Eldorado, arguably one of the worst soaps ever made, was cancelled 25 years ago this week. So to mark the anniversary we've compiled our own definitive ranking of British soap operas.
First, a few ground rules: our soaps must be on TV (sorry, The Archers) and transmit two or more episodes per week (hence the likes of River City, Casualty, Holby City and Waterloo Road don’t quite qualify).
A true soap also needs to have a partially domestic setting – which rules out The Bill, General Hospital, Emergency: Ward 10 and other workplace sagas.
Right, that’s the admin out of the way. Here’s our countdown from 14 to number one…
14. Eldorado (BBC One, 1992-1993)
“Marcooth! Marcooth!” The infamous £10m flop Euro-soap (working title: Little England) ran for just over a year before being put out of its teak-tanned misery on July 9. 1993. Intended to combine the homegrown grit of EastEnders with the sun-kissed glamour of Aussie soaps, it was set in the fictional Costa del Sol resport of Los Barcos, following the lives of Brit and continental expats.
It was beset by production problems: execs came and went; filming in villas rather than a studio led to echoey sound and inaudible dialogue; foreign language scenes left viewers baffled; an inexperienced cast meant the acting was at times laughable.
Despite respectable ratings by the end, Alan Yentob cancelled it in arguably the best move of his long career at the Corporation. Even the climax was botched: playboy Marcus Tandy’s sports car dramatically blew up but was blatantly swapped for a cheaper one just before the explosion, at which point Tandy got the final line: "Can't trust anyone these days, can you?" Adios.
13. Families (ITV, 1990-1993)
Blame Kylie and Jason. Created by Coronation Street/Brookside alumnus Kay Mellor – who went on to write dramas like Band Of Gold and Fat Friends - this Granada afternoon soap was another attempt to cash in on the late Eighties vogue for all things Australian.
The twist with Families was that it was an Anglo-Aussie crossover, flitting between one family in Cheshire and another Down Under. The clans were linked by wealthy businessman Mike Thompson (star Malcolm Stoddart), who dramatically walked out on his Brit family during his own birthday party and flew to Sydney to start a new life with his old flame - while the son Mike never knew he had flew the other way. Clear as mud? Excellent.
Surprisingly adult in content, Families managed to tackle such subjects as murder, suicide, incest, drugs, prostitution and mental health. It lasted 320 episodes before being axed. It also provided an early screen role for the teenage Jude Law.
12. Albion Market (ITV, 1985-1986)
“No, we don't sell microwave ovens. What do you think this is, Harrods?” Set in a covered market in Salford, this Granada soap was planned as a companion to Coronation Street, set in the same postcode and airing at 7pm, immediately before the cobbled stalwart - which was celebrating its 25th anniversary as Albion Market launched.
Storylines focused on the multi-racial stallholders and long-suffering market inspector Derek Owen (David Hargreaves). Hard-hitting issues covered included attempted suicide, arranged marriage, unemployment, an abandoned baby and the death of the local tramp.
However, characters got bogged down in the day-to-day running of their stalls and the drab market setting became claustrophobic. In an attempt to glam up proceedings, the likes of Tony “father of Cherie Blair” Booth and Sixties popstrel Helen Shapiro arrived as the new pub landlord and hairdresser respectively. It was cancelled after precisely 100 episodes.
11. Night & Day (ITV, 2001-2003)
With a Kylie Minogue theme song (“Always and forever, I don't regret a single day with you…”) and Twin Peaks-inspired “missing girl” set-up, Night & Day was a conscious attempt to create a cooler, culty soap with yoof credibility.
It followed six families on a Greenwich street and the ripple effects from the disappearance of 16-year-old golden girl Jane Harper. The cast included familiar TV faces like Shane Richie, Glynis Barber, Bradley Walsh, Joe McGann, Lysette Antony and Lesley Joseph. Expensively launched, Night & Day initially rated respectably but as plots became more labyrinthine, it was shunted from early evening to a late-night slot.
Ambitious, Buffy-influenced elements included ghosts, serial murders, stopped time and alternate realities. When it was cancelled, the writers were given enough warning to script an ending. This duly took in the discovery of amnesiac Jane working as a geisha, a flash-forward to four years later and a montage set to Bjork’s All Is Full Of Love.
