Watching television remains one of the most popular ways for people in Britain to spend their free time. But what do they watch? Apart from sports matches, soap operas are the most popular kind of television programme for British people and are viewed by tens of millions of people. They are also a popular conversation topic for Brits at work and school.
There are some things that all soap operas in Britain have in common. They are mostly shown in the evening. Each episode has several different storylines happening at the same time, and these storylines continue over several episodes. The storylines can become quite addictive. The same cast members appear in every show, too. The focal point of a soap opera is usually the local pub (sometimes just called the local), where the different characters can meet. Another key ingredient of British soap operas is a strong matriarch, who will fiercely defend her family in times of conflict. These characters, for example Deirdre Barlow from Coronation Street or Pat Butcher from Eastenders have become iconic in British pop-culture. Often, because soap operas are about ordinary people, characters will speak in a local dialect, rather than in standard English. They often speak very quickly, too. For these reasons, many people who are learning English find soap operas quite difficult to understand.
And why are they called soap operas? Well, in the past, soap manufacturers used to sponsor such programmes. And their storylines are usually dramatic and emotional, just like traditional operas.
The most popular British soap operas today include:
1) Coronation Street tells the story of the residents of a fictional street in Manchester. It is the world’s longest-running television soap opera – the first episode was shown in December 1960! Unlike other soap operas, Coronation Street combines dramatic storylines with funny situation and comedy characters, too. In an episode in 1981, the characters Ken and Deirdre Barlow got married, and their wedding was watched by more people than the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, which took place a few days later.
2) Eastenders is set in London, and has been shown on BBC 1 since 1985. It is about the residents of a fictional square in London. In contrast to Coronation Street, Eastenders is much darker and often tackles more controversial themes. Murder, rape, divorce and violent assaults happen regularly in Eastenders, and characters are often seeing arguing with each other. However, it was also one of the first soap operas to tackle LGBT issues and to feature a more diverse, multicultural cast.
3) Hollyoaks is different from Coronation Street and Eastenders because it generally features younger characters and is generally watched by teenagers and young adults. It balances lighthearted storylines with more serious issues that many young people can relate to.
4) Pobol y Cwm is the longest-running soap opera produced by BBC Television, having been shown since 1974. It is unique in that it is broadcast in the Welsh language. Pobol y Cwm means ‘people of the valley’ in English, and nowadays it is possible to watch it with English subtitles, although it is popular mainly in Wales. It is set in a fictional Welsh village, and is so popular that today that more than 250 episodes are produced each year.
Have you seen any of these soap operas? Which soap operas are popular in your country? Why do you think soap operas are popular in so many countries around the world?
addictive (adj) – used to describe something that you keep doing and can’t stop doing, even if you want to
assault (n) – a situation where somebody attacks another person by hitting or kicking them
cast members (n) – the actors in a film, play or show
controversial (adj) – causing disagreement or discussion