15/05/2014 11:47 BST | Updated 14/07/2014 06:59 BST

Not Just Suds and Bubbles - The Lasting Social Impact of Modern Day Soaps


The snobbery surrounding soap operas is an interesting one.

Certain 'serious actors' shun them, and some viewers go so far as to pretend not to watch them, insisting anything they know of the storylines is from channel-flicking, or because someone else in the house was watching.

And yet the genre is one of the most influential in British television. Soap characters become household names, and the actors so well recognised that often people will pass them in the street and accidentally acknowledge them like friends.

Despite the snobbery, soaps attract dedicated followings. A full cross-section of society, who will watch any story with which they are presented, no matter how uncomfortable. On a daily basis, topics like euthanasia, gender identification, murder, rape and domestic abuse are brought directly into homes around the country.

No matter how awkward or uncomfortable the subject, the audience watches on, eagerly awaiting some form of justice for the fictional characters, and in doing so, learning valuable lessons about things we don't normally discuss at the dinner table.

The current domestic abuse story in Hollyoaks is a perfect example of this. It is also of particular relevance this week, as the Crown Prosecution Service announces new guidance related to non-violent domestic abuse.

At one time tarnished with a reputation as a superficial teen drama, in recent years Hollyoaks has come on leaps and bounds in the soap stakes. With former EastEnders executive producer Bryan Kirkwood at the helm, this year Hollyoaks is celebrating more nominations than any other show at the British Soap Awards.

Two of those nominations belong to Jeremy Sheffield, and Nikki Sanderson, who have enacted Patrick Blake's abuse of his girlfriend Maxine Minerva for over a year now.

A slow burning storyline, the script writers have been determined to accurately depict the repetitive, and gradually developing nature of an abusive relationship. Patrick's hold over Maxine has escalated from moving her into his flat and isolating her from her friends, to changing the way she dresses, and degrading and belittling her on a daily basis. The couple's relationship is also violent, however the physical abuse is just one manifestation of Patrick's bullying.


The story has been cleverly presented. Not simply through its frustratingly inescapable nature, but also thanks to Patrick's social status. A pillar of the community, the character is well respected - a Jekyll and Hyde performance which Sheffield plays to perfection. Patrick Blake is a stark reminder to us all that anyone can be an abuser. Meanwhile his victim, the once bubbly and irrepressible Maxine, has been reduced to a shell of her former self by the relationship. An equally visual lesson that victims come in the most unexpected shapes and sizes.

You only have to run a Twitter search of 'Patrick, Hollyoaks' to recognise the story's power. All around the country viewers are shouting at their television screens, desperate for justice for Maxine. But the plot's impact runs far deeper than these reactions, something which the Home Office identified late last year when they teamed up with Sheffield and Sanderson to create a pair of cautionary adverts as part of the 'This is Abuse' campaign.

The adverts focus on a key element of the storyline. That abuse can be far more complex than simple violence. One advert focuses on Patrick's control of Maxine's mobile phone, and the way he manipulates how she dresses. Another makes clear that even if someone is your partner, sex without consent is rape.

Blunt messages, but ones which need to be told.

The reaction to both the storyline and the Home Office adverts has been incredible. Not only has there been a marked rise in the number of domestic abuse cases being reported, but the actors themselves have touching stories which illustrate the impact of the fictional abuse.

In a recent interview I conducted with the pair, Jeremy described watching an episode of Newsnight, only to be taken aback, when a victim of domestic abuse explained she had only properly understood the nature of her husband's controlling tendencies, when she was watching Hollyoaks with her children.

Meanwhile Nikki spoke of the hundreds of messages she has received over Twitter, from men and women who, inspired by the soap story, have found the courage to leave their real-life abusers. And just this month, whilst Sanderson was filming the Wright Stuff, a perpetrator himself called in, and admitted live on air to abusing his partner.

It's interesting how candidly viewers will share their secrets with soap stars. And yet, to thousands of people, 'Maxine' is an everyday figure in their lives. A person they know more about than most of their friends. So not only does she teach them a cautionary tale, but she provides a trusted face, to whom they willingly open up.

Arguably far more than Sanderson signed up for when she joined the Hollyoaks cast, however the responsibility is one she clearly hasn't taken lightly. When she first learned of the storyline, she was determined to understand as much about the topic as possible, in order to properly appreciate what her character would be experiencing. In the process she visited women's refuges, and spent time with victims at all points of coming to terms with abusive relationships. The pair has also worked closely with both the Home Office and charities such as Rape Crisis and Women's Aid.

The actors' dedication to the cause has been rewarded, not just in their nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress at the BSAs, but also in the clear success of the messages the Hollyoaks writers were hoping to convey.

No, as viewers we may not like to watch Patrick's never-ending manipulation of Maxine, but the story has brought a taboo subject into our living rooms, making every single viewer aware of the subtleties of abusive relationships. So that even if we don't find ourselves in a similar situation, we've all at least wondered how we would react, if we recognised those subtleties in someone we knew and cared about.