“The way British soaps organize time is important,” said Christine Geraghty, a professor of film and television studies at the University of Glasgow. “They take place on a day-to-day basis. Characters wake up in the morning and go to bed at night. British soaps keep going: you don’t always start a new episode at the exact place the last one finished.” Cliffhanger endings, she said, tend to be deployed only for major plotlines.
“Mostly, the postman comes in the morning, and the day ends with a drink in the pub,” she said. “The rhythms in a soap make it a recognizable world. You might know, as a viewer, that things like that don’t quite happen in real life, but you can place it all within the scope of your own experience.”
The stories can, of course, be outlandish — planes crash on the Yorkshire village where “Emmerdale” is set with alarming frequency — but the landscape, too, is constructed to feel familiar.
“It is our world, but it is not our world,” said Carole O’Reilly, a senior lecturer in media and television studies at the University of Salford. “It looks and feels recognizable: a heightened version of the world we see.”
She picks out the backdrop of “Coronation Street” — based on Salford itself — as authentically northern: the architecture of back-to-back terraced housing and cobbled streets, the social life revolving around the pub. But so, too, is the tone of the characters’ interactions. “Direct and to the point,” according to Geraghty, or gregarious and outgoing, to O’Reilly: all of it distinctly (if not uniquely) Mancunian.
But while British soaps set out to reflect the world, they are selective about which elements of the real world are allowed to seep in. “‘Coronation Street’ has taken on a lot of social issues,” Geraghty said. “It has dealt with racism, domestic abuse, violence, trans rights. But it doesn’t do current events; soaps are filmed too far in advance to deal with real events in real time, and besides, they’re too political.”