These modern-day
soap operas leave
a dark stain,
says Roger Ratcliffe

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The story so far: Coronation Street celebrates its 60th birthday this year and is still the nation’s favourite recreational drug, but by the time the Salford-based soap reaches that milestone in December its pre-eminence may well be eclipsed by Yorkshire’s Emmerdale. Meanwhile, it appears that fewer and fewer viewers care about who does what down East London way.

Let me declare absolutely no interest in this storyline. I don’t watch soaps, although I admit to being hooked on Corrie until about 20 years ago. It was a habit I managed to kick only by spending weeks on end out of the country and coming back to stacks of VHS tapes that held no appeal in the middle of summer.

But like many former addicts, with almost evangelical zeal I have turned against that which once enslaved me. This has been easy because these supposed chronicles of ordinary communities have become more and more preposterous. Also, I particularly resent the effect that soap-watching has on some people. For instance, I had a brief phone conversation with a friend a couple of months ago in which we failed to arrange a drink because the only nights I had free he was watching Corrie. My sister refuses to answer the phone whenever one of the nation’s top three soaps is being broadcast even when we have something important to discuss, and in the midst of last year’s Brexit crisis an acquaintance said: “Enough of that. Did you see last night’s Emmerdale?”

But soaps don’t just have a social impact. The energy industry has to deal with a phenomenon called the “TV pickup”. This is a huge spike in electricity demand when a popular programme ends and viewers leave their sofas en masse to put on the kettle. It normally amounts to a surge of 200-400 megawatts on the National Grid, which is about the entire full-burn capacity of a modern biomass power station.

Big generating companies love to keep records of these spikes, and in the National Grid league table Coronation Street and EastEnders have accounted for eight of the all-time top 30 TV pickups. The latter soap was responsible for a near grid-crippling 2,290 megawatt spike – equivalent to one million kettles being simultaneously switched on – when Lisa admitted to shooting Phil Mitchell back in 2002.

But back to Corrie v Emmers. Last year Emmerdale briefly took the ratings crown and is predicted to become the nation’s top soap in 2020. But this battle for viewers is clearly being fought with morally dubious stories that are transmitted before the 9pm watershed. Like I said, I don’t watch soaps now, but it’s hard to avoid their desperate attempts to increase ratings when they make newspaper headlines. The latest involved someone in Coronation Street setting fire to a house containing quadruplet babies and had chilling echoes of an arson tragedy, also in Salford, just 15 months ago, in which four children died.

Leaving aside whether it’s something a hothead might try to copy, no real-life misery seems to be off limits for soaps. What was once a lovely tale of ordinary people creating magic, like Minnie Caldwell and Ena Sharples gossiping in the Rovers Return or Stan Ogden thinking he was allergic to alcohol, seems to be in danger of becoming dark and almost Hitchcockian.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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