Should soaps incorporate the pandemic into storylines or avoid it altogether?
That’s a question that has been raised before, but there are varying views on the matter, and for some it depends on the show’s own setting.
A hospital drama, for instance, may find it far more difficult to avoid than a suburban soap.
Neighbours is on record as saying whilst a soap is ideally escapist it has selectively incorporated natural advancements such as sanitisers on bench tops.
Home & Away has also avoided the pandemic becoming central to Summer Bay, but did make changes to shooting.
Last Week writer Holly Lyons told the Screen Forever conference, “We cut a lot of kissing. At one meeting, we debated how important a handshake between two enemies was for a story, and we were very mindful full of lines like, ‘remember to wash your hands.’ And I especially remember having to cut the line, ‘I will avoid him like the plague.’ We really didn’t want to reference the pandemic on that show. A character who initially was about to go away for a holiday on a cruise ship, had to change his plan. And one brawl, which would usually be a fistfight, was turned into people armed with baseball bats, so that actors wouldn’t have close contact. So that’s how we kind of tackled the pandemic in Summer Bay. We tried to ignore it as much as possible it possible.”
Meanwhile, Kate Oates, Head of Genre, BBC Studios said UK productions weren’t sure during their first lockdown how things would pan out.
“The overused phrase from me was, all our crystal balls are broken. We just don’t know how this is going to look. So we had to make judgment calls. And so we decided to pick Wolford, which is where EastEnders is set. We decided to pick Wolford up because we came off screen briefly as we had to close down. When we came back, we decided that we would pick it up post lockdown, so we would reflect what had happened to a community that had been in lockdown, but we wouldn’t still be in lockdown,” she said.
“So we went to a slightly parallel universe, I guess you could say, where COVID is a thing, COVID has had an effect on people. We’ve all experienced the same thing, but we’re looking at a community sort of trying to move forwards. In the present, you don’t do so much of the social distancing or mask wearing, that kind of thing. But people are aware of COVID and still talk about it.
“I suppose one of the main story threads that it affected for EastEnders was we were already running a domestic violence storyline. Our character, Chantelle Atkins, who was a beautiful, feisty, fiery young woman who happens to be married to a man who hits her and has kept it a secret to protect the integrity of her marriage. She’s made that mistake. When we picked it up after lockdown, what we saw was that violence had become markedly worse and that she’d been suffering it behind locked doors whilst people just, you know, have not been able to see any evidence of what’s been happening to her day to day. Actually in our second week back, that mistake was to prove fatal, that she’d not told anybody and he killed her.
“It offered big, big dramatic opportunities. I think rather than letting it completely change our narrative, we let it shape the narratives in a realistic way. So we have a nurse character called Sonia Fowler, it’s affecting her. She’s got a bit of sort of PTSD from it now, really. It’s changed her outlook on life. It changed the way she looks at the world. It’s been about just applying that layer of truth to the characters without making the drama about COVID as such.”
BBC hospital drama Casualty also chose to incorporate COVID.
Loretta Preece, Series Producer said, “Well, like a lot of productions, we had to close down very suddenly as COVID came over into the UK, and we had to stop filming and we had to make a decision about how we come back and what we put on air when we come back. It was Kate who had said initially in a meeting that it was essential that we covered COVID in the show, being a medical show. And I was quite afraid of that idea.
“I remember talking to Kate (Oates) about it in the morning and thinking, knowing that she was right, but also understanding what a huge undertaking that was. I spent the rest of that day speaking to our medical advisers. So, we’ve got four consultants in the field, and just trying to gauge from them how they thought that the crisis might unfold, because, as you rightly say, we were speaking then in April about transmission that we knew would go out in December, January. And so to try and predict the future in a very fast-moving epidemic situation, of course, none of the medics could tell us. In fact, three of them said absolutely different things.
“So, we had to gauge what we thought that the world might look like. But also, we set that episode quite, quite distinctly in the period of the first wave, which was unfolding at the time we were writing. We set it as a flashback, basically, which allowed us some licence. At the time that it did go out, which was 2 January this year, actually for COVID there was an enormous second wave hitting the UK and it was a time of tremendous fear in Britain and an enormous, terrible death toll. But actually, although, again, we were concerned and the channel was concerned about how such a hard-hitting episode would go down, by good fortune, it struck a chord with the British people. It felt like the truth that they wanted to hear about what was really going on in emergency departments. And so it was very challenging decisions, which happily seemed to come good.”