A soap opera is a tv or radio drama. We interview one of the writers and ask her to explain what is a ‘soap’, talk about some of the most popular soaps, give examples of story-lines and discuss whether soaps reflect our society.

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English for Life in the UK

Episode 27:  Soap Operas in the UK

Mark

Hello, and welcome to the podcast English for Life in the UK. This podcast is for those people who want to improve their English by listening to a range of native English speakers, talking in an everyday way, about a range of subjects.  

Today, we’re going to talk about “soap operas“, also, often, just called soaps. These are dramas on television or radio, and they cover everyday life and relationships. There are many of them in the UK. Today, I interviewed Holly who works on one of the popular soaps in England.  

(Music) 

Mark

Well I’m delighted to say I’m joined by Holly. Holly – tell us a bit about yourself.  

Holly 

Hi – yes, it’s really nice to be here. So, I work on a soap – basically – a British soap for television. I’ve done it for just over two years.  

Mark

Tell me: what do we mean by a “soap”? How would you explain to somebody from another country what a “soap” is?  

Holly

Well, it’s .. it can be [on] TV or Radio – but basically, it’s a drama and it’s normally set in like one, fairly small, location – so, usually a street or a village – and it just focuses on the lives of the ordinary people who live there, which obviously means that they have pretty big … pretty big casts and lots of story lines going on, at any one time, and they can run and run for years. So, yeah.  

Mark  

Yes – so dramas about every day life, I guess we could say, couldn’t we? And, as you say, I mean, often, some of them are on, two or three times a week, aren’t they? and have often been going for years,  

Holly 

Two or three times, at least, really. Most of them are on every … every week day 

Mark 

So tell us about some the most popular ones in the UK. 

Holly

Well, I suppose … well, I don’t know about viewing figures, but, in terms of the ones that people think of – I think, Coronation Street is probably the main one,   That’s been going the longest. So that started on TV in 1960, which is pretty impressive, when you think about it. So yes. There’s that.  

East Enders is another very famous one – not sure how long that’s been going, but quite a while. But there’s loads of different soaps and they all, kind of, appeal to people, I think. So, you’ve got something like Hollyoaks, which is a bit newer and aimed at slightly younger people. And you’ve got things like Doctors or Holby City, which focus on hospitals – so medical soaps as well, so yes – there’s all sorts. 

(3 minutes: 40 seconds)  

Mark

Yes – and the two you mention there, particularly, Coronation Street is set in Manchester, isn’t it? which is not all that far from where we are, when we’re recording this. And East Enders is set in London – the East End of London – which is where the name comes from.  

What do you actually do then, Holly? What’s your job in relation to the soaps and which soaps do you work on, particularly?   

Holly

Erm … so I’m a “storyliner” – I work on Hollyoaks, at the moment and, basically – there’s a team of sort of between 5 and 8 of us, maybe, at any one time. And it’s our job to plot out the story of every single episode, essentially, not write the script – but, yes, plot the story – and then that goes to the writers and the writers write the scripts.  

Mark

So, give me some examples of some story lines. I know you wont be allowed to tell us ones that are still to come, but just give me – give us – the listeners – a flavour of the kind of stories that might happen in a soap opera.  

Holly 

Er – well there’s a great variety. I think it’s what’s really … really great about the soaps. They can cover all sorts of different tones. So, I suppose soaps are maybe best at more grounded kind of domestic stories that look at things like relationships. So affairs are quite common in soaps and then … I think – maybe the most famous relationship story on a soap, one of the most famous, was probably between Den and Angie on East Enders – that was in the 1980s and … it was a huge thing at the time. Millions and millions of people tuned in on Christmas Day when Den handed her divorce papers on Christmas – that’s a very famous moment. Then they’re also very good at dealing with more, kind of, issue-based stories. So, things like mental health stories are usually tackled very well by soaps: depression, eating disorders, that kind of thing. Or things that are relevant to what’s happening now – so Hollyoaks have just finished a story about ‘county lines’ drug dealing and how kids can be groomed into that. So, there’s that kind of thing, but then, also – as well as those more, sort of, realistic types of stories – soaps also aren’t afraid to go into quite heightened territory – so the kind of story which you wouldn’t necessarily expect your everyday kind of person to experience – so serial killers, most soaps have had a serial killer or two. And also, most soaps try and pull off like a big – a stunt – every year – so the famous one, for example, would be Coronation Street had a tram crash, in 2010, for the 50th anniversary. So yes, all sorts, as I say. There’s a huge variety of tones, because there’s just so much time to tell all these different stories.  

