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The Sunday Post: Soap on the Box

Andrew Martin

BBC Genome

TV's first soap family - the Groves - launch the series in 1954, when having a camera in shot was still regarded as compulsory by BBC stills cameramen

Having looked at the world of radio soap operas recently, we now take a look at the television equivalent. 

BBC television has sometimes seemed to struggle with the genre, and it was not till 1985 with the start of EastEnders that it succeeded in creating a long-running popular soap to rival Coronation Street.

The first proper television soap was The Grove Family, which ran from 1954 to 1957, and whose title referenced its home at Lime Grove studios, which was taking over from Alexandra Palace.  The Groves were a great hit, as television started to gain ever greater popularity in the aftermath of the Coronation in 1953, with even the Royal Family tuning in. 

The cast consisted of a father and mother, their four children, and grandmother, one of the earliest ‘grotesque’ soap characters, much given to speaking her mind.  There was an educational slant to many of the episodes, with wise advice on a range of practical matters.  The series even spawned a feature film early in its run, possibly the only time that has happened with a soap opera. The Groves were not typical of the genre however, as only one family was regularly featured, and it was perhaps inevitable that it should be short-lived.

The BBC’s next attempt at a continuing serial drama was Starr and Company in 1958, about an engineering firm and the families of its employees, but it only lasted nine months.   By this time ITV was up and running, and the BBC was finding it hard to compete.  ITV’s Emergency Ward 10 had begun in 1957 and was to run for 10 years, but the BBC would not find a long-running contemporary medical drama until the 1970s. 

A wedding in Angleton for The Newcomers' 200th episode. Little does the bride realise, she is marrying Star Wars bounty hunter Boba Fett...

Another workplace setting was to prove far more popular with the launch in 1962 of Compact, concerning the lives and loves of the staff of a glossy women’s magazine of that name.  People became obsessed with the glamorous milieu, which contrasted with ITV’s Coronation Street, which began in 1960.

During Compact's run a second twice-weekly serial called Swizzlewick was introduced - an odd, would-be satirical tale of goings on in and around Midlands local government.  It was controversial and had endemic script problems which led to its relatively swift demise. When Compact finally came to an end in the summer of 1965 it was replaced by 199 Park Lane, concerning the occupants of an exclusive high rise block.  This series also had writing problems and was not engaging enough to catch on, although letters to Radio Times reveal it had some fans.

Autumn 1965 saw two new series starting, one of which all but saw out the decade.  This was The Newcomers, based on the topical 60s subject of new towns, and the conflict between those moving out from the cities with the existing inhabitants of villages and the countryside. Set in the new town of Angleton, The Newcomers proved very popular, and saw the likes of Alan Browning (formerly in Coronation Street) and Wendy Richard in regular roles.  Romance was also featured, with the 200th episode featuring the wedding of newcomer Philip Cooper (Jeremy Bulloch) to a local girl.

The other series that began in October 1965, United!, was based on the activities of a fictional Second Division football team, Brentwich United.  Although benefitting from technical advice by Jimmy Hill, the series struggled to balance convincing on-pitch action with boardroom battles and the tribulations of the footballers’ wives.  Ronald Allen, formerly of Compact and later a stalwart of Crossroads, had a stint as the team’s manager.

When United! got an early bath in the spring of 1967, the BBC took the unusual step of resurrecting Z Cars, which had ended in December 1965.  Transforming it into a twice-weekly series with each story split over two episodes, it was never really a traditional soap opera, with minimal glimpses of the off-duty world, but filled a similar function in the schedules. 

The definition of a soap opera is not absolute, and there are shows which are soaps to some and not to others.  Programmes like The Flying Swan – a vehicle for British film star Margaret Lockwood and her daughter Julia (and inspired by an earlier drama that they starred in, also set in a hotel, The Royalty) – or boardroom dramas like Champion House or The Brothers, fulfil the continuing serial element to some degree, but were not presented in the usual never-ending story format central to the classic soap.

Lynda Marchal (now La Plante, in the blue dress) and other members of the cast of The Doctors celebrate its launch in November 1969 - the BBC's first colour soap

The BBC’s only really successful daytime soap is the long-running Doctors, which began in 2000, though there was an attempt to create one as far back as the 50s with Our Miss Pemberton – a continuing serial in the weekday afternoon Mainly for Women strand.

The Doctors (not to be confused with the above series), began in the first week of BBC1 colour transmissions in November 1969.  Set in a North London group practice, with the sparky receptionist played by Lynda Marchal, who has had more success as writer Lynda La Plante

Nigel Stock played a doctor called Thomas Owens, whose name changed for obscure reasons to Owen, and ended up being spun off into the successful series Owen MD, well known for its hit theme tune Sleepy Shores.

By 1972 the BBC had seemed to have given up on soap operas, with its only bi-weekly dramas being Z Cars and espionage series Spy Trap, but even these soon abandoned that format.  Soap opera was left to ITV, who that year added Emmerdale Farm to its roster. 

The one trend bucker was Welsh language series Pobol y Cwm, which began in October 1974 on BBC Wales/Cymru and continues to the present day, although it transferred to Welsh language channel S4C in 1982.

At the end of the 1970s BBC1 decided to turn its successful 50-minute hospital show Angels, which began in 1975, into a bi-weekly series.  The new producer appointed to steer the programme was Julia Smith, a very experienced drama director.

In 1981 the BBC decided to try another bi-weekly, Triangle, starring Kate O’Mara, Michael Craig and Larry Lamb.  It was shot on outside broadcast cameras aboard a ferry on the triangular (hence the title) route between the UK, Holland and Sweden. It was an ambitious change from studio-bound dramas, but was not judged a success, despite running for three seasons.  Both Angels and Triangle only ran for three months of the year, rather than continuously.

The original title caption for EastEnders, launched in 1985

Meanwhile, Julia Smith, with her script editor Tony Holland, had  been given the task of devising a new, all-year-round soap opera for BBC1.  They set up the series that was to become EastEnders, which debuted in February 1985. Made on permanent sets built at Elstree, the show soon became a fixture of the BBC1 schedule, and along with other soaps expanded over the years from two to four episodes a week. 

There is no such thing as an infallible team, however. When Smith and Holland were asked to create another soap in 1992, they came up with the ill-fated Eldorado.  With a purpose built exterior set built in Spain (reflecting the way Channel 4’s Brookside had been produced on a real housing estate) and an international cast, the show was never a critical or popular hit, and the plug was pulled after only a year.

The only other successful soaps introduced by the BBC in recent years has been River City, which is only seen in Scotland.  It began as two 30-minutes episodes a week in 2002, but changed to a single hour-long instalment from 2007. River City follows much the same pattern as most other soaps, and is set in the fictional Glasgow district of Sheildinch.

Although longer form dramas like Casualty and Holby City now have virtually continuous runs, and have a more soap opera approach to stories, it’s arguable they don’t quite fit the genre with episodic stories and lack of domestic backdrop.

Soaps could be almost seen as a necessary evil, getting big ratings in a highly competitive market, though the really heated days of ‘soap wars’ are perhaps cooling off now, and more excitement is generated by more limited run dramas such as The Night Manager and Doctor Foster.

But soap remains economical to produce, and programme planners rely on them to bring viewers to a channel.  The chances of anyone cancelling any of them in the current TV environment seems unlikely.

What is the future of TV soap? Will it always be with us? Could we live without it? Tell us your views in the space below.

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