This entry focuses mainly on British soap operas, but the history, conventions and formats detailed below can also apply to other soaps all over the world.
'Soap opera' is a phrase first coined in the 1930s in the USA. It was used to describe radio series that were sponsored by the manufacturers of soap powder; hence 'soap'. The 'opera' part came from the fact that they were about dilemmas and other dramatic or melodramatic situations.
By the 1950s, these serials had made the transition to TV. They spread across the world and grew and grew in popularity.
Coronation Street is the longest running TV soap in the world, but it is predated by a radio soap, The Archers, a rural soap opera broadcast on BBC Radio 4. After the successes of glossier productions such as Dallas in America, soap suddenly became more popular again in the 1980s. This caused the inception of new British soaps such as Brookside and EastEnders. Also, the success of Australian soaps like Neighbours and Home and Away caused British soaps to reconsider their target audience and, therefore, their characters. These Australian soaps tended to be aimed at teenage viewers with characters and plots suitable for that age. British producers decided to follow suit, for example, the British soap Hollyoaks is aimed primarily at young people. This change in the target audience proved to be a very shrewd move and, consequently, soaps are now more popular than ever.
A British soap opera almost always features the following conventions:
It is a serialised drama that usually runs week-in, week-out, all year round.
It features continuous storylines (or 'narratives') dealing with domestic themes and personal or family relationships.
It generally has a well-known theme tune and intro sequence which has changed little over the years1.
Though the casts for soap operas tend to be bigger than for drama series, there is a limit to the number of characters available at any one time. This allows the soap to focus on a smaller number of characters, thus allowing more time to be spent on each, so that the audience knows them better and the storylines can be more detailed and involved, as well as being more numerous over time.
The plots are open-ended and usually many storylines are featured or even interlinked in an episode. Often they follow the same issue, with, for example, two characters dealing with the break-up of a relationship. The storylines in these cases run parallel.
They are often set around a small, central area such as a square (as in EastEnders) or a cul-de-sac (such as Brookside). Sometimes, there is something else connecting the characters. For example, most of the characters in El Dorado were ex-pats who all lived in a same British-dominated ghetto of Spain.
Soaps often have special episodes for events in the real world such as Christmas or the Millennium. Some special episodes focus on long-departed characters, or current characters who travel to a location outside of their usual surroundings (such as Brookside's 'South', which saw Tracy Corkhill and her boyfriend run away to London). Such episodes are often referred to as 'soap bubbles' as they are often self-contained and have little impact on the on-going stories of the regular show.
British soaps most often feature common, ordinary, working class characters, in stark contrast to American soaps, which tend to deal with richer, flashier, more fantasy-inspired characters, reflecting the preferences of their respective target audiences.
As a rule, British soaps are realistic or, at least, aim for realism2.
Soap episodes often begin with a 'hook' in which one or more of the narratives from a previous episode are continued. The episode will undoubtedly end with a 'cliff-hanger', which is a tense and suspenseful, unconcluded piece of dialogue or action when, for example, a character finds out that their fiancée has just died - cue zoom-in on their traumatised face.
Three, four or even five storylines will be in progress during any one episode, with the action switching between them. As one narrative is resolved, another completely different one with different characters will already be underway. The characters go from quiet, harmonic (but uninteresting) periods to chaotic, confusing (but interesting) dilemmas. The action simply concentrates solely on the latter.
There are certain types of characters that can be seen to be common among many soaps:
The grandparent figure: A wise old person, usually female. This character helps others with their problems with advice and support. He/she has lots of contact with many of the other characters. Sometimes the character will not be related to any others, but will still serve this function. See EastEnders' Pat Wicks/Butcher/Evans, whose many marriages have left her with connections to almost everyone in Albert Square.
The strong woman: An independent, powerful, aggressive woman. She can usually be found at the centre of conflicts. Often, this hard, aggressive woman will be revealed to have a soft side that she keeps hidden. Usually it will be exposed by a new love interest whose sudden and inevitable departure in the future will only serve to make the woman even tougher than before.
Jack-the-lad: A male character that manipulates others to his own ends. Often the stock 'baddie'. This character may become softened over time, and this often leads to him becoming the comic relief of the soap. Examples include Jed Stone on Coronation Street and Alfie Moon on EastEnders, both of whom have served time in prison, and both of whom used comic timing to win audiences' hearts.
Young couple: A couple that bravely face the difficulties of life, through their own, serious relationship problems. Too many to mention - every single British soap has had at least one set on the go at any one time.
Feisty young female: A strong-willed girl, almost always young, who desires independence. She is usually argumentative and miserable.
Troublesome oldie: An older, grumpy, meddling, interfering character, always with his/her nose in everyone else's business. For all his/her faults this character is still loved for his/her generally good intentions. The archetype was created by Coronation Street's Violet Carson, whose character Ena Sharples defined the word 'battleaxe'. If characters stay around long enough, they might find themselves shifting from one archetype to another - as EastEnders' Pauline Fowler proves, having once been the feisty mother of a young family and who now finds herself as a grandmother and troublesome oldie in one.
