Grace Dent on the golden age of soaps: ‘They gave the nation something to gossip about'

To show how very long ago it was when I was given the “soap column” World of Lather for the Guide, I remember taking the news on a Nokia 5510, then dancing to a CD single of Independent Women, the red-hot new track by Destiny’s Child: “I buy my own diamonds and I buy my own rings,” I sang victoriously. I was giddy I was being offered actual cash to write about EastEnders, Corrie and Emmerdale – which were at that point getting 7 or 8 million viewers per episode. (Brookside was almost in its death throes.)

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Things were different back in 2001. The internet was new, mysterious and operated via slow dial-up that you could only use when your mum didn’t need to talk to Aunty Sheila. Soap operas, meanwhile, felt like a pivotal part of society. They were cultural behemoths that dominated the TV schedules. From the 70s to the 00s, I devoted thousands of hours to the goings-on of the Rovers Return and Albert Square. Back then, real British people were actually rather private and would rarely publicise their own family woe, or God forbid, film it, share it or ask for comment. Soap, on the other hand, showed us family life, warts and all: the addiction, the infidelity, the scandal.

We adored the constant aggro provided by gobby characters such as Peggy Mitchell and Janice Battersby. It gave a nation something to gossip about. I lived for moments like Janine Butcher pushing Barry to his death off a small hill and Den Watts coming back from the dead. The powerful sexual magnetism of Max Branning and his affair with Stacey Slater, culminating in a Christmas Day post-lunch family fight, was the highlight of 2007. On Corrie, the love life of Gail Rodwell, AKA Potter, Tilsley, Platt, Hillman and McIntyre, was never short of exhilarating, particularly in 2003 when her then husband, serial killer Richard Hillman, tried to kill her mother Audrey, murdered Maxine Peacock then drove Gail’s family into a canal.

© Provided by The Guardian Blood on the cobbles … Coronation Street wrong ‘un Richard Hillman. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

I adored soap because the viewer was omnipotent, flying around the houses, knowing everyone’s secrets: that Janine had her former stepmother’s name in her phone as Fat Pat; Sally Webster’s constant quest for social betterment; Peter Barlow’s drinking; Heather Trott’s love of George Michael. These people felt like friends: we knew their quirks, weaknesses and motivations.

I wrote World of Lather for nine years, an exceedingly daft whistlestop tour around the cobbles and pub snugs. I’d settle down, blinds shut on the sunniest days, to consume hours of deceit and brawling. The column was surreal, pithy and often scathing but came from a deep love for soap. I regret many of the mean things I wrote as they’re a million miles from the woolly, zen person life battered me into by my 40s. Dev from Corrie, I’m sorry if I was horrible about your acting. Please forgive me, creators of the EastEnders dragon slide disaster. I was just young-ish and showing off.

I slipped away from soaps over the last decade. During lockdown, I got back into Emmerdale, where everyone is now young, pert and gorgeous. It’s set in a mysterious part of the remote Yorkshire Dales where access to Shellac nails, spray tans and highlights is plentiful and every fortnight there’s an attempted murder. It was the definition of escapism, but as soon as bars reopened, I freed myself from soap’s clutches.

Viewing figures have slid generally. I think social media is killing soaps off, providing an infinite supply of real people broadcasting direct from their dirty laundry baskets. In 2001, I’d wake up to BBC Breakfast discussing Kat and Mo Slater; now I wake up to a WhatsApp group brimming with screengrabs of our favourite influencer “calling out” another for fraud and stealing her fiance. I make a coffee, tune in and stay hooked. I’d like to tell you I’m too grown up for this soapy tittle-tattle, but ask me in another 20 years.

Grace Dent is a critic, broadcaster and author. Her Guardian podcast Comfort Eating is available now

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