Why I gave up writing for the soaps

Matthew Cooper Scriptwriter
Matthew Cooper Scriptwriter

I did a stint on and off writing for Emmerdale, Eastenders, Family Affairs and storylining Hollyoaks. During my time on Emmerdale I was BAFTA shortlisted as best network newcomer and Royal Television Society nominated too.

On Hollyoaks I learned how to storyline for the first time (a rare skill to get – it’s proved useful) and I was part of the small team who won various soap awards and turned around the fortunes on the show.

Then I walked away. It was 2007, and the digital revolution (and disruption) was beginning, and is still happening now.

When I was writing Emmerdale it had around 11 million viewers per episode. It’s lucky to get half of that now, at best, and all the soaps are heading down similar routes. With the only people watching them being:

  • Elderly
  • In hospital, waiting to be turned over by the nurse
  • Maternity leave Mum’s with feeding time coinciding with the shows’ transmission time

The quality has suffered on the soaps too. I haven’t watched any soap opera episodes since 2006, but when I’m flicking through the terrestrial channels now I occasionally catch snippets. And they now look like the Greek/Spanish soap operas you’d occasionally catch on TV while on holiday in the 80s – the ones you’d take the piss out of. Crappy sets, bad actors, melodrama, bad make-up, lazy lowest common denominator stuff.

There are some very talented writers, directors and actors working in soaps. There are also some incredibly untalented writers, directors and actors working in the soaps. I even wrote about bestselling book about writing for the soaps (I’ve since unpublished it – it’s not a route I’d recommend to a young script writer any more).

Writing for the soaps was sold to me as a route to writing original drama (following the career path of someone like Tony Jordan or Jimmy McGovern). Having followed this path I’d say it’s a dead end now. As is terrestrial TV generally. The BBC, ITV and CH4 are dinosaurs against Netflix and Amazon (and even) YouTube.

Digital disruption is going to leave a lot of TV channels bringing out their dead over the next few years… and slowly the drip effect of advertising leaving in droves continues.

What was good about writing the soaps?

  • Seeing your work on screen
  • Working with good actors and directors
  • Working quickly to tight deadlines
  • The money (often a trap)

These are the things I’ve taken from my time on these shows and I got a nice house with the money I made.

So where do the soaps go from here? The answer is ‘nowhere’. The clock is ticking and soap’s time is numbered.  What will replace them?  Nothing but a massive long tail of content, with smaller viewing figures and catering to more niche tastes….bring on the new order…

Matthew Cooper has been a script writer for hire for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer. He’s also a leading UK script consultant. You can find some of his broadcast credits on the IMDb. You can get in touch with Matthew on matcoop23@yahoo.co.uk or hire him on Peopleperhour