Soaps on the BBC: from the Front Line to the Queen Vic
Across the globe, soap operas are amongst the most popular and best-loved programmes, attracting huge and often intensely loyal audiences who eagerly consume both domestic and imported soaps on a grand scale.
The soap opera originated on radio in the United States in the early 1930s, as short, domestic dramas sponsored by the manufacturers of soaps, medicines, foods and other household goods. Often made by advertising agencies rather than broadcasters they were very popular with their (mainly female) audiences, but were often looked down upon by those with more elevated tastes. In Britain, a similar set of responses to the form has applied.
In the United States, television soaps like Dallas, Dynasty and others have dealt with the lives of the rich and powerful. BBC radio soaps have often been, at least in the early days, solidly middle class. However, on television, the soaps that have worked best, particularly in Britain, are those which have concentrated on ordinary people, living and working in ordinary places; the dialogue based on the lunchtime conversations in the local pub, be it the Rover's Return, or the Queen Vic. At the heart of it all then is gossip: characters, action and plot are commented upon within the programmes (as our lives are in reality), by a continuous stream of gossip.
The BBC has its mandate to inform, educate and entertain, and at the same time provide 'something for everybody, some of the time' (John Reith, first Director-General of the BBC). It has always had to live up to the twin aims of reaching a universal audience whilst maintaining the highest possible quality across the board. Nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent than in the early days of the BBC's experiments with the soap drama format.
The first soap ever created by the BBC was called Front Line Family and it was first broadcast in 1941. It did not initially air in Britain at all but in North America. This was because it was part of a public relations effort aimed at encouraging US participation in WW2 by giving audiences there a dramatised flavour of 'a middle class English family standing up to the shocks of war'. Some in the BBC resisted the idea but were persuaded that, given the importance of the task in hand, it was important to talk to American audiences in ways with which they would be familiar. The programme was an instant success and not only with American audiences. When it was broadcast over the entire overseas network, it proved so popular with British listeners stationed abroad that it eventually found its way onto the Light Programme after the war's end in 1945 as The Robinson Family.
Under this guise, it continued until it was finally taken off air (to protests) in 1947. So unlike its early US radio counterparts, whose sole purpose was to win audiences through entertainment, the BBC had more than one objective – to entertain, yes of course, but also to inform, to educate or as here to persuade.
January 1948 saw the first appearance of Mrs Dale's Diary, which ran until 1969, (changing its name to The Dales in 1962). The first Mr and Mrs Dale had worked on the Robinsons, and in the new series they played a suburban doctor and his wife. Loved by audiences, (reportedly the late Queen Mother said it was the only way of finding out what went on in a middle class family), it was mocked by critics and satirised for its cut glass accents and bourgeois pretensions. The strongest criticism was from inside the BBC however, where it was viewed by some as being 'socially corrupting' of the audience and 'soul destroying' of those who made it.
'A tale of everyday country folk'
The world's longest running soap, Radio 4's The Archers, began broadcasting in 1950. Like Front Line Family, initially it had more than one purpose. Set in the fictitious village of Ambridge, it was 'a tale of everyday country folk' that was to be both a gripping drama 'a farming Dick Barton' (a popular crime serial at the time) and an accurate portrayal of post-war country life. It was also used to promote modern farming methods and took advice from the then Ministry of Agriculture. For a time it was '60 percent entertainment, 30 percent information and 10 percent education'.
It also worked spectacularly as a programme and quickly became a hit with both urban and rural listeners, attracting an audience of over 9 million by 1953. Such was its power that famously, the death of Grace Archer in a fire on September 22 1955 saw the BBC inundated with calls from grief-stricken listeners and the newspapers the next day full of nothing else, completely overshadowing the launch of commercial television. Down the years the programme has changed with the nation, and storylines that would have been unthinkable in the less permissive 1950s are now commonplace, but the realities of country living. from foot and mouth to the economic pressures on dairy farming, are still portrayed with a careful eye to detail and accuracy.
BBC television's first foray into soap opera was a children's programme The Appleyards, which went out once every two weeks from 1952 to 1957. At first it was broadcast live. It featured Mum, Dad and their four children, living somewhere in the Home Counties. Unlike later soaps, which continue in real time, as the younger Appleyard child actors grew, they were replaced, so in this little corner of suburban England time appeared to stand still.
The Grove Family, which ran from 1954 to 1957, was the first television soap for adults. It was set in the north London suburb of Hendon and featured three generations of a successful builder's family who took their name from the BBC's Lime Grove studios. First and foremost entertainment, it nevertheless contained public service elements as well as reflecting the post-war growth in prosperity.
The 1960s saw commercial television establishing such a dominance in soaps with shows such as Coronation Street (1960) and Crossroads (1964-88, 2001-2003), that until the launch of EastEnders in 1985, many considered that the BBC was not committed to this type of popular drama. This was not for the want of trying though. After the failure of the short-lived and largely forgotten attempt at a replacement for The Groves called Starr and Company, BBC television returned to the fray in 1962 with a more successful and memorable drama, Compact. Seen as a rival to Coronation Street, but scheduled to avoid clashing with it, Compact had a decidedly more upmarket setting than its more established rival amid the glamorous world of fashion publishing. Predictably, it was panned by critics but liked by audiences and due to viewer demand an omnibus edition was introduced in 1964. The programme did not win a place in the heart of the Corporation, however, and was discontinued in 1965. Later the same year, the BBC tried again with The Newcomers, which ran until late 1969 and told the story of the Coopers, a London family who moved to the fictional town of Angleton against the real background of a shift in population from London to smaller satellite towns in the 1950s and 1960s.
As The Dales finally came to an end in the spring of 1969, Radio 2 launched its own soap, Waggoners Walk. This was a very different animal from the comfortable Dales or Archers and featured storylines about illegitimacy, homosexuality, abortion and a host of other hot social topics. It overtook The Archers in popularity and by the early seventies was attracting audiences of over 4 million. This did not save it from being axed in the midst of an economy drive in1980, however.
The honour of being the longest-running television soap on the BBC goes to the Welsh language drama, Pobol y Cwym (People of the Valley) which been airing since 1974, at first on BBC Wales and then on the Welsh language channel SC4 from 1982 onwards. Like its cockney younger sibling, a great deal of the action takes place in the local pub, the Deri Arms.
Which brings us to the Queen Vic. By the early 1980s, it had become imperative that the BBC re-connect with the popular audience and EastEnders was a central part of that effort. Arguably for the first time, BBC television threw itself wholeheartedly into the production of a soap opera, investing large sums of money, building a permanent set and ensuring that when EastEnders hit the screens in February 1985 it connected with the public, attracting up to 30 million viewers for some episodes within its first year. A quarter of a century later, it continues to win large audiences. At its best, it combines human interest and melodrama but always rooted in the lives of real people.
As an interesting coda, the soap skills evolved on British TV and radio are now being used in the developing world, in order to create engaging soaps which also have important messages around health and civic society. BBC script advisers from The Archers, for example, worked on an Albanian soap commissioned by the World Service, which was listened to – at its peak – by 65% of the adult population. Other soaps have been developed for Russia, Afghanistan, Nepal, Nigeria, India, Vietnam, Romania and Burma.
And so the BBC soap format continues to evolve, occupying its place in both national and global schedules.
Anthony McNicholas is a media historian and a senior lecturer in the Communication and Media Research Institute at the University of Westminster.