to the grittier social drama of EastEnders, Brookside and The Bill. By contrast, their exposure to the great writing and lasting characters of classic drama is minimal, as it is to contemporary British and American drama.

Coronation Street entertains with harmless and heartwarming cosiness, EastEnders with tough, streetwise scripts. Can anyone meet the challenge of a soap opera that offers, within half-hour segments, all this but more, and moves into the realm of true drama, extending not just the audience's knowledge, but also its insights and imagination?