Soaps
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ENTERTAINMENT
09/05/2020 07:00 BST

Stranger Than Fiction: Is There A Future For Soaps In A Coronavirus World?

Unsafe sets, impractical filming schedules and scripts that don't reflect our new reality. Can soaps adapt to survive the Covid-19 crisis?

Going to the pub, gossiping with mates, falling in (and out) of love: soap operas are supposed to mirror our daily lives.

So what happens when our reality becomes staying indoors to avoid catching a potentially deadly virus? 

Well, it makes the filming of soaps pretty much impossible. And even throws the whole concept of the genre into doubt.

Filming has already been suspended on all of the major UK soaps due to Covid-19. And in order to ensure these shows stay on the air for longer, the likes of EastEnders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale have reduced the amount of weekly episodes that are shown.

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Silence has fallen over the Coronation Street set.

Spreading out episodes means that viewers will be served their favourite soaps for another month, perhaps two: but ultimately, delaying the transmission of these serial dramas is a short-term solution to a longer-term problem. Eventually, they will run out of pre-recorded episodes and potentially go off air as it remains unsafe for cast and crew to return to TV studios.  

BBC producers have said EastEnders can stay on screens until early summer without recording any new episodes. Over at ITV, there are enough episodes of Coronation Street in the can to last until the end of June, and Emmerdale until the end of May.

Soap bosses may just about be able to keep shows on air, at least for the time being, but will the inconsistency and unpredictability harm ratings and viewer relationships?

Soaps haven’t had the opportunity to do a carefully crafted cliffhanger to leave people begging for more when they go off air."

“There is a worry that a soap is a habit, and will this crisis break that habit with viewers?” reasons Steven Murphy, Editor of Inside Soap magazine.

Steven fears that episodes suddenly stopping could be incredibly jarring. “The soaps haven’t had the opportunity to do a carefully crafted cliffhanger to leave people begging for more when they go off air,” he says.

On top of the practical challenges with filming, being unable to respond to the daily reality of people’s lives could be a big problem.

Soaps often feature significant public events, such as general elections and royal milestones, so shouldn’t viewers expect something as news-worthy as Covid-19 to be given airtime?

Murphy doesn’t necessarily agree. “I think for the moment viewers are forgiving,” he says. “I think a lot of people are finding it quite comforting to see people do normal things like go to pubs and have parties – a bit like when you watch a travel show on TV and wish you were in that far and distant place.”

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An aerial view of the now closed EastEnders set at the BBC's Elstree studios in Hertfordshire. All production at the studios has stopped during the Coronavirus outbreak.

Glenda Young, a soap fan who runs the Coronation Street Updates fan site, has actually warmed to the new rules of soap life under Covid-19.

“I’m enjoying only three episodes each week,” she says of Corrie’s new scheduling. “It gives a good breathing space and builds up suspense.”

Glenda also agrees that Coronation Street should swerve the pandemic altogether. “It should remain an escape from reality.”

The trouble is, even if the current format of fewer episodes per week is working for viewers, the practical challenges of keeping shows on air long-term are so tough, none of the major UK soaps were ready to talk to HuffPost UK about their approach to resuming filming.

However, there is one that has managed to get cast and crew back on set amid the virus. 

“After 35 years, one of the great strengths of Neighbours is that we can adapt to just about anything – even Covid-19,” says Neighbours Executive Producer Jason Herbison.

The Aussie show is currently paving the way in their approach to filming under lockdown, which began again at the end of April. 

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The Ramsay Street sign, home of Neighbours

“We spent four weeks developing our return-to-work plan and telling the cast and crew how things were going to run,” says Jason. 

Social distancing rules are being respected on set, where satellite teams of cast and crew are socially distancing from each other as a contingency plan to enable the show to keep running if workers fall ill with the virus in one of the teams.

Temperatures are checked daily, and editors are using clever editorial strategies, such as close-ups and individually-shot scenes edited into one frame, to make characters seem closer together. 

