From 'Richard III' to 'Fair City': Why soap operas still clean up with Irish viewers

Mocked as a waste of airtime by critics, serialised dramas have worked their way into the hearts of millions

From 'Richard III' to 'Fair City': Why soap operas still clean up with Irish viewers

Warring married couple Niamh and Paul in 'Fair City', which celebrated its 4,000th episode last year [RTÉ]

Spare a thought for Toadie. Admittedly, the fate of a fictional television character from an Australian soap opera you’ve probably not even flicked past in a decade might seem insignificant in a media climate that’s dominated by fake news and real news we’d prefer was fake, but Jarrod Rebecchi is having a bad week.

The Neighbours character, a resident of Number 30, Ramsay St in a fictional suburb of Melbourne called Erinsborough, is celebrating his 22nd anniversary of soap opera existence this month, having graduated from bit-part wayward teen with a mullet, to respectable pillar of the community. Husband to the mayor, father, lawyer, occasional wrestler. But like any character in every soap opera, whether it's north Dublin or Australia, Toadie’s life is filled with even more ups and downs than the value of the sterling since Brexit.

This week, for instance, fresh from learning his wife is pregnant with the surrogate baby of the policeman who lives across the road and the recovering ex-con lodging in his spare room, Toadie came face to face with Dee, the woman he married 13 years ago and accidentally drove off a cliff while leaving their wedding reception. But she’s back, in some form or another, to add to his troubles.

Getting lost at sea and declared dead is par for the course on Neighbours, and Dee’s not the first Ramsay Street resident to have done a Lazarus. The dwindling number of viewers who’ve stuck with the show for more than 30 years already saw Harold Bishop reappear after his supposed demise in 1991. A rogue wave swept him out into the rather forgiving waters of the Bass Strait, the body of water dividing Victoria from Tasmania, and five years of amnesia later he popped up in a Salvation Army Shop.

On Neighbours, it’s gotten to the point where Harold Holt, the Australian Prime Minister who vanished without a trace while swimming in the sea in 1967, could turn up in Melbourne’s friendliest cul-de-sac any day now, a dithering 109-year-old postman whose memory comes flooding back when Karl Kennedy knocks him on the head with a stray cricket ball.

In an era of prestige television, where viewers have never consumed more scripted drama on the box, the soap somehow lives on. Broadcasters are losing the audience that has watched for decades as they turn their eyes from the TV screen to the one in the palm of their hand, but hundreds of thousands of Irish people still make time for soap operas.

In half-hour chunks, they fill up the memory of digital boxes to be watched while doing the ironing, or they get streamed in online players during office lunch breaks. Soap operas can even keep a fledgling TV channel afloat, at least until a richer one comes along and poaches them back. In real life, though, UTV Ireland won’t be turning up with amnesia and bouncing back from a brief stint of death anytime soon. 

The audiences will never be as big as they once were, but that isn’t a problem unique to soaps. No television show of any kind can come close to the 30m viewers who tuned in to watch Den Watts show Angie that revenge is a dish best served with a side of divorce papers on Christmas Day, 1986. The most watched TV episode of 2016 on the BBC was the finale of the Great British Bake Off, and even that ratings-juggernaut only managed about half of that. As the viewing experience has evolved, soap operas have had to go head to head with an endless supply of mini-series, one-off dramas, and reality TV.

But the soaps still command a healthy portion of the viewership figures, still demand bigger rates when it comes to buying advertising space. And in the lists of viewers, they still have a place in the top 10, on both sides of the Irish Sea.

From Tolka Row to rows with County Councils

“The soaps are hanging on, I think,” says Helena Sheehan, professor emeritus at the school of communications at DCU, an expert in media studies and Fair City fan. “The same audience is watching other things and judging soap operas by those standards. And it is harder for them to keep that audience.”

Sheehan has written two academic books about serialised drama on Irish television, from the early days of RTÉ when TV drama usually meant pointing a camera at a stage play at the Abbey, or reworking something from the radio. But over time, the popularity of one-off dramas led to a thirst for something grander in scope, with Maura Laverty’s Tolka Row, Ireland’s first soap opera, delighting viewers when it arrived in 1964.