(7:13) 

Mark

Yes – it’s really interesting.  

 So, would you say – you kind of touched on it there a bit – would you say, that soaps that they follow what’s going on in society, in real life? – do they reflect that? Or do they to some extent, even influence it, do you think?  

Holly

Yes – I think – I think they certainly have a responsibility to try and reflect society, where it’s possible and to tell stories that are relevant, because, obviously, by their nature, they’re meant to be about normal people, living in the present day. So yes – I think they do have a bit of a responsibility to tell that kind of story. So things like – as I say – Hollyoaks had the “county lines” drug dealing. They also had one of its best loved characters, quite recently, being drawn into far right extremism which isn’t the kind of story, I don’t think, that any soaps would have told, maybe a decade ago. But it suddenly started to feel incredibly relevant and I think it is important to reflect that.  

Mark

Yes – certainly, my reflection would be that, over time, I’ve seen the way in which first of all, they’ve reflected changes:  so, for example, they’ve had gay characters come into them. They’ve had a much more multi-racial, multi-ethnic cast and story lines that relate to race and racism – as you say – for example, the far right racism and things of that sort. I suppose …. I think that maybe by reflecting some of those things, they also then help people to come to terms with the fact that society does change and is changing and maybe they have a positive influence, in that way.  What do you think?  

(9:12) 

Holly

Yes – I’m sure ….I’m sure they must to an extent, because I suppose, it’s probably a big ask for any TV show to set out to try and change society, but – as you say, soaps: they are quite ahead of their … ahead of other TV shows, in that regard, I think,  in terms of …. they’re always looking for the next big … what the thing – that will become relevant as well as what is relevant, at any one time. So, as you say, gay issues, especially, I think, soaps were way ahead of any other TV shows in that regard and, yes, hopefully, because they do have such massive audiences, or certainly did, hopefully, that would sort of normalise that kind of thing. So, I think …. I think it was East Enders that had the first gay kiss on a soap and it had a huge amount of backlash initially, and then the second time there was much, much less because, yes, it’s just about normalising that kind of thing, to an audience, who might not otherwise see it.  

Mark

Yes. So, why do you think they’re so popular – because they are really popular, aren’t they? Those ones that you’ve mentioned get huge audiences on a very regular basis. Why do you think that is?  

Holly

Yes, they do. I think a variety of reasons. I suppose one of the big reasons is that – they’re all …. they’re designed to keep you watching. So, every episode of every soap, always ends on a massive cliff hanger, that’s designed to make you go “oh, I want to watch the next one,” straight away. That’s probably a big factor. But I think, I think the main reason is that, because soaps go on for years and years, you really get to know those characters, more than with any other type of TV show, I think. So there are characters on soaps who started as children and you can watch them grow up, over the years, which I think is amazing. And you come to really care about and invest in those characters and just enjoy spending time with them which I guess is  … can be quite comforting and maybe there’s an element of familiarity, but also escapism in spending time with those characters who you have come over time to really, really love.  

Mark 

Yes – thanks for that.  

What about the quality of soap operas? I would say that, generally, people often sort of  look down on them and think of them as sort of kind of lesser quality TV programmes. And yet, actually, some very good actors and actresses have been in soaps and good writers have started – you may be one of those – in a soap, then gone on to other things. So what’s your reflection on that? 

(12:21)  

Holly

Well, you’re right. They are definitely looked down upon by people who don’t actually watch them. Because it’s easy to dismiss something that …I suppose, that is just popular, in a way – there’s always going to be an element of “it’s mainstream, so maybe it’s not actually very good”.  But, yes, I think they’re excellent training grounds, first of all for writers and actors who go on to do much bigger and better things. By their nature, they are able to do things, that other TV shows just aren’t really doing, so telling those types of stories, that are relevant to today – like the far right extremism one – or really, really fleshing out and developing characters, over decades. I think that’s incredible. So, an example of an actor who started in a soap is Sarah Lancashire. She started in Coronation Street – I’m not really sure when. She was big in Coronation Street for a long time, and has since gone on to being in Happy Valley which is a British police drama, which is hugely popular and really, really good and is written by Sally Wainwright who also, I think, started by writing on Coronation Street.   

