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Spotlight feature: Class Representation in Soaps

26 April 2024
Event: BAFTA Masterclass: Class Representation in SoapsDate: Tuesday 26 March 2024Venue: BAFTA, 195 Piccadilly, London, U.K. Host: Sharon Marshall-Area: Panel 2BAFTA/Quetzal Maucci

Last month, BAFTA held a masterclass on class representation in soaps, whose panels featured HODs, actors, casting directors, executive producers and writers from EastEnders, Casualty, Coronation Street, Hollyoaks and Emmerdale. Adrian Lobb, TV editor at The Big Issue, shares insights from the discussions, from the career pathways that soaps offer into the industry and what the TV industry can learn from soaps when it comes to authentic representations on screen to the positive impact that the genre's storylines can have on society. 

When he created Coronation Street, Tony Warren was determined to bring the authentic voices and lives of working-class people into the nation’s living rooms. The language, stories and characters he’d heard while sitting beneath his grandmother’s kitchen table became, and continues to be, the show’s signature style.   

More than 60 years on, British soaps remain at the forefront of authentic representations of working-class communities in Britain, telling authentic stories of everyday life in all its extraordinary, ordinary glory – written, run and acted by people from working-class backgrounds.

Soaps are also a vital part of the industry infrastructure in this country. These shows nurture new talent in front of and behind the camera with newcomers welcomed to the soap family and shown the ropes by experienced experts.

Filmed at great speed and intensity, by as many as four units – again, mostly driven by working-class talent – across multiple storylines, these productions create a huge amount of high-quality drama. They also have a unique connection with audiences built up over decades, meaning they can guide viewers through complex issues and stories.

Routes into the industry are many and various. Kate Oates, head of drama productions at BBC Studios, outlined hers to the audience at BAFTA's 195 Piccadilly headquarters. “My entry into the industry was a total fluke,” she said. “I went to a temping agency, and they offered me a gas company or a stint at Carlton Television, both doing data entry, but TV is more interesting than gas. 

“My point is that you don't have to get the job you want – just get in. Then meet people and network. I got a role as a researcher on Crossroads. I still didn't know what a script editor or storyliner was. I didn't know what the departments really did. I had no idea about how shows were made or what jobs I might work toward, or the skill sets needed.”

As Oates demonstrates, the importance of pathways for underrepresented groups into the creative industries cannot be overstated. It is why BAFTA created Invisible Barriers, its social mobility toolkit, and set out a strategic priority to help tackle socio-economic inequality in the screen arts last year that includes £300,000 funding for bursaries and scholarships. Because to reflect the stories of modern Britain, the voices of all modern Britain need to be heard.

The training for talent provided by soaps is unrivalled. Casting director Faye Styring said, “We have established actors coming onto our show and they're blown away by the speed we work at. Kids grow up on our show then leave to go into the big wide world – but if you can handle soap, you can handle anything.”  

Styring would find agreement from one of the most beloved actors in the business, as executive producer for continuing drama at ITV, Iain McLeod, told the BAFTA audience: “Ian McKellen was on Coronation Street years ago, and afterwards was asked, 'Why would you go and do soaps?' I love him for this. He quite belligerently said, ‘I dare you to go and do six months on a soap and then tell me that’s not real acting!’ He was in awe of everything our on-screen talent does, and so am I. It never fails to amaze me.”  

It is not hard to see the positive impact of the soap production line. Take six-time BAFTA-winner Sally Wainwright, whose success has fuelled a whole production industry in Yorkshire on Happy Valley and Gentleman Jack; she learnt her trade in the Coronation Street writers’ room.

The authenticity and wit Wainwright’s work is known for and the brilliant working-class women she has brought to our screens all spring from her roots on Corrie.   

As do some of her leading stars: Suranne Jones (Gentleman Jack) and Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley) both broke into the acting business via Oldham Theatre Workshop’s talent pathway, to Coronation Street and beyond. That route into the industry survives today and has never been more vital, as barriers to entry into the industry are exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis, cuts to arts funding and the expense of drama school.

Millie Gibson stars alongside Ncuti Gatwa in the upcoming series of Doctor Who. She could adapt to life in the Tardis after three years on the cobbles as Kelly Neelan in Coronation Street, which is where soap fan Russell T Davies first saw her.   

Gibson's predecessor Mandip Gill could tell a similar story, learning her trade on Hollyoaks, while Jenna Coleman also ventured into the show via years on Emmerdale.   

Attitudes towards soaps have changed over the years. “I had been out of drama school for a few years,” Emmerdale actor Jeff Hordley told the BAFTA audience. “I was like, ‘I don't want to do adverts. I don't want to do soaps.' Then I found myself in a soap and was still saying, ‘I’ll do this for two years’. Six years flew by and it was the most amazing six years.” 

