Five worst awareness-raising soap storylines

As British soap fans mourn the passing of Hayley Cropper, who took her own life after a long battle with cancer in last night’s headline-grabbing episode of Coronation Street, we give you the five most cloying attempts at soap-opera awareness-raising.

5) Kirsty turns on Tyrone

Not content with trying to convince us that normal blokes are all potential wife-beaters, the domestic-violence lobby has looked to unearth the scourge of bloke-battering women in recent years. Last year this cause found an unlikely ally in Tyrone Dobbs, the manchild mechanic from Coronation Street. The Corrie storyline, in which Tyrone (Alan Halsall) was being beaten by his baby-mother Kirsty (Natalie Gumede), tackled the issue with cack-handed gusto. Eventually, due to Kirsty’s violent jealousy, Tyrone was pretty much locked in the house. He made the most of it, though, taking the time to cook Kirsty nice meals; he even set out a bottle of half-price plonk for when she returned home from work, but it was never enough to quell her rage. The deeply cartoonish role-reversal plot probably didn’t do much to tackle any social ills. But it did get Gumede a spot on TV celeb dancing competition Strictly Come Dancing, where she took on the charleston and the tango with all the hammy vigour with which she attacked poor Tyrone.


4) Male rape on Hollyoaks

Launched in 1995, Channel 4’s teenybopping soap Hollyoaks has long sought to win a just-after-teatime audience using that winning formula of pretty girls, pretty boys and pretty crap scripts. And as long as it never takes itself too seriously, its target demographic of 15-year-olds (give or take a few time-rich students) have tended to tune in. In 2000, however, things took what looked to be a steamier turn. Hollyoaks’ creator Phil Redmond announced that his teenage soap was to tackle the ‘last great social taboo’ in a late-night, ‘one-off’ special on ‘sexuality’. Sadly, for the legions of teenaged boys - ensconced in their bedrooms, ‘Mansize’ at the ready, waiting for a couple of fit girls to get off with each other - the ‘last great sexual taboo’ turned out to involve a disturbing male-rape scene, laced with mawkish muzak, and culminating in a lonely shower shot better suited to a gritty prison drama. ‘We’ve picked up the stone’, explained Redmond, ‘and said, “look what’s underneath”’. And what viewers found was a steaming pile of right-on attention-seeking.

 

3) Mark Fowler is HIV positive

The EastEnders character of Mark Fowler (originally played by David Scarboro) began life in 1985 as a bequiffed delinquent, effortlessly pumping James Dean cool into the gloomy environs of Walford. But, with the then-Tory government hyping up the threat of AIDS as part of its moralistic assault on people’s sex lives, the BBC clearly felt uncomfortable with Scarboro’s portrayal of a handsome boy out for a good time. Exiting the show in 1987 (Scarboro himself committed suicide in 1988), the BBC brought Mark back in 1990, played this time by Todd ‘Grange Hill’ Carty. It wasn’t just a different actor, though; it was a different character. Mark was now depressive, lumbering and as cool and sexy as a jumper with leather-patched elbows. Not only that, Mark was now HIV positive. You see, the BBC was saying, everyone is at risk of AIDS, even a heterosexual market trader who wasn’t an intravenous drug user. No wonder Mark was one of the most boring characters in the history of soaps; he had been turned into little more than an advert for safe sex.

 


2) Brookside’s lesbian kiss

Most soap operas came to deal with the ‘ishoos’ late in life. With Brookie, which launched with Channel 4 back in 1982, it was right there from the start. There was Bobby Grant the trade unionist (played by real-life trade unionist Ricky Tomlinson), Gordon Collins, who in 1985 became the first character to ‘come out’ in a British soap, the rape of Bobby’s wife Sheila (Sue Johnston) in 1986, Nick Black the middle-class heroin addict, and many more.

However, the biggest Brookside moment of all was 20 years ago this month, when teenagers Beth Jordache (Anna Friel) and Margaret Clemence (Nicola Stephenson) puckered up for Britain’s first pre-watershed lesbian kiss. It was, to be fair, a brief and tender moment, not the raunchy, sub-porn nonsense of Brookie creator Phil Redmond’s next project, Hollyoaks. But this wasn’t just a storyline about awkward teenage love. This was An Important Breakthrough, that handily fitted into Brookie’s dash for ratings, which went on to feature ever-madder storylines as narrative gave way to headline-bait.

Indeed, it was such An Important Breakthrough that when former Brookside writer Frank Cottrell Boyce came to write the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, that lesbian kiss appeared, almost subliminally, in a montage of the best bits in British TV history - leaving viewers around the world thinking: ‘Did two women just kiss? Did I just imagine that?’ Obviously, showing two women kissing to all those backward countries around the world that oppress gay people was An Important Breakthrough, too.

 


1) Peggy Mitchell gets breast cancer

As documented in Garry Bushell’s tome 1,001 Reasons Why EastEnders is Pony, Peggy Mitchell’s discovery that she had breast cancer in the mid-Nineties marked the beginning of the end for the once-vital soap. Indeed, EastEnders’ eventual slide into preachy awareness-raising, effectively neutering the show of its former back-alley verve, was ceremonially marked by the Queen Vic matriarch’s mastectomy. Barbara Windsor, the former Carry On actress who was famous for her ample pair and giggly every-girl charm, was reduced to playing a vulnerable, boobless old harridan, laying the groundwork for the joyless and moralistic burble that the EastEnders writing team has been turning out ever since.

 

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