Aids, assisted dying, domestic abuse – popular radio and TV programmes are tackling social issues as never before, says PAUL DONOVAN
IN RECENT weeks, millions have been glued to the Archers on Radio 4 as the cliffhanger domestic abuse plot line reached a crescendo, with Helen Archer stabbing her abusive husband.
What will now happen to the Helen character is bound to keep listening figures healthy.
The headline-hitting story demonstrates once again the power of soaps to tackle serious social issues. The helpline flagged up after recent episodes led to the numbers turning to organisations that help the victims of abuse increasing by 20 per cent and more than £70,000 has been donated to the Refuge charity.
But not all listeners have been pleased with the story line, accusing the producers of turning the Archers into Eastenders. Some, it seems, view the programme as a comfort blanket, somewhere to escape to rather than as a mirror of what is going on in society.
The power of soaps to communicate important public service messages dates back to Eastenders, with its Aids plot line built around the character Mark Fowler. As with the Helen Archer story, it developed over several years and had real dramatic credibility.
And it had far more impact in getting over the warning messages of the dangers of the disease than any number of government health warning adverts or campaigns. Ever since, it seems that anyone with a social message has been queuing up to get it into a soap narrative.
The swing in favour of such stories has been such that, at times, it seems the scripts consist simply of a number of public service messages amalgamated into one.
Some are more successful in getting the message across than others — Aids on Eastenders, assisted dying on Coronation Street and now domestic violence in the Archers among them.
Soaps make an impact on people because they link the characters to their own life experiences. But the fictional world of the soap is for the most part preposterous — I’d defy anyone to find a community like that depicted in Eastenders in the east end of London, a Coronation Street scenario in Manchester or farmers living an Ambridge-style existence in the Midlands.
By their very nature, soaps pack so much drama into what are supposed to be “ordinary lives,” even though in reality most people live far less exciting existences.
But embedded in the gripping drama that attracts the mass audiences is a dramatic weakness which undermines soaps’ connection with the real world.
The safe, good-for-law-and-order outcome is practically guaranteed come the end of any story. If there’s been a murder with the body put under the patio, as in Brookside, audiences know that one day the truth will come out.
Yet one instance where the long hand of the law has not triumphed has been the assisted-dying plot line in Coronation Street.
When Hayley Cropper killed herself, many must have expected husband Roy to be hauled before the courts for assisting her demise. Strangely, though, this never happened, maybe reflecting changing societal perceptions or indeed the soap playing an active role in altering them.
As with the domestic abuse theme in the Archers, the depiction of the Croppers’ situation was a gripping if uncomfortable experience for millions. While some among them may regret the demise of their comfort blanket, there will be many more who recognise much in the storyline that applies to their own lives.
What is for sure is that the Archers and its editor Sean O’Connor deserve much credit for tackling the issue of domestic abuse. Sadly, though, he won’t be overseeing Ambridge life for much longer. He’s off, perhaps not surprisingly, to Eastenders.