Snogging, and any other type of physical bodily contact, is strictly off-limits, and the smallest number of people possible are allowed on set. One of the resulting factors of this is crew members replacing extras for the time being. 

“I’m not sure we have any closet actors among the crew,” laughs Jason. “I think they’re all happy to be behind-the-scenes. However, everyone understood that we have to do whatever it takes to keep the cameras rolling... suddenly our Assistant Director is serving coffees in the cafe!” 

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The Neighbours cast and crew are the first soap to return to work amid social distancing

It wasn’t Neighbours’ intention to lead the charge with social distance filming.

We were in a position where we felt our scripts could be adapted to avoid intimacy, which not every show can do,” says Jason.

“This preparation helped everything to go smoothly. The biggest challenges are just around everyone forming new habits. It’s the little things that add a little extra time to the day, but after a couple of days, they become second nature.”

He adds: “We will still be the Neighbours viewers know and love, which feels more important than ever in these tough times.”

But given how Covid-19 can go undetected in carriers for up to 14 days, are Neighbours’ social distancing strategies truly safe? 

Professor Paul Hunter, an expert in infectious diseases at The University of East Anglia, asserts that, given how the rate of new cases has fallen from nearly 600 per day to around 20 in Australia, the country is in the position to responsibly restart filming again, given the correct measures are in place.

“But if they’re going to do that then they must screen for temperature. Anyone who is febrile needs to be tested, and treated accordingly,” says Professor Hunter.

Suddenly our Assistant Director is serving coffees in the cafe."

But what about the UK?

Once we’re down to that sort of level, going back to film again is much less of a difficult decision,” he says - but we aren’t there yet.” 

There’s another, perhaps more surprising reason, for countries getting soaps back up and running as soon as they physically can.

“They’re one of the most effective ways of getting messages across to people,” says Professor Hunter, who remembers the classic BBC radio show The Archers was at one point supported by the Ministry of Agriculture for promoting educational messages about animal health.  

Although the professor suggests that resuming filming on UK soaps could feasibly begin at the end of this month if we continue to see decreases in infection rates, he has a sobering reminder.

“We’re not there yet… The daily number of cases is still in the thousands and we need to be getting that down a bit more before you would be starting to want to film.”

The one thing we know for certain right now is, for soaps, there’s no easy answer. While some fans clearly praise the escapism, others will be questioning, perhaps even mocking, how their favourite soap isn’t reflecting the Covid-19 crisis at all.

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Filming has halted at the Coronation Street studio at Media City in Salford, Manchester.

Corrie boss Iain McLeod has announced the soap will tackle the pandemic when it resumes production, revealing it will be addressed but won’t “dominate” the action on the cobbles.

“We took the view that it has to exist in our world,” he explained. “However, I am also aware that people tune into Coronation Street for escapism, to some degree, and to see drama and stories that they would never normally experience in their own lives, and stuff they would normally never see in their own living rooms played out on screen.

“While the virus will exist in Coronation Street, we were also keen that it wouldn’t dominate every single story and every single scene.”

He continued: “If your lives are anything like mine, certainly coronavirus is pretty much the only topic of conversation in my house, but people wouldn’t want to tune into Coronation Street and see every scene was people talking about coronavirus.”

Iain went on to say that he was initially considering not including the outbreak in any future Corrie scenes, but ultimately felt that would go against the show’s values.

And it’s too early to say what the damage of fewer episodes - or even no episodes at all - will do to viewing figures, although it’s clear that this is no one’s ideal scenario.

Jason from the Neighbours crew sums up how impossible this situation is, even if they seem to be ahead of the pack, offering some useful insight to showrunners here in the UK who are busy making decisions on narrative and the practicalities of filming right now.

While it might sound timely to incorporate the pandemic into the story, it’s actually very challenging,” he says. “We plot the show six months in advance so if we were to write a new story now, it could feel very outdated by the time it airs.

“If we were to somehow incorporate it into the stories already plotted but not yet filmed, then we have the issue of the characters breaking the rules all the time.” 

“After all, we are not allowed to visit our neighbours.”