The Guardian, 10 April 2010


When I was first approached about making a documentary on the links between Greek tragedy and soap, I was sceptical. The differences between them seemed far greater to me than their similarities - soap is ongoing, a Sophocles play can be performed in about 90 minutes; soap is prose, tragedy is verse; the tragedies have endured for millennia, soap is forgotten the week after it airs. Also, there is a quality distinction. Much as I like plenty of the writers on Eastenders, I don't think they're in the same league as the men who wrote Medea and Oedipus The King.

But when we started doing the research, I realised that soap and tragedy had far more in common than I had ever noticed. I spoke to a writer who cheerfully admitted that he had based storylines in Eastenders on Aeschylus' Oresteia. I found someone who had written Euripides' Hippolytus into an episode of Family Affairs. I discovered from John Yorke - the man who brought the Slaters to Albert Square - that he designed his soap characters to have a fatal flaw, exactly like tragic heroes. And the BBC Writers' Academy - which trains up future generations of soap writers - apparently uses Aristotle's Poetics to teach its writers about Unity of Time and Place.

So I started watching Eastenders with a different attitude: looking for similarities, instead of ticking off differences. The storylines are full of tragic archetypes - suffering women, siblings at war, children battling parents, buried family secrets. Soap might have started out as gritty urban realism, or an everyday story of country folk, but it certainly hasn't stayed that way.

Brookside really paved the way for huge melodramatic events in a suburban setting, and in doing so, echoed Greek Tragedies over and over again. They notched up patricide (Oedipus), infanticide (Medea, Heracles), and even a mysterious flesh-eating virus (Philoctetes). They didn't hesitate to bring taboo subjects to the small screen, like incest (Oedipus again. It really is the play which has everything).

And once Brookside had raised the plausibility bar, the other soaps followed. Serial killers turned up in Coronation Street and The Bill. A man was buried alive in Eastenders. Interestingly, this was a compromise made by the storyliners when they realised that Greek tragedy was a step too far: they'd originally planned for Tanya Branning to have a Medea story. She would punish her cheating husband by killing their children. But they realised that what works in a play couldn't work with a recurring character; audiences simply wouldn't be able to warm to a woman who'd killed her own kids, and gone unpunished. Burial alive, however, is basically a character-quirk in the world of soap, so that was fine.

Even the poetic irony of soap deaths has echoes of Greek tragedy. When Archie Mitchell finally met his end, he was clobbered over the head with a bust of Queen Victoria, the mascot of the very pub where he lived. At the end of Medea, she foretells Jason's death: he will be smacked on the head by a piece of his own boat, the Argo.