EastEnders is back, with added face masks and social distancing

Just before the coronavirus pandemic began to race around the world, East London-based Patrick took the badly timed decision to take his wife Sheree on holiday to Trinidad as a birthday treat. Fearing they might get stuck abroad, the pair rushed back to the UK, safely making it home before the country went into lockdown. But on their return, Patrick fell ill with coronavirus, and was subsequently sent into intensive care.
We don’t know what happened to him next, because both Patrick and Sheree are fictional characters from the long-running British soap opera show EastEnders. His story, along with countless others, was cut short just after he jetted off to Trinidad. The rest of the timeline was made up in the writers’ room, never seen on-screen.

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Soap operas such as EastEnders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Hollyoaks will be some of the first fictional television shows to explicitly address the global pandemic in the plot. EastEnders returns tonight for the first time since the pandemic, and a three month jump forward in time to bring things up to the present day – so the residents of Albert Square will now be living in a strange new world changed by Covid-19.
Like us, the characters have spent lockdown catching up with each other over Zoom and attending virtual quizzes. Some of them have been shielding, unable to see their partner because of their job; and others applauded for being key workers. Venues have changed too, with the Queen Vic pub moving seating outdoors, the café doing away with some of its tables in order to comply with social distancing guidelines, and Ruby’s nightclub being transformed into a restaurant in light of the closure of clubs in the UK.
An issue that’s as global, cultural and political as coronavirus, which affects the whole of the UK, would be hard for the British soap genre to ignore. EastEnders executive producer Jon Sen says that it was important for the show to mirror the coronavirus in the narrative and show how it was affecting real people’s lives. “I think it’s the responsibility of a soap to reflect what’s going on in greater society and the seismic shifts that happened in the country,” he explains. “It’s kind of business as usual, but with a Covid twist.”
Though Covid-19 raised many obstacles in terms of production, with the cast having to film kissing scenes through Perspex screens and the film crew having to employ camera tricks like plate shots (where two different bits of footage are combined to look like one), Sen says that it also neatly intersected with ongoing storylines. “We all know about the increased incidence of domestic violence during lockdown, and obviously that’s played into an existing storyline we have with Chantelle and Grey,” he says. “We really touch on that. I think that’s a really powerful story that we can really bring to the heart of the show.”

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British soaps are known to try and reflect modern life, albeit with varying success and in a sometimes overly exaggerated way. EastEnders, for example, often provides small winks and nods to current topical events, with the show re-recording scenes to make them more relevant. Characters mentioned England’s win against Colombia in 2018 during the World Cup, while storylines are planned in advance to reflect cultural and political events like the General Election.
More importantly, soaps have tackled hard-hitting current social issues such as violence, racism, abortion and trans rights in the past. “The audience research shows us that what people really, really love are soaps paralleling their lives and addressing the problems that they face, even if it’s at a heightened or extreme form,” says Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics.
Lesley Henderson, a reader in sociology and communication at Brunel University, who has researched health communication in soaps, says in tackling current issues, soaps have historically been a really powerful vehicle for getting people to think and talk about certain topics. In the 1990s, EastEnders made history when it became the first soap to cover a story about a heterosexual man contracting HIV and AIDS. “They were really able to clear up misconceptions. Where certain characters were deemed to be ignorant about the issue, it would be clarified for audiences,” she says. That’s why addressing the pandemic can help kickstart important discussions between family members.
The impact of the coronavirus in EastEnders will be mostly seen in the dialogue, with the storylines themselves staying relatively untouched. But for other soaps, coronavirus has played a much larger role.

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When Covid-19 arrived in the fictional town of Weatherfield in Manchester in Coronation Street upon its return to screens in July, there was a storyline which impacted a number of characters directly. When one of nurse Aggie’s colleagues tested positive for Covid-19, she found herself having to self-isolate in a nearby NHS-sanctioned hotel, forcing her and her husband Ed to have their anniversary dinner over Zoom.
It’s in these scenes where soaps can really get the public to empathise with other people’s situations. “In some ways, soaps perform the same function in terms of public service ethos and seeing that reflected might be in some ways quite comforting,” says Henderson. “They’re amazing at wrapping up very important messages in socially responsible entertainment, and that works really well for people who wouldn’t watch a news bulletin.”
Soaps don’t wield the same power they once did, but they still take up a large portion of television real estate and millions of people are still watching them. According to TV industry body Thinkbox, soaps had a 7.1 per cent share of viewing across 2019, and in total UK viewers watched 63.7 million hours of soaps each week. Beyond the numbers, soaps have a life away from what’s being shown in the episode thanks to soap magazines, daytime TV shows and fan forums, where storylines are still regularly discussed.
As time has gone on, Coronation Street has shifted to providing viewers with lighter doses of coronavirus, displaying the pandemic visually, rather than in actual storylines. You now see people wearing masks as they walk into the local café to grab a takeaway and restaurants on the show have erected Perspex screens between tables.
Coronation Street’s executive producer Iain MacLeod says that the difficulty was predicting what kind of measures the UK might bring in when writing the scripts. The writing team never expected the government to make face coverings mandatory in shops, for example, so they aren’t seen in earlier episodes.
The show progressed to giving the pandemic less airtime because, MacLeod says, people spent all day talking and living through the pandemic, but what they came to Coronation Street for was a bit of escapism, though he knew that having it play a part in the show was still important. “We took the view that yes, we do have to portray it and yes, as far as we can, we should be portraying best practice, hence using masks,” he explains. “I mean, Coronation Street, and indeed, the soaps generally are incredibly important for normalising attitudes and normalising behaviours.”
And that’s a major benefit of the kind of social realism found in soaps. While typical drama shows take place in a nondescript near-future, soaps are a reflection of what’s going on outside people’s front doors. They aren’t documentaries, but by showing audience’s favourite characters, who they have built a relationship with over the course of several years engaging in so-called ‘good behaviour’, audiences might be more likely to take notice of it. “We are acutely aware of the message we impart, even sometimes accidentally,” says MacLeod. “It can really stick and do a lot of good, or a lot of damage if you get it wrong.”
Alex Lee is a writer for WIRED. He tweets from @1AlexL
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