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Out of the box

Ask Lesley Henderson how many hours of TV soaps she has watched over the course of her career, and she bursts out laughing. "Oh my God, I have no idea. Hundreds? Watching soaps is almost a full-time job."

She means it. Henderson has published a book, Social Issues in Television Fiction, exploring the relationship between TV drama and issues such as mental health, breast cancer and sexual abuse.

Soaps, she says, are hugely significant in shaping public views. "You are talking about a genre that [can] attract around 10 million viewers per episode, and a lot of them are young viewers - people who wouldn't normally sit down and watch a news programme or a documentary about breast cancer or mental illness."

That power, she says, can sit uneasily with "making good telly". Henderson, lecturer in sociology and communications at Brunel University Brunel University is a university situated in West London, England. History
Brunel is one of a number of UK universities created in the 1960s following the Robbins Report on higher education (often called the plate glass universities).
, says: "The programme makers have an enormous social responsibility. But, at the end of the day, they want to make good drama, and that combination can be difficult."

Henderson has been looking into the relationship between television fiction and social issues since starting work for the Glasgow University Media Group in the early 1990s. Of the hundreds of television producers and writers she has interviewed, she says the vast majority operate with professionalism, integrity and responsibility. But almost all insist that their job is to entertain, not educate.

As one experienced scriptwriter script·writ·er  
n.
One who writes copy to be used by an announcer, performer, or director in a film or broadcast.



script
 told her: "In the end, we are drama. We are not a sociological documentary . . . and although we try not to go terribly wrong we sometimes ignore the truth in favour of a good story ... If we always stuck to the absolute facts we'd have no drama."

Henderson cites the groundbreaking Jordache story in Channel 4's Brookside, played out in the early 90s, as an example of when a soap storyline can be a positive - but flawed - means of bringing a social issue into the public arena.

Brookside

The story of Trevor Jordache Trevor Jordache was a character in the defunct television soap opera Brookside.

The character was first introduced in 1993. He was immediately set up as the series' villain; he was, among other things, a rapist, a physically abusive husband and father, and a
, wife-beater and paedophile paedophile or US pedophile
Noun

a person who is sexually attracted to children

Noun 1. paedophile - an adult who is sexually attracted to children
pedophile
, brought previously hidden issues of domestic violence and child abuse into the public domain in a way never seen before on television. Victims of domestic abuse empathised with the realistic portrayal of cowed wife Mandy Jordache Amanda 'Mandy' Jordache (née Dutton) was a fictional character in the British Soap opera Brookside played by Sandra Maitland. She famously killed her violent husband Trevor in 1993, and two years later she was convicted of his murder and sentenced to life imprisonment (his  - with women's refuges reporting a marked increase in calls from women in similar situations - and her daughter, Beth, abused by her father at the age of 14, became a strong role model for survivors of sexual abuse.

"People with personal experience of abuse loved Beth," Henderson says. "The media was full of messages saying, 'You will never get over this.' But here was a strong role model giving a positive message about survival."

Later storylines, which saw Beth involved in the first on-screen on·screen or on-screen  
adj. & adv.
1. As shown on a movie, television, or display screen.

2. Within public view; in public.
 lesbian kiss and later die of a mystery heart attack in prison, undermined that achievement, Henderson says. "Audiences linked the fact that Beth was a lesbian with her abuse, and her death placed her in the category of victim 'scarred for life', undoing some of the positive work her character had done."

Dealing with mental illness in television drama can also be problematic. In 1993, a Coronation Street Coronation Street is an award-winning British soap opera. It is the longest-running television soap opera in the United Kingdom, first broadcast on Friday, 9 December, 1960 in the Granada region of ITV.  storyline saw Carmel, a young Irish nanny, develop an erotic obsession with nurse Martin Platt Martin Platt was a character from ITV's Coronation Street, portrayed by Sean Wilson. History
Martin Platt is a nurse, working at Weatherfield General Hospital. He first appeared in 1985 as a school-leaver working in Jim's Cafe.
 - an unlikely scenario for anyone who remembers the character. The "psycho nanny" storyline had all the classic soap opera soap opera

Broadcast serial drama, characterized by a permanent cast of actors, a continuing story, tangled interpersonal situations, and a melodramatic or sentimental style.
 ingredients of high suspense and drama, with audiences terrified ter·ri·fy  
tr.v. ter·ri·fied, ter·ri·fy·ing, ter·ri·fies
1. To fill with terror; make deeply afraid. See Synonyms at frighten.

2. To menace or threaten; intimidate.
 to watch a "disturbed" and manipulative woman threaten the security of a "normal" (white heterosexual) family.

