Why are C4 punishing teenagers with Hollyoaks?

This soap would just be laughably kitsch if it wasn’t so keen on getting teens to phone helplines afterwards.

David Bowden

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As mistaken headlines go, it was not exactly ‘Dewey defeats Truman’, but the Daily Mail’s online article proclaiming the guilt of Amanda Knox has been causing a bit of mirth around the Twittersphere this week. Other mainstream media outlets, including the Guardian, fell into the same trap (confusing a separate slander charge with murder) in the desperate rush for a scoop, yet the Mail’s rather elaborately imagined effort has, predictably, attracted the most scorn.

As one commentator noted, crowing from other hacks has been muted: such pre-emptive articles have always been journalism’s ‘dirty secret.’ That obituarists keep a series of articles on frail, high-profile figures in the ‘deep freeze’ is well known and one of the few newshound pleasures arising from the demise of the News of the World was the opportunity to read their premature take on Margaret Thatcher’s passing.

I can only imagine that Hollyoaks owes its continued existence as some kind of sop to beleaguered TV writers to keep them ticking over during drabber periods. With Big Brother having slipped into the twilight zone of Channel 5 and with repeats of Friends having found a refuge on Comedy Central, you feel the teen soap may be the glue holding Channel 4 together. Whether it’s a controversial issues-based storyline or a racy photoshoot featuring a lithe young starlet, you can always rely on Hollyoaks.

Soap operas are always a crucial barometer of a broadcaster’s identity: they’re the staples bringing in repeat viewers in the early evening with the aim of keeping them there all night. So Radio 4, all old-fashioned establishment with serious intent, has the gentle countryside drama The Archers which first aired in 1950; populist and commercial ITV has the quaintly Northern and working-class Coronation Street, which was outdated when it began in 1960; BBC1 paid homage to the political death throes of the white working class with EastEnders; and BBC2, as the serious arts channel, kept above that sort of thing.

Hollyoaks began life much later, in 1995, but its creator Phil Redmond had considerable pedigree, having produced the radical and hard-hitting Brookside for (then) radical and hard-hitting Channel 4 and, before that, gritty school drama Grange Hill. Like those shows, it represented a sincere attempt to engage seriously with a young-teen audience, offering a more realistic and complicated depiction of issues around sex, relationships and drugs than was previously readily available.

At the time, this kind of ‘young adult’ literature was still fairly radical. This was even before Melvin Burgess caused howls of protest with the publication of his novel Junk, dealing with teenage heroin addicts, in 1997. As Burgess has noted, the terminology of ‘young adult’ has always been slightly misleading, taking into account that teenagers are generally interested in stuff grown-ups are getting up to (and what they are notionally prohibited from) rather than their fellow teens. In reality, as with the carefully named Just Seventeen, such ‘teen’-focused material appeals to those younger and aspiring to being a teenager. When meeting his readers, Burgess found they tended to be aged between 11 and 13.

While Redmond has long since left Hollyoaks, the thought that it is really aimed at 13-year-olds is perhaps reassuring. Its famously attractive cast and omnipresent low-rent, racy storylines certainly indicate its demographics: younger kids watching it with their families (quite probably their dads) and hungover students. Its various attempts to launch more late-night, spin-off episodes aimed at an older crowd have generally met with, at best, mixed results. That a teatime soap is able to routinely deal with subject matters ranging from gay relationships and casual sex to child abuse and mental illness is, if nothing else, a visible sign that attitudes to what we show on TV have grown more liberal in the intervening years. To put that in context, the producers of the US remake of Skins were cock-a-hoop at being able to show teens dabbling in casual sex and drugs without showing them get their comeuppance in the same episode (and it still stood accused of being ‘child pornography’).

That is about as far as the celebration can go, however. As a piece of outlandish, kitsch entertainment it could just about be defended, but this characterisation of Hollyoaks sits uneasily with the near-parodic bombardment of social issues on show. When you feel the need to end every episode of a programme with a reminder that your audience can call a pre-recorded helpline, you should probably start to give serious consideration to the quality of the writing, rather than pat yourself on the back. There’s nothing wrong with a show aimed essentially at children being prepared to offer moral guidance on sensitive issues, but the thought that it focused a recent ‘special’ on the dangers of teenage binge drinking is a stark reminder that its early ‘edginess’ is now pretty mainstream. Occasionally it can surprise you with some of its bravery – a recent storyline focused on an accusation of drink-fuelled date rape between two leading and well-liked characters, which was left tantalisingly unseen and unresolved – but such intelligence is rare.

Indeed, as with much of Channel 4’s youth output (it is part of the T4 weekend ‘youth’ strand) what grates most is the ironic celebration of how naff its output really is. While over-praised and exaggerated, Skins at least strives to offer a serious and nuanced portrayal of modern teenage life full of difficult moral dilemmas and choices. However naively earnest much of the early ‘young adult’ literature seems to us now in its attempt to get down with the kids, it at least had the sincere intention of attempting to prepare them for adulthood. Now, the only wisdom the makers of a programme like Hollyoaks can pass on is a celebration of mediocrity and the risks inherent in living a free and fun life. US teen dramas from 90210 and The O.C. may be much more overtly moralistic and superficially materialistic, but both at least seem to cultivate better aspirations than you’ll get from the dross Hollyoaks.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist. He is chairing the debate Dangerous books for boys? The literacy debate at Foyles bookshop, Charing Cross Road, London, on Tuesday 4 October at 6.30pm.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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