Ah, the great British soap.

The guilty pleasure of millions with its peaks and troughs of dramatic licence. Half an hour of escapism per night (at least) packaged into bite sized chunks with the option of a weekend repeat fix if one so desires. At some point we’ve all surrendered ourselves to these fictional scenarios that allegedly offer reflections of the lives that most of us lead.

At their best they can offer us a televisual talking point for the workplace the following day, at their very worst they can be the equivalent of watching paint the colour of a battleships dry. Yet to some degree the viewing public still persevere with these portals into the lives of everyday folk…

Or at least that’s what it used to be like. The old fashioned community snapshot seems to be nothing short of a distant memory. These days the cr?me de la cr?me of soaps jostle tooth and nail for the ratings. While soaps like Brookside have fallen by the wayside and the likes of Neighbours and Home & Away tend to be the froth above the coffee, it has been left to the big three to administer our unreality dose in regulated measures.

Although the main contenders essentially offer the same dish, they all bring it to the table with a dash of their own seasoning. Sure each and every one of them carries the obligatory birth, school, work, and death ethos throughout albeit on occasion with liberal doses of misfortune that if they occured in real life would doubtless crush the spirit of the average individual.

However in the 21st Century the main shows have their own distinct approach, all it takes is some time in their company and you’ll see what I mean. For starters let’s head north to Emmerdale. Once little more than a rural sheep fest set on a fictional farm, filled with rugged types and chunky knit sweaters. Nowadays its core characters have a slightly downmarket air of Dynasty about them. A family of land barons with a viper-esque morals and a willingness to stitch up anyone that gets in their way. Emmerdale’s cast of characters are the ones which exercise their cruel machinations in a dare I say somewhat cerebral fashion (e.g. they don’t hit each other quite as often as in other soaps). It’s a small village, so things tend to happen pretty quickly with plot lines running faster than in many other shows. Then of course there is the staple diet of the soap’s sexual merry go round. After all where else could you get to see Patsy Kensit work her way through the male populace of small Yorkshire village in under a year.

Of course there remains certain stereotypes that need to be adhered to in order to keep some semblance of the shows roots. The Dingles are the best example of this and at first glance they might come across as little more than a family of hard drinking simpletons, however once you dig beneath the flat caps and ferrets there are occasions when the family are given more to do than be the comedic value.

Of course for many the jewel in the soap crown is Coronation Street with its quaint cobbled streets and its longing gazes at the Britain of yesteryear. Of course concessions to the present day have been made but Corrie at heart maintains an environment of small time issues and old school characters. The soap that gave us the matronly matriarch and corner shop gossip laced with an acerbic northern wit is still capable of offering such caustic treats. Alas these days the show does seem to be carrying a surfeit of dead wood (Betty’s hot pot must be good, the old dear is practically a life support candidate) although it seems that some of the old guard are being whittled down in the coming year. Johnny Briggs is retiring Mike Baldwin courtesy of a painfully wooden Alzheimer’s storyline, and if rumours are to be believed then Jon Savident will be hanging up Fred Elliot’s butcher’s smock over the next twelve months. Whatever criticisms I lay at the door of this soap it has to be said that its strengths have always been in terms of its characters. Jack and Vera might be past their peak but suitable replacements have been found in the likes of Bradley Walsh and Debra Stephenson. Now their marriage is all over bar the shouting we get to so see them coming out of their respective corners with one liners swinging.

Of course once you head to London such pleasantries are in shorter supply. If the northern soaps have a tendency to lampoon the real ale and whippets stereotype then Eastenders can equally be found as guilty with its southern counterpart. I think its safe to say that characters from the the previously mentioned shows wouldn’t last two episodes in Walford. Often accused of being the miserable relative in the soap family, Eastenders undoubtedly paints from a gloomier canvas than the other shows. This viewpoint however does allow the show a greater sense of realism that can sometimes be lacking elsewhere. In its twenty year history it has covered issues such as teenage pregnancy, homosexuality and AIDS and has garnered praise for its respectful treatment of such storylines.

In more recent times the soap has took on a an edgier focus with the unassuming locale becoming a hotbed of guns, gangs and cellar bound burials. In fact there are times when you almost wonder if the Grim Reaper might be as well taking up permanent residence such is the nature of the body count. Its often a little over the top but the show has a capacity to handle itself in such situations. The beauty of Eastenders lies in the fact that it has an arsenal of big (ish) names to draw from and when a known commodity returns to the show (a la Mitchells, anyone?) then you can more or less guarantee something good is about to kick off and this is one factor few soaps can manage.

The modern soap has undoubtedly moved on, in order to maintain viewing figures they have had to change with the times (Emmerdale was forced to wipe out most of its village to stay in contention). At some point they all push for high octane storylines in a bid to draw your attention. Yet in many respects they all suffer the same failings. There are often lulls in the writing that can lead to some agonisingly quiet periods (Eastenders suffered a decidedly dry spell last year which saw viewers leave in droves before finding its form) before something happens to pique audience interest.

There are also external forces that affect the performance of a soap as well, in this day and age we no longer see the much lauded cliffhanger in the same way as we used to. The presence of magazines and tabloids that serve to spill the beans on upcoming storylines weeks in advance only serves to take the edge of any potential suspense that a show might generate. Add to this the fact that keeping up with the plethora of episodes thrown out. The casual viewer is faced with spending a fair amount of their viewing time keeping up with their favourite soaps. Saying that though the viewing figures do speak for themselves. A total of twenty six million people watched the big three soaps on Christmas day. So whatever the faults with the programs and whether as a nation we are overdosing on the venerable soap tradition, it would seem these programs are definitely here to stay.