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The Archers

Soaps through the decades

By 1930, US radio stations were broadcasting nationally, mostly controlled by NBC and CBS. Advertisers, keen to use this new national network to sell their products to women listeners, came up with the idea of a daily drama featuring characters that the target audience could identify with.

The cast of "Dallas", 1981
The "Dallas" cast, 1981
© TopFoto.co.uk / UPP
Many of the first series were sponsored by the major soap product companies, such as Colgate-Palmolive and Procter & Gamble - hence, the nickname "soap opera", a term many "drama serial" producers deliberately avoid.

Guiding Light, which began life as a radio drama in 1937 before switching to TV in 1952, is the longest-running soap opera in television history. The first recognised TV soap was A Woman To Remember, produced in America in 1947. After that, they came as thick and as fast as the soapsuds they promoted.

And on this side of the pond…

The BBC, responsible for all British broadcasting until the launch of ITV in 1955, snubbed the soaps until the second world war when, for propaganda and morale-boosting purposes, it began broacasting the American radio soap The Robinsons, showing how an everyday family coped with wartime life. The first all-British soap, Mrs Dale’s Diary (later, The Dales), debuted on the BBC Light Programme on January 5, 1948, a chronicle of daily middle-class life, as seen through the eyes of a doctor’s wife. It even produced the first soap scandal, when actress Ellis Powell was sacked from the lead role and replaced by Jessie Matthews, amid allegations about her private life. Mrs Dale’s Diary ran for 5,531 episodes - its last "entry" was broadcast on April 25, 1969. By then, it had been well and truly superceded in popularity by The Archers.

However, this didn’t stop the BBC from introducing Waggoners Walk, launched on Radio 2 that same year. Set in Hampstead, it ran for 11 years, and dealt with topical social issues, including teenage rebellion, contraception and homosexuality. By 1974, it had four million listeners, even more than The Archers, but that wasn’t enough to save it when budget cuts bit.

TV soaps

"Coronation Street", 1968
"Coronation Street", 1968
© TopFoto.co.uk/ArenaPAL
The BBC took a tentative step into the world of TV soaps with The Grove Family, which ran from 1954 to 1957. But the first real television soap was launched by Granada, one of the fledgling independent companies, on Friday December 9, 1960, when the first episode of Coronation Street, the brainchild of young writer Tony Warren, was broadcast. In actual fact the drama, which brought Northern working-class life to TV audiences, was never meant to be a soap: only 13 episodes were commissioned and reviews of the first one were so savage that Granada feared it wouldn’t finish its initial run!


The rest is history: Corrie has rewritten the TV history books many times over; in 1981, more than 24 million people in the UK watched Ken Barlow and Deirdre Langton’s wedding - more than the number of people who, two days later, watched the Prince of Wales marry Lady Diana Spencer!

Other ITV companies followed suit, including Yorkshire TV’s Emmerdale Farm (now Emmerdale), TV's answer to The Archers, and Crossroads (ATV). Set in a Midlands motel, Crossroads ran from 1964 to 1988, but wasn't shown by the entire ITV network until the 1970s. Despite its low production values - brilliantly captured by Victoria Wood in Acorn Antiques - its ratings remained highuntil the sacking of lead actress Noele Gordon in 1981. This sparked a long,slow decline, which was not halted by numerous revamps and controversial storylines.

The Queen Vic pub from "EastEnders"
The Queen Vic pub, "EastEnders"
© TopFoto.co.uk/Star Images
The BBC responded all this ITV activity with several short-lived soaps: Compact, United! and The Newcomers but didn’t hit the jackpot until it launched EastEnders  in 1985 - and then tried again with the ill-fated El Dorado in 1992, which only lasted a year.

In 1982, the newly created Channel 4 brought a new brand of grit to British soaps with Mersey-based Brookside. In 1995, Brookside's creators, Mersey TV, unveiled Hollyoaks, the first soap aimed at a late-teens and early-20s audience. Set in a fictional Chester suburb, it follows the antics of students at Hollyoaks Community College. One of its early "message" storylines featured the on-screen death of popular character Natasha, after taking the drug Ecstacy.

American and Aussie influences

In the 1980s, the BBC headed away from gritty realism, buying in the glossy American supersoap Dallas - a series created by writer David Jacobs, partly to give the Texan city a reputation for something other than being the place where President John F Kennedy was assassinated. The tale of the feuding oil family, the Ewings, launched in 1978, and when arch-villain JR Ewing (Larry Hagman) was shot in 1980, it was watched in Britain by 24 million viewers; when his assailant was revealed, 27.3 million tuned in. The popularity of Dallas was followed by other soaps about the American rich and bitchy, including Dynasty and The Colbys.


By the end of the 1980s the days of the US supersoaps were numbered - Dallas, in particular, being doomed because of its increasingly unlikely storylines. Australian soaps, from the lesser-watched A Country Practice and Sons And Daughters, to the more popular Neighbours (which, of course, gave the world Kylie Monogue) and Home And Away replaced them in the British television audience’s collective heart. Meanwhile, the popularity of British soaps appears to have reached its peak.


Ups and downs

After more than a decade of gripping drama, Brookside started to suffer from the "Dallas" effect, with increasingly outlandish and shock-horror storylines. Plummeting viewing figures led to Mersey TV pulling the plug on November 4, 2003.

In 2001, Carlton TV revived Crossroads but it soon became evident that the line between the series and its parody had been crossed. It was taken off-air for six months before finally closing its doors for good in May 2003, with an episode that revealed - Dallas-like - that the series had all been a supermarket worker's dream.


Meanwhile, over at the BBC a nightmare was brewing: in 1986, EastEnders pulled in a record 30 million viewers when Dirty Den served divorce papers on wife Angie. But on July 13, 2006, the soap suffered a severe blow when it managed an audience of only 3.9 million, while up against an hour-long Emmerdale special.

Whatever happens, the script for the future of soaps will no doubt contain as much drama as the storylines…