“It was set in Dublin and went on for a couple of years, and proved to be very popular. Especially in Dublin,” Sheehan says. “Dubliners just loved seeing people with Dublin accents living Dublin lives on television. People on the east coast of Ireland had been watching television for a long time before Tolka Row arrived, but it was British or American. So the idea of seeing Irish people on screen, there was a real buzz about that.”

More than just a buzz, because soap operas operated under a unique mission statement, serialised entertainment that was supposed to inform. Throughout the '60s and '70s, the stories told on screen had an educational mission, whether that meant explaining the latest agricultural techniques on The Riordans’ farm or confronting the changing landscape of Irish people’s sense of decency.

“Irish soaps brought up topics that were coming up in conversation between people, just not necessarily on the airwaves. Particularly things to do with sexual morality, contraception for example. They were very timid by today’s standards, to the point that you’d wonder if anybody today would even notice some of the things that sent the nation into uproar, like Benji casting a wee eye at some other young one after he’d married Maggie.

"That kind of thing saw the RTÉ switchboards lighting up, but also county councils passing resolutions condemning The Riordans.”

Irish actor Joe Lynch as Dinnie Byrne in Glenroe, a role that had originated in Bracken [Wiki Commons]

While contemporary soap operas do still focus on social issues - domestic violence, crippling debt, living with terminal illnesses - the huge increase in the number of episodes produced every week means that the writers have simply had to up the ante, to the detriment of their dramatic purpose.

“As the history of long-running drama and soap opera in Ireland has continued, their social message has really lessened,” says Sheehan.

“Even the people that were involved in laying the groundwork for social commentary reacted against it. Wesley Burrowes [the creator of The Riordans, Bracken, and Glenroe] said at one point that his ‘hands were raw from grasping nettles,’ that he just didn’t want to do that kind of thing anymore. So Glenroe occasionally did something that was worth talking about, but it definitely softened that sense of mission. And very little RTÉ drama has any kind of sense of having a mission to explore society in a way that I believe that they should.

“I don’t believe that there has been very good Irish television drama on out screens for a long time,” Sheehan adds.

How Carraigstown found a new home online

Not everyone would agree. Emma O’Sullivan, who works in admin, started her own Fair City Facebook group for fans in 2012 and now single-handedly runs it for its 26,000 members. That means uploading photographs, posting debate topics, running competitions, revealing new stories, and mobilising the members to vote for Fair City and its cast in the upcoming Gossies Awards. She also runs the fan club’s Twitter account, live-tweeting a couple of Fair City episodes every week, interacting with fellow fans and poring over everything Carraigstown.

“I just always had an interest in it, I’ve just always been a fan of the show,” she says. “I’m from the Northside myself, so the show is about the kind of people and places I grew up around. And Fair City covers issues that really affect people, like domestic abuse… they did that recently from the male side, and it was very moving.”

Five years ago, O’Sullivan was keen to find a space online to communicate with other Fair City fan. She’d already been spending time talking about her favourite soaps on a number of different websites, but found that sometimes members would “go too far and get personal about” characters, storylines, and comments posted by others. After searching on Facebook to find an RTÉ page for Fair City she came up blank, so decided on a whim to set up her own.

“At the start, it was hard to get noticed, and especially as I was the only one running the account, it was a lot of dedication to build it up. But it’s really something I love and I’ve found a real community. Even today I posted something, and right now 1,200 people liked it and there are 2,000 comments. For those of us in the group, there is no shame in being a Fair City fan, the group is just a place where people can go and talk about something they enjoy.”

Drawing the line between Richard III and Red Rock

For those who don’t watch soap operas, this kind of dedication might seem bizarre - investing of so much time towards the kind of TV programme riddled with clichés and rehashed storylines. Even the time spent watching soap operas alone is ridiculed in many circles, their hammy acting and wobbly sets pilloried by those who don’t look at them but judge from afar.