The boss figure: Usually male, in a position of authority, either as landlord of the local pub or as owner of some other business that has an involvement in the lives of other characters (such as a factory). He continues his natural authority and leadership into his personal life. He has, in the past, been combined with the Jack-the-lad character.
Music and Camerawork
Other than the theme tune, music is rarely used in British soaps; occasional cliffhangers may have a 'stock' piece of background music that will then segue into the closing theme, or else the music is in the background being played on a radio or jukebox. Occasionally, the production team might select a particularly well-chosen song for the purposes of dramatic irony. If one character is contemplating ending a relationship, for example, the audience might hear 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling' playing on a nearby radio.
Lighting varies from soap to soap, but generally it remains pretty basic - special effects are not used. This helps to create realistic light levels and adds to realism. Camera work is simplistic and generally avoids tricks of any kind: 'point of view' or 'high angle' shots are rarely used in soaps. The camera shows the action very much as a casual observer would see it if they were watching from nearby. Scenes are generally short, to avoid the audience becoming bored - two minutes or so is considered to be the maximum viewing time for one scene. Exceptions to these rules occur if a character is going to depart in a spectacular way (ie, a car crash or explosion, in which case the scene will be edited as dramatically as possible) or if the episode is a two-hander3.
Settings and Storylines
British soaps tend to have a strong regional identity - for example, EastEnders is set in the East End of London, while Manchester is the setting for Coronation Street. This is not just to attract viewers from that area, but also to make it more realistic. The area in which the soap is set also has an effect on its plotting and characters; soaps set in rural areas are usually more community-based and have fewer characters than in a larger, urban-set soap.
Again, British soaps are deeply community based and usually have a central meeting point (often a pub) where all the characters meet. To draw on the examples of the two most popular British soaps: 'The Queen Vic' from EastEnders and 'The Rover's Return' pub from Coronation Street. These meeting points are featured in every episode and are often the settings for major events in the history of the soap. Their important position in the soap makes them symbols of that soap, and fans visit from far and wide to view this meeting point in real life.
British soaps deal with controversial issues such as homosexuality, drugs and underage pregnancies. These issues stir up public debate and media interest, consequently pushing up ratings and, of course, the issues themselves get more and more controversial as time goes on - what might have shocked viewers in 1960 - such as unmarried mothers - is now too tame to court attention. In recent years, producers and scriptwriters have begun to bring in characters with in-built storylines, such as serious illnesses or a dark, shady past. This provides interesting storylines from the outset, with plenty of tension. It also gets an emotional response from viewers, along with high ratings, though linking a character too closely to a storyline can often mean they outlive their usefulness once the storyline has been resolved - such as Mandy Jordache in Brookside, who was at the centre of the 'Body under the patio' story, but who disappeared soon after that story had run its course.
A birth, marriage or even a death all have a way of injecting new interest into a soap, which is useful as they're just the sort of dramatic plots that soaps use up rapidly. Illness also frequently pops up in storylines and characters help to make conditions to become better known and more acceptable. Interestingly, this has given rise to a phenomenon known as 'telly-belly'. Soap producers are anxious to ensure that all medical details are correct when it comes to these illnesses and soap fans have realised that their own symptoms are similar to those of these characters. When they visited their doctors, they have found that they too had the illness or - more often - just thought they did.
The Appeal of Soaps
Many people watch soaps because it pleases us to see and hear other people's problems, which in turn distracts us from our own. However, a soap opera has no real victims as the characters, of course, are fictional. However, we like to make guesses about their actions and reactions based on our knowledge of them. We like to see them develop as we get to know them and we enjoy learning about the complex relationships between characters. We become semi-experts on our favourite soaps, and our encyclopaedic knowledge of them, fuelled by the above points, gives us great pleasure. In a voyeuristic manner, we like to watch other people's lives, as, in the case of soap operas, they are just like ours, but more interesting.
From the point of view of broadcasters, soaps are good because they are very cheap to produce, yet have huge audiences and can, therefore, generate huge revenues. They can often run for years without coming to an end - Coronation Street is more than 40 years old. Sets are used again and again, special costumes are not required and little or no location filming is ever needed. They are also quick to produce - each minute of recording taking only one hour to film. This may sound like a lot, but on film sets, it can often take days just to successfully direct a mere few seconds of action. Not all soap operas are successful - there are some which do not catch the interest of the viewers and end up being dropped after a few years (sometimes less). Albion Market and the revival(s) of Crossroads are examples of these.
Channels maintain an unspoken agreement that their soaps are not scheduled for the same time. This is because a planned ratings war would not help either broadcaster, as has been proven by past experience.
Advertising slots in soaps are expensive to purchase, but guarantee large numbers of viewers seeing the advert. There are also numerous opportunities for the programme makers to sell themed items based on their soap; this merchandising can be expected to have a very large market.
As well as BBC productions, there are the following:
ITV1's official Coronation Street site - note: contains spoilers for non-UK viewers.
Unofficial Coronation Street fan site with cast and character profiles and more.