"A soap story is more influential than any politician. Emmerdale’s Robron is more influential than the prime minister,” ‘This Morning’ soap expert and ‘Emmerdale’ writer Sharon Marshall declares with a laugh. “More people are going to listen to and watch them, be influenced by their storyline, and engage with what they’re saying.”
It’d be easy to dismiss her comments, as many often do with the primetime dramas that are shown on our TVs five nights a week, but even a quick glance through entertainment history suggests she might be right. Hollywood still lacks an openly gay A-lister at the top of their game, and as recently as this year, a UK music star felt the need to talk about his sexuality after media speculation, and while TV dramas feature LGBT characters, it’s with soaps that we get a regular insight into their lives.
If you ask someone for their earliest memory of seeing LGBT topics on screen, the likes of ‘EastEnders’ and ‘Coronation Street’ are commonly mentioned. There’s Barry and Colin’s forehead kiss in Albert Square, Todd and Nick’s in ‘Corrie’ and Brookside's lesbian kiss, all of which were soap firsts. They paved the way for today’s landmark storylines, which include the hugely popular Robron pairing, the introduction of transgender characters, played by transgender actors, and the first regular, openly gay soap character to be diagnosed with HIV.
TV soaps occupy a unique position in British television. They are teatime favourites, screened five times a week, while ‘Corrie’ and ‘Emmerdale’ are on more frequently, and hour-long specials are a regular occurrence. The residents of these fictional boroughs and towns live their lives alongside our own, so it’s no wonder that for many people considering their own sexuality, or place in the LGBT community, soaps offer an insight into what things can be like. While many are all too quick to turn their noses up at the genre, it’s hard to argue that they don’t have an impact, when today’s episodes regularly pull in over five million viewers each.
This sentiment is shared by TV fans, including Kieron Richardson, a self-confessed soap addict who has also played Ste Richardson in ‘Hollyoaks’ for the last ten years. He tells us: “I’ve always been quite open about the fact that when I was at school, there wasn’t much on television for someone who was wanting to talk about their sexuality but was too scared, and not really brave enough to go into shops and buy gay magazines or anything. There certainly wasn’t anything on TV.”
“So it’s nice that, especially for our show which is on at 6.30pm, with quite young audience, it’s a shop window in a way, not to buy things but to see characters go through experiences that they might be going through and to kind of maybe get a bit of advice or comfort, from seeing somebody coming out and that it’s not gone horribly wrong.”
Kieron’s HIV storyline has received a well-deserved, overwhelmingly positive response, and the actor recalls one touching moment that occurred after the scenes were aired. He tells us: “There was a letter I did get from a guy, who said if he hadn’t watched the show he might not have got tested. Luckily for him, he watched it and got tested. Unfortunately he did find out he was positive, but it’s always better to find out earlier rather than later, so I’m glad for that actually.”
However, reactions haven’t always been quite so reassuring. As Sharon notes, “people were screaming abuse and complaining” when Barry and Colin’s kiss was seen by 17 million ‘EastEnders’ viewers in 1987, and national newspapers ran headlines including the words ‘EastBenders’, ‘scum’ and ‘poofters’.
Slowly though, things began to change. By the time Nicola Stephenson made soap history, when her Brookside character shared the first ever pre-watershed lesbian kiss with Anna Friel’s character Beth in 1994, the public’s attitudes had already altered. “There were no negative responses that I remember,” Nicola says. “I received letters from young girls who were struggling with their sexuality, which was a big responsibility at the age of 20, but they were always positive.”
Recalling what it was like when the scenes were being planned, Nicola admits that she didn’t realise the impact they would have, though it soon became apparent that the brief encounter wouldn’t be forgotten any time soon. She says: “I remember talking about it to the writers and the producers, and we were all very conscious of the fact we wanted to take certain steps to make sure Anna’s character wasn’t a man-hater, ‘this character is gay because she was abused’, or ‘because she’s experimenting’.
“That’s something Brookside always did, they didn’t do things half-heartedly or flippantly. They always looked at the wider impact of what they were doing, to make sure it was done properly. I loved the show for that. I had no idea that I would be sitting here 25 years later, having a conversation about it. Never, in a million years.”
As Nicola observes, getting it right isn’t easy and writing a gay storyline isn’t without its pitfalls. While nowadays, storyline teams could easily - and mistakenly - see gay plot twists as a fast-track route to viewers’ hearts, they haven’t always got it quite right.
“Binnie and Della, that was a low point in ‘EastEnders’,” Sharon says. “All they had that was interesting about them was the lesbian storyline and once that happened and they came out, they [the writing team] clearly didn’t have any idea what to do with them next.
“That’s when the storylines fail, when it looks like it’s box-ticking, or ‘let’s be controversial’.”
Kieron expresses a similar sentiment while discussing Ste’s HIV, explaining one of the key rules the Hollyoaks’ team had in place. “We wanted to make sure we got it absolutely right,” he explains. “I feel like we did. We had a motto that we had from the start, which was that we wanted Ste’s HIV to be the tenth most interesting thing about the character, so he wouldn’t be defined by it.”
My first memory of seeing an LGBT moment on screen was Todd Grimshaw’s ill-fated attempt to plant a kiss on Nick Tilsley. Bruno Langley, who plays Todd, recalls what it was like when the episode aired in 2003 (after revealing that the first LGBT scene he remembers was Nicola’s ‘Brookside’ kiss).
“When people say ‘you’re really helping out and doing a great thing’, I think, ‘I was just doing my job’,” he says. “If I’ve helped anyone and helped raise issues in the public arena then that’s brilliant and I’m really proud of that. But at the time, it felt like quite a big deal but now, things have moved on. That was 15 years ago, and it’s great that now we have moved on from there, to things like transgender issues. I was just a tiny little bit of history.
“Older guys would come up to me in the supermarket, and tell me it had reminded them of a bit of their history. It obviously had affected them and touched them. I was really proud.”
“It’s soaps’ jobs to tackle these issues,” Bruno adds. “They should reflect people’s lives. If they had no gay people, it wouldn’t be doing that.”
The scene was penned by Daran Little, who later went on to write for ‘EastEnders’, and when I mention Todd and Nick’s kiss with Sharon, she’s quick to recognise why it’s such a significant one for so many TV fans.
“What was so great about that was, it happened years ago, but your heart went out to this young kid who’s been rejected,” she says. “Daran also wrote Johnny Carter’s coming out scene. Those little moments are so important. For everyone at home, that will be resonating with them. So it’s not necessarily the big thing that’s going to get all the complaints or be the first something, but it’s those little moments that make you think, ‘they’re telling real life here’. That’s what resonates with the viewer.
“The scene with Johnny was absolutely gorgeous, it was beautiful watching a son coming out to his father and getting the most gorgeous reaction. Soaps are so powerful because they are brave enough to do scenes with characters we’ve grown up with and care about.”
This is also a hint at what will come next in Soapland, in terms of the depiction of LGBT relationship and topics. With so many ‘firsts’ and scenes already in the history books, what ground is still left to cover? “We’ve got two transgender characters [EastEnders’ Kyle and Hollyoaks’ Sally] and we’ve not told love stories there, but is it about that fight to constantly be the first?” Sharon offers.
“Pretty soon, we’re going to run out of firsts, I think it’s about constantly telling that human side and bringing it down to characters that you’re in love with. It’s interesting that now it’s no longer controversial to make characters gay or straight, it’s just a tiny bit of their make-up. That’s what is the most interesting thing about a character - it no longer matters. It’s not the first thing you think of when you look at a character.
“The most important thing is to tell human stories about people, where their LGBT status is simply a part of their life.”
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