There is an entertainment snobbism, a stratified caste system of viewership that determines that 100 minutes spent watching five episodes of Neighbours every week is time poorly spent, somehow inferior to the 90 minutes of football every single match takes up on the airwaves, before even beginning to factor in the analysis that bookends and bridges both halves of the game.

Long-running and continuous drama also lacks the credibility of the prestige series dropped by Netflix or Amazon in complete packages, with A-list names in front of the camera and behind the scenes, many of whom cut their acting teeth having affairs and dying dramatically in soap operas to begin with. But the serialisation of stories in soap operas is essential to their importance in the dramatic canon, and that arguably stretches back as far as William Shakespeare.

“The way I read it,” says Prof Nicholas Grene of the School of English in Trinity College, “The emergence of serialised drama starts in the late 1580s, with Christopher Marlowe and his play Tamburlaine. In the Elizabethan theatre scene, that play proved to be so popular that Marlowe rushed out a sequel to meet the demands of the audience. And that’s what Shakespeare saw, that there was potential for huge turnover in following up popular stories with the same characters.”

As arguably the most famous playwright in the history of the world, Shakespeare selected the chronicles of the War of the Roses as the characters around which to frame the most critically lauded soap opera of all time, staging the many parts between Henry IV and Richard III. Filled with noble heroes, dastardly villains, family infighting and ambition, the plays ended with cliffhangers, hooks to grab the audience and bring them back for more.

But as Grene explains, we cannot draw a straight line from treading the boards in the Globe to the cobbles of Coronation St.

Charles Dickens' character Sam Weller from The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club [Wiki Commons]

“There’s a missing link in there somewhere. Serialised drama dominates the Elizabethan scene, but then it disappears from the stage, drops out of cultural relevance. If anything, we can look to Shakespeare as a kind of false start for long-running storytelling, as it won’t be until the 19th-century novel that serialisation really comes into its own.”

For that, look to Charles Dickens, who was born at the right time to take advantage of mass reproduction, increased literacy levels, and the expansion of the railroad. Dickens pioneered the concept of the novel in parts, starting with The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which went from selling only 400 copies in its first month to 40,000 by the end of its run. The key to The Pickwick Papers success? The introduction of Sam Weller, a crafty cockney companion, who served as a comedic sidekick and in whom the reading masses could identify and idolise.

 “It’s important to remember that Dickens revolutionised the whole format, publishing monthly parts of the same story to rapt audiences, and not even in magazines. He published standalone chapters by themselves that sold in their thousands. And when he finished one story, he moved on to the next, building on his audience. Take The Old Curiosity Shop, for example, when the ship bringing the final part of it to America made its way across the Atlantic, New York fans were lining the docks to get their hands on it the second it arrived.”

Rhythm and routine

Serialised stories have since become their own literary genre, jumping to every new medium – comic books, movie shorts, cartoons, pulp novels, radio dramas, podcasts, and soap operas – only to be critically lambasted every time, and adored by the masses. It is their promise of more to come, the tantalising effect of the words ‘To be continued…’ on the screen, their constant delaying of gratification that keeps people consuming. And there’s the finding of pleasure and comfort in routine.

“People love watching soap operas because they have a particular rhythm in their viewing of them,” says Helena Sheehan, who finds she still watches Fair City every week, even if she doesn’t like it much anymore. “There’s a kind of investment in the ongoing story, an investment in the character and their past history,” she adds.

“I think the soap is such a good format, with enormous potential that is almost never filled. There is so much time – so much time! Time to develop character, to explore the society, to really probe the psyche and the nature of the social order. Instead, most of them go around and around and around, recycling the same soap opera clichés. Love affairs that see characters pairing and triangulating, for no other reason than to have them doing something.

“But my main critique is that they’re so clichéd. So unambitious, both sociologically and psychologically. They really could do so much, and don’t. It’s a while since I found it challenging.”

So why keep tuning in, week in, week out?  “I keep watching because I’ve invested all this time and I am going to keep watching for something, keep hoping for something. Something better than what they’re doing. I keep wanting it to be better.”

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