Grace Dent on the Golden Age of Soaps: “They gave the nation something to talk about” | serial

TTo show how long ago when I was given the World of Lather “soap column” for guidebook, I remember taking the news on a Nokia 5510, then dancing to a CD single from Independent. Women, the hot new track from Destiny’s Child: “I buy my own diamonds and I buy my own rings,” I sang victoriously. I was stunned to be offered real money to write about EastEnders, Corrie, and Emmerdale – which at that time were drawing 7 or 8 million viewers per episode. (Brookside was almost in agony.)

Things were different in 2001. The internet was new, mysterious, and worked over a slow connection that you could only use when your mom didn’t need to talk to Aunt Sheila. Soaps, on the other hand, felt like a central part of society. They were cultural behemoths who dominated television programs. From the 1970s to the 2000s, I devoted thousands of hours to the events of Rovers Return and Albert Square. Back then, real Brits were actually pretty private and rarely advertised their own family misfortune, or God forbid, filmed it, shared it, or asked for comment. Soap, on the other hand, showed us family life, warts and everything: addiction, infidelity, scandal.

We loved the constant aggro provided by gobby characters like Peggy Mitchell and Janice Battersby. It gave a nation something to talk about. I’ve been through times like Janine Butcher pushing Barry to death from a small hill and Den Watts coming back from the dead. Max Branning’s powerful sexual magnetism and his affair with Stacey Slater, culminating in a family fight after lunch on Christmas Day, was the highlight of 2007. On Corrie, the love life of Gail Rodwell, AKA Potter, Tilsley, Platt, Hillman and McIntyre was never short of elation, especially in 2003 when her then-husband serial killer Richard Hillman attempted to kill his mother Audrey, murdered Maxine Peacock and then a leads Gail’s family down a canal.

Blood on the cobblestones … Coronation Street has Richard Hillman wrong. Photograph: ITV / Rex / Shutterstock

I loved soap because the viewer was omnipotent, flying around houses, knowing everyone’s secrets: that Janine had her former mother-in-law’s name on her phone, Fat Pat; Sally Webster’s constant quest for social improvement; Peter Barlow drinks; Heather Trott’s love for George Michael. These people felt like friends: we knew their quirks, their weaknesses and their motivations.

I wrote World of Lather for nine years, an extremely silly whistling tour around cobblestones and cozy pubs. I would sit down, the blinds closed on the sunniest days, to consume hours of deception and brawl. The column was surreal, pithy and often scathing but came from a deep love for soap. I regret a lot of mean things that I wrote because they are millions of miles away from the woolly, zen person life in which I was beaten by my 40 years. Dev de Corrie, I’m sorry if I was awful about your acting. Please forgive me, creators of the EastEnders dragon slide disaster. I was just young and showing off.

I have moved away from soaps over the past decade. During the lockdown, I returned to Emmerdale, where everyone is now young and naughty and gorgeous. It takes place in a mysterious part of the remote Yorkshire Dales where access to shellac nails, spray tans and highlights is plentiful and every fortnight there is an attempted murder. That was the definition of escape, but as soon as the bars reopened, I freed myself from the clutches of soap.

Audience figures have generally declined. I think social media is killing soaps, providing an endless supply of real people broadcasting straight from their laundry baskets. In 2001, I woke up at BBC Breakfast chatting about Kat and Mo Slater; now i wake up to a whatsapp group full of screenshots of our favorite influencer ‘calling’ another for cheating and stealing from her fiance. I make a coffee, listen and stay hooked. I’d love to tell you I’m too grown up for this soapy chatter, but ask me in 20 years.

Grace Dent is a critic, host and author. His Guardian Comfort Eating podcast is now available