The UK’s top two TV soaps both have positive storylines featuring evangelical Christians. What’s going on? Justin Thacker, who is advising Coronation Street and EastEnders producers, explains…
“Cool, sexy and very popular.” This isn’t the description of an evangelical Christian you would normally expect to see in the Daily Star, but when soap opera characters turn to God, they can get the kind of press most Christian leaders can only dream of.
Brooke Vincent, who plays 16-year-old Sophie Webster in Coronation Street, uses these words to describe her on-screen boyfriend, committed Christian Ben Richardson, in an interview with the Star.
The soap’s storyline sees Sophie become attracted to Christianity after meeting Ben, a good-looking school swimming team captain who takes her to his church youth club.
Her parents nearly choke on their pasta when she tells them she’s going to follow Jesus. “Why, where’s he going?” quips her dad Kevin, while mum Sally’s eyes get progressively wider as she hears her younger daughter has taken a vow of chastity and started wearing a purity locket.
“Jesus has changed my life and he makes me realise what’s important in life,” says Sophie. And once her parents get over their fear that their daughter has joined a cult, they begin to feel relieved that she isn’t going down the same road as her promiscuous sister Rosie.
It’s not just Corrie telling viewers that you can be young, attractive, sane and a Christian. Pentecostal pastor Lucas Johnson arrived in EastEnders last April with smiles and social action a-plenty, showing Albert Square that being a Christian does not automatically mean a purple rinse and inside-out knowledge of the King James Version.
Lucas’s story is one of redemption through Christ, as he tells his daughter Chelsea: “I used to be bad at one time, very bad. And it’s taken me a long time to get out from all that.”
Sex is also off the agenda for born-again Lucas, much to the horror of his fiancée Denise. As this is the gritty East End, however, neither his chastity nor his work in the local soup kitchen will keep Lucas from the clutches of his bad past – particularly the drug addictwife who he still hasn’t quite managed to divorce despite his new engagement.
Of course, we can’t expect that he, Sophie and Ben will be perfection personified when it comes to loving Jesus. Soaps are about drama after all, and the Christians they are portraying can hardly be expected to sin any less than real ones.
Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society – unsurprisingly peeved that someone under the age of 75 is converting to Christianity on screen – has predicted of Sophie: “I suspect the writers are setting her up for a spectacular fall, which won’t be long in coming and will be in keeping with what is known about these teenage chastity outfits.”
But even if he’s right, these new characters are still a welcome change from the usual soap opera Christian fodder: cult leaders, gullible vicars with no personality or elderly women who spend most of their lives lamenting the heathen youth of today.
Before Lucas, the most recent attempt at representing a Christian in a British soap was Hollyoaks’ Catholic priest Father Kieron Hobbs, who was kind and compassionate, but quit the clergy after deciding that his need for a boyfriend was more important than his faith.
And there have even been fake Christians, like Dot Cotton’s son Nick, whose “conversion” to Christianity was simply another means of getting into his God-fearing mother’s wallet.
In contrast, Lucas is charismatic, thoughtful and doing a lot of good for the poor of Walford, while Sophie and Ben’s clean living is dramatically different from the bed-hopping antics of the rest of the characters in Corrie.
As actress Brooke says in that Star interview: “The idea is that we can show people it’s ok to believe in something and you don’t have to follow the crowd. “I like that it shows there is more to a relationship than sex and these two don’t feel under pressure from their mates to do something they are not ready for.”
The popularity of that storyline in the press – it has also received coverage in the Sun and numerous other print and on-line publications – is an indication of the power a soap opera has to grab the popular imagination.
So far this year, Coronation Street has often pulled in audiences of more than ten million per episode, with EastEnders regularly attracting more than nine million viewers.
Former BBC head of religious affairs David Winter has been quoted as saying: “If you really want to influence the media, write soaps.” And another seasoned radio producer told the Evangelical Alliance that the Coronation Street storyline has probably achieved more towards a good press for Christianity than all her years of religious broadcasting.
These soaps don’t just have substantially bigger audiences than British religious programmes, but they also reach more people per episode than the 7.3 million who attend church every week.
And the EastEnders advertising slogan, “Everyone’s talking about it,” isn’t an underestimation of the show’s impact. When Mark Fowler, one of the soap’s most long-running characters, was diagnosed as HIV positive in January 1991, Britain saw a new peak in requests for testing of the disease.
Alma Halliwell’s death of cervical cancer in Coronation Street also saw an increase in the number of women going for smear tests in 2000, while more recently the birth in EastEnders of baby Janet who had Down’s syndrome, was hailed by the Down’s Syndrome Association as an opportunity to raise awareness of the condition.
So this is an amazing opportunity for us to discuss our faith with the millions of people who have little or no contact with Christianity, but will watch their favourite soap several times a week and are often influenced by what they see.
Last year, Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC, in defending the relative lack of religion on the BBC said this: “We want to go on exploring ways of using non-factual genres – drama, comedy – as well as live events and our growing creativity on the web and multimedia to bring the topics of faith and belief to life for audiences.” It’s possible that what is now happening in EastEnders is what Mr Thompson had in mind.
And I’m sure it is just a coincidence, but it was just a few months before he said this that the BBC drama department contacted us at the Evangelical Alliance for advice on the upcoming storyline. Coronation Street followed a few months later, and so for about the last six months I’ve been advising both of these major soaps on what an evangelical Christian actually believes and how they might behave.
Throughout this time both the BBC and ITV researchers have been extremely open to learn about Christianity, freely acknowledging where they have gaps in their knowledge. As one of the researchers put it, “we just don’t have any evangelicals in the department, so we’ve got a lot to learn”. All credit to them then that they’re willing to do just this, and one of them even went with a colleague of mine to church so they could see for themselves what an evangelical service is actually like.
Of course having said this, I have absolutely no control over the storylines that we discuss or the ones that will emerge. It is entirely possible that these characters will shortly crash and burn, and the producers do not have to act on my advice.
Nevertheless, it remains the case that for the time being these characters make it possible for us to talk about God in a context that has previously been less than useful, and for that we can be grateful.
Justin Thacker is head of theology at the Evangelical Alliance.