Mark

Yes – I think that’s right. And both of those, I think, have won awards at, you know, a very high level for writing dramas and performing in dramas, as well.  

Holly 

Yes. Absolutely. I have a question … I have a question for you.  

Mark

Yes – go on.  

Holly 

Just – what made you want to do a podcast about soap operas, I suppose.  

Mark

Well – what we try to do in our podcast is to …We’re trying to help people to improve their English – but then, we’re also, at the same time, trying to help them learn more about life in this country, because a number of our listeners are people who are seeking asylum or have become refugees in this country.  We also have a number of listeners in other parts of the world, who may be interested in coming to the UK at some stage. So we want them to learn something about life in this country and I think soap operas are a good reflection. It’s what you said – I think they are quite good for reflecting society.  

I think somebody learning English would probably struggle with just dipping into an individual episode of a soap, to understand what was happening. But I do think if they listened – if they chose one that they were interested in – they would – over a period of time, probably … it would probably help them to learn English, although a lot of them of course, do have a lot of local accents used, a lot of common terminology which wouldn’t be part of formal learning of language but again that can, I think, be quite useful. So hopefully, it’s something that would interest people.  

Of course, the other thing I think we should say, most countries in the world have the equivalent of soap operas on their television stations, so many people from other parts of the world will be familiar with the idea, although quite what they’ll call them – they won’t call them a soap, but they’ll have an equivalent, in their country, on their TV.  

Holly

Yes. Yes – I’m sure that’s true. Yes. 

Mark

Listen, Holly. Thank you very much indeed. Very helpful of you to join us and good to be talking to somebody who’s actually working on soaps on a daily basis and we wish you all the best for the future.  

Holly

Thank you. Yes. That was really nice.  

(Music) (16:49) 

Language Support  

Mark

This is the part of the podcast where I choose some words or phrases from the episode and explain them. So today, I’ve picked out four words which related in some way to this episode.  

So, early on – Holly talked about the fact that there had been a backlash against a particular story line, in one of the soaps. So a backlash is a strong negative reaction to something.  

Later, she talked about episodes which are a stunt or include stunts. So a stunt is an unusual, extreme or difficult performance or story line. She was talking about how there would be a very dramatic crash, for example, in a soap opera. There is also the phrase – a stunt actor – a stunt actor is somebody who takes the place of the main actor. when doing something dangerous, that would lead to an accident of some kind.  

Holly talked about the fact that many soaps will end each episode with what she called a cliff hanger. Now a cliff hanger, in this case, is an ending to an episode, or a part of a drama, which is full of suspense and uncertainty – so you don’t know what’s going to happen and the idea is that that encourages you then to watch the next episode, to find out what happened. And it comes from the idea of somebody hanging over a cliff, perhaps by their fingernails, and you don’t know if they’re going to survive or fall. So that word, a cliffhanger, is used in a general sense, to mean an ending which is uncertain and which then encourages you to watch the next part.  

And finally, Holly talked about escapism in terms of dramas on television. So for something to be escapism, means it will take you away from – distract you from – your own life, in order to actually be entertained by something happening in another reality. So, during the soaps you get involved with the characters and what’s going on in their story and that takes you away, to some extent, from what might be going on in your own life.  

I hope that’s been helpful. That’s it for this week. If you want to find out more about the Charity that produces this podcast and how you can support us or make contact with us, then stay listening for details of our website and email. Otherwise we’ll be back again very soon. Goodbye and take care of yourselves.  

(Music(20:48) 

You can get the transcript for this episode and all others – through our website:       
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I’ll spell out all of those:  So, the website: -.-s-t-a-u-g-u-s-t-i-n-e-s-c-e-n-t-r-e-h-a-l-i-f-a-x.org.uk
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And that’s “English for” spelt: f-o-r – life in the uk.
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Thank you and be back with you again soon.   

Ends (23:11)