From the outset, Carmel was conceived as someone with a mental health condition, albeit a rare one. But Henderson says: "The production team did not even consider themselves as having a professional commitment to a mental health story." In fact, as a writer revealed, the character had been "fleshed out" on the basis of a single article published in Vanity Fair.

However, EastEnders was highly praised by mental health charities for its portrayal of Joe Wicks, a young man suffering from schizophrenia, whose character was based on advice from the National Schizophrenia Fellowship. "When soaps are 'doing' mental illness they are careful and can produce respected, responsible storylines," Henderson says. "But if that is not the focus of the story, then the terms used in soaps - that someone is 'mental' or a 'nut' - can feed into people's preconceptions about mental illness."

"This prejorative language might reflect everyday talk, but it is unlikely to be seen or allowed with other more socially approved illnesses," Henderson says.

With falling ratings, an increasingly fragmented viewing audience, and competition from ever more controversial reality TV shows, the pressure on soaps to come up with a "hit" storyline has never been greater. "Reality TV shows and soaps are now competing for the same youth audience that is so attractive to advertisers," Henderson says. "There is a competition to find ever more shocking storylines to retain that audience."

And although there is less pressure from advertisers on British producers than in the US, Henderson says that everyone she interviewed "at the top" of the soap production hierarchy implicitly acknowledged that production decisions are made with advertising needs in mind. As one producer told her: "Soap is at the forefront for ratings, and the advertisers have their requirements. The whole notion about television is that you grab an audience at 7 and it stays with you. That's a brutal fact of life. No one makes soaps out of a concern for social justice."

But soaps are not the only television shows feeling the pressure to produce a killer storyline. Henderson talks of an increasing "soapisation" of other media. "Big Brother uses the same story arches and phrases we associate with TV fiction," she points out. "They foster tension, involve controversial 'storylines' and are pushing boundaries," she says.

Henderson believes documentaries ought not to deliberately mislead, but it would be wrong to assume their use of narrative techniques new. "Audiences are more sophisticated about how TV is constructed and have fewer expectations that what they are seeing is how it happened."

TV soaps are relatively closely policed, but with the "final" taboo of male rape used as a storyline in Hollyoaks in 2001, is there any subject left that soaps will not touch? "I asked the same question to a story editor on Emmerdale," Henderson says. "She said: 'Perhaps necrophilia necrophilia /nec·ro·phil·ia/ (nek?ro-fil´e-ah) sexual attraction to or sexual contact with dead bodies.

nec·ro·phil·i·a
n.
1.
.'"

Curriculum vitae curriculum vitae CV, resume Medical practice A formal listing of a person's professional education, objectives, work history, including location and dates of service at a particular hospital, health care facility, university, the role filled at the time of service,

Age 40.

Status Married, one son.

Lives Oxford.

Education Charleston Academy, Inverness; Queen Margaret University Queen Margaret University (formerly Queen Margaret University College and Queen Margaret College) is a Modern University located in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is named after Saint Margaret, wife of King Malcolm III of Scotland, and was founded in 1875. , Edinburgh (BA communication studies); Glasgow University (PhD in sociology, social issue storylines in British soap opera); learning and teaching in higher education, Brunel University (PG Cert).

Career 2003-present: lecturer in sociology and communications, and deputy director, centre for media, globalisation and risk, Brunel University; 2003: senior research fellow, department of public health and policy, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine tropical medicine, study, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of certain diseases prevalent in the tropics. The warmth and humidity of the tropics and the often unsanitary conditions under which so many people in those areas live contribute to the development and ; 2003: lecturer, human sciences, Brunel University; 1999-2002: senior research fellow, department of human sciences, Brunel University; 1989-99: researcher, Glasgow media group, department of sociology Noun 1. department of sociology - the academic department responsible for teaching and research in sociology
sociology department

academic department - a division of a school that is responsible for a given subject
 and anthropology, University of Glasgow The University of Glasgow (Scottish Gaelic: Oilthigh Ghlaschu, Latin: Universitas Glasguensis) was founded in 1451, in Glasgow, Scotland. .

Interests Sci-fi, cycling in Oxford with her son, going to Lyon by TGV TGV: see railroad. .

· Social Issues in Television Fiction is published by Edinburgh University Press Edinburgh University Press is a university publisher that is part of the University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh, Scotland. External links
  • Edinburgh University Press
, RRP RRP n abbr (= recommended retail price) → PVP m  £16.99.

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Author:guardian.co.uk
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Date:Oct 24, 2007
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