Because soaps are more than just the training ground for the next generation; they stand alone as brilliant dramas, written and produced with great skill, created under the relentless forward-march of plot, plot, plot, character, character, character. 

“For my mum and my aunties, I could do anything in my career, but it will never compete with Corrie. This is the holy grail,” added Coronation Street’s Channique Sterling-Brown. “We grew up watching it. My granddad was watching Corrie before I was even born. Black northern culture is under-represented and I love getting to show normal family life.

“As a Black northerner, the opportunity to audition on Emmerdale or Coronation Street is so important – and to have that representation on the screen is important as well.”  

Sterling-Brown outlined how hard it was, paying her way through drama school thanks to early morning shifts in Greggs. “It is a lot for working-class actors,” she said. “And so much talent is probably being missed.”

The casting directors present – Faye Strying, Kevin Riddle and Peter Hunt – responded by explaining their responsibility to cast the net as wide as possible to ensure proper representation. “Just as the story offices are looking for new stories, we're looking at new untapped places to find talent,” Hunt explained.

“On Hollyoaks, Lauren McQueen, Theo Graham, Malique [Thompson-Dwyer] are all people I found in pub theatres or theatres locally. So it is about casting teams making sure that we don't miss anyone.” Increasingly, this can include non-traditional entry-points.

"Over the last couple of years, I've auditioned a lot of actors, because I've watched them do funny sketches on social media. I would have been very snooty about that. But it's a good way of finding funny people,” Riddle added.

Screenwriter Jayshree Patel regaled us with a story of being a high school teacher for 20 years, missing out on a deputy head job, and impulse-buying a voucher for a one-day intensive writing course.  

Patel was eventually part of Hollyoaks’ important story of far-right radicalisation. “The Malik family were going to be subjected to horrific racial abuse,” she said. “So, my part was to represent that side of it and make the story as authentic as possible by using my voice as a marginalised person. 

“But I was interested in the white working-class boy who turned to the far right to make sense of his life. And the reason I was interested – and this is what I said to Brian Kirkwood, and felt really listened to – is because after leaving teaching, I’d gone on Facebook and seen really racist posts by white working-class men who I taught as boys. They were the loveliest, sweetest kids. Yet, 10 years later, they were posting racist vitriol on social media. That was the story I wanted to tell. My interest was in Steve and why he'd gone from being a bit of a scally to an active member of the far right.”

Episodes showing Steve trying to leave the far right produced a real-world reaction.

“We got a call from an organisation called Small Steps, who help young men leave the far right, because once you're in, it's very, very difficult to get out. They said, on the days we aired, there was a spike in people wanting their help.”  

There could be no better proof of soap’s connections to real life events, their ability to reach and impact audiences, and to respond to political and social issues.

Ade Lamuya did not know what a storyliner was until she first joined Hollyoaks. Now, in her current role on EastEnders, she is responsible for one of the most impactful stories of recent times – with George Knight (Colin Salmon) discovering his parents adopted him as a result of so-called Child Farming.  "This is a part of history of British history but I had heard nothing about it. I hadn’t seen it talked about. So, I brought it to the table.”

“There was a gasp in the room,” Kate Oates adds. “It just felt like a holy grail of a story.”  

Erin Kubicki, who was a storyliner on Casualty before joining the writing team, tells a similar story about the recent PTSD storyline involving Stevie Nash. 

And this is what soaps can do. If there is proper representation behind the screen, a wider range of stories can be told with genuine authenticity. Big themes or hidden histories can be brought into people’s living rooms and made accessible and relevant. EastEnders actor Scott Maslen agreed. “If it's current – we're able to absorb them into our stories.” 

BAFTA's social mobility toolkit, Invisible Barriers, can be found here.

The BAFTA Television Craft Awards take place this Sunday at The Brewery, London, hosted by Stacey Dooley. The BAFTA Television Awards with P&O Cruises take place on Sunday 12 May and will be broadcast on BBC One and iPlayer, hosted by Rob Beckett and Romesh Ranganathan.

Words by Adrian Lobb.

Image by Quetzal Maucci.


BAFTA’s mission as a charity is to champion the creative and cultural importance of the screen arts across film, games and television. Through its Awards ceremonies and year-round programme of talent initiatives and learning events that include masterclasses, lectures, scholarships, bursaries and mentoring schemes in the UK and North America, BAFTA identifies and celebrates excellence, discovers, inspires and nurtures new screen talent, and enables learning and creative collaboration. For more, visit BAFTA is a registered charity (no. 216726).