10. Take The High Road (ITV, 1980-2003)
Set in the fictional village of Glendarroch on the banks of Loch Lomond, this twice-weekly daytime soap was consciously ultra-Scots, deliberately designed to have “hills, purple heather, a folky theme tune and a tartan feel”. Cue affairs, intrigue, lairdly disputes and lots of livestock.
Stalwarts included Gwyneth Guthrie as village busybody Mrs Mack, Derek Lord as gamekeeper Davie Sneddon and Eileen McCallum as shopkeeper Isobel Blair. Actors who took their first steps towards fame on the show included Alan Cumming, Joe McFadden, Natalie J Robb and Gary Hollywood, aka Dino Doyle from Mrs Brown’s Boys.
It was dropped by most ITV regions during the Nineties, when its title was shortened to High Road, but continued to air in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where it retained a loyal audience to the end. Even the Queen Mother was a fan.
9. Family Affairs (Channel 5, 1997-2005)
Part of the channel’s launch line-up, this soap set in the fictional west London suburb of Charnham was ambitiously aired five times per week. It originally focused on two families, the Harts and the Gateses, but gradually broadened out to take in the whole community, centred around riverside bar The Lock much slicker than the grubby pubs favoured by traditional soaps. Made by Thames TV, it also shared some filming locations with The Bill.
The standout character was callous villain Pete Callan (played by Brookside alumnus David Easter), while a young Idris Elba was a regular at The Lock and Peter Stringfellow popped up in a guest cameo. The soap was praised for its ethnically diverse cast and a higher density of gay characters than any other British soap, while an NSPCC-backed child abuse storyline won awards.
Middling ratings of around 1m led to a string of revamps and wholesale cast changes but Family Affairs miraculously survived for more than 2000 episodes, eventually climaxing with a New Year’s Eve 2005 party. Which took in a murder and a lottery jackpot win, as parties so often do.
8. Pobol y Cwm (BBC Wales/S4C, 1974-present)
The BBC’s longest-running soap isn’t Johnny-come-lately EastEnders but this Welsh language institution, which runs five episodes per week and is consistently the top-rated programme on S4C. Well, apart from rugby.
With its title translating as People Of The Valley, it’s set in the fictional community of Cwmderi, between Carmarthen and Llanelli. Action tends to take place around four main locations: the local nursing home, the comprehensive school, Penrhewl farm and, of course, village pub The Deri Arms.
Gritty issues have included eating disorders, heroin addiction, rape, teen pregnancy and paedophilia. In 2009, the soap won both a Mind Mental Health Award for a post-natal depression storyline and a Stonewall Award for its positive portrayal of homosexual characters. Not the only gay in the village, it seems.
7. Crossroads (ITV, 1964-1988, 2001-2003)
Amy Turtle! Shughie McFee! Adam Chance! Sandy Richardson! Miss Diane! Its fluffed lines and wobbly sets might have inspired Victoria Wood spoof Acorn Antiques but the shonky soap set in a fictional Midlands motel still attracted huge audiences in its mid-Seventies heyday, with ratings as high as 15m, second only to Coronation Street.
The Tony Hatch theme tune remains evocative, while the trademark woolly hats worn by lovable village idiot Benny Hawkins (played by Paul Henry) are still known as “Benny hats” to this day.
Bold storylines for the era included single parents, test tube babies, inter-racial romance, Down Syndrome, false accusations of rape and paraplegic characters. And who can forget the time when motel owner Meg Mortimer (Noele Gordon, Crossroads’ answer to Dynasty’s Joan Collns) was thought to have died in a fire that gutted the motel - but later turned up alive aboard the QE2?
It was kitschily rebooted by Carlton Television in the Noughties, with the motel’s name changed to “King's Oak Country Hotel”, but low ratings meant the revival lasted a mere two years.
6. Hollyoaks (Channel 4, 1995-present)
The brainchild of Brookside creator Phil Redmond, this yoof soap set in the titular Chester suburb concentrates on telegenic studenty types aged 16 to 35 – duly appealing to viewers in that demographic too. It originally focused on just 14 characters but now boasts more than 50 - and against all odds, is still going strong nearly 5000 episodes later.
Plotlines tend to tackle youth issues, including underage sex, abortion and STDs. It has broken ground by featuring numerous transgender characters and the first gay domestic violence storyline in soap. For the show’s recent 20th anniversary, the “Gloved Hand Killer” mystery ran for the best part of a year. The longest-serving cast member is Nick Pickard, who has played tedious Tony Hutchinson - Hollyoaks’ answer to Ian Beale - since the launch episode 22 years ago.
It has spawned numerous saucier late-night spin-offs – called suggestive things like Hollyoaks: Let Loose – while its “Babes” and “Hunks” calendars continue to shift serious numbers each Christmas.
5. Doctors (BBC One, 2000-present)
The lunchtime medi-soap might fly under many radars but ratings nudge towards 4m and it will clock up its 3500th episode this year. Set in the fictional Midlands town of Letherbridge, it follows staff at both Mill Health Centre and a nearby university campus clinic.
The lead character was originally Dr “Mac” McGuire (All Creatures Great & Small star Christopher Timothy), who had a tangled personal life and eventually remarried his first wife Julia (Diane Keen). The show has since evolved into an ensemble piece, populated by GPs, nurses and receptionists.
Memorable plots have included Alzheimer’s, Lyme Disease, post-natal depression, early-onset dementia, domestic violence, gambling addiction, workplace bullying, a paedophile ring and the occasional exploding surgery. Doctors is so beloved by its loyal fanbase, there’s an annual outcry when it gets taken off-air to make room for sporting events like Wimbledon or the Olympics.
4. Emmerdale (ITV, 1972-present)
Oft-overlooked as the “third soap”, the Yorkshire Dales saga has inexorably risen in profile over its 45-year lifespan. Initially a modest daytime affair about the Sugden family and Woolpack pub, it was promoted to primetime in the late 70s or early 80s (dependent on one's ITV region) and began broadcasting year-round in 1988.The following year, “Farm” was dropped from the title.
In 1993, it attracted its highest-ever audience of 18m when a plane crashed into the village, killing four characters. The survivors changed the village’s name from Beckindale to Emmerdale to signal a fresh start.
Since then, increasingly high-stakes storylines, a sexed-up cast and bigger budgets have propelled ratings to 9m on a regular basis, helped by ever-more explosive disasters, shock deaths and the new-found dominance of the Tate, Windsor-Hope and Dingle families. Emmerdale is currently breathing down the neck of “the big two” and - over 8,000 episodes in - is arguably more consistent than either.
2. EastEnders (BBC One, 1985-present)
‘Allo princess. Faaamily innit? The shouty Cockney soap, set in the fictional London borough of Walford, topped the UK ratings eight months after its launch and has remained there or thereabouts ever since.
That early success was largely due to flash, brash publican couple “Dirty” Den and Angie Watts, whose torrid marriage gripped 30m viewers - more than half the nation - at the programme’s peak. Families like the Fowlers, Beales, Butchers, Cottons, Slaters and Mitchells have continued the Watts’ compellingly melodramatic legacy, complete with live episodes, two-handers, spin-offs and whodunits.
Based around a Victorian square with street market, launderette, greasy spoon caff and bustling community pub The Queen Vic, the soap’s diversity (with black, Asian, gay and disabled characters a fixture) made arch rival Coronation Street look quaintly old-fashioned and left it scrambling to keep up. The two have been tussling for awards, tabloid headlines and ratings supremacy for three decades. Now shaaat it and get outta my pub.
1. Coronation Street (ITV, 1960-present)
By ‘eck, chuck. Taking of coronations, here’s what we’ve crowned as the all-time top British soap. Granada’s kitchen sink stalwart is set in the fictional area of Wetherfield, based on inner-city Salford, where the gently addictive action unfolds on a cobbled street of terraced houses, complete with local businesses and the reassuringly familiar Rovers Return pub.
Adored for its warm depiction of a down-to-earth community, “Corrie” (working title: Florizel Street) is built on strong, unforgettable female characters, from Elsie Tanner and Ena Sharples to Hilda Ogden and Bet Lynch - supported by fully fleshed-out families like the Barlows, Baldwins, McDonalds, Websters, Tilsleys and Duckworths.
Upstart rivals like Brookside and EastEnders might have been edgier and grittier. ITV stablemates like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent might rivals its ratings. But nothing is as quintessentially British and beloved as the 57-year-old fixture with that evocative cornet theme tune.
It pips its arch rival ‘Enders by virtue of being the template-setting, genre-defining original - and also thanks to Coronation Street’s unique ability to seamlessly mix camp comedy with high drama. Carry on, Corrie.