Sally Wainwright: Volume of soap episodes has seen plots become unbelievable

Writer Sally Wainwright spoke at the Edinburgh TV Festival (Isabel Infantes/PA)
Writer Sally Wainwright spoke at the Edinburgh TV Festival (Isabel Infantes/PA) Writer Sally Wainwright spoke at the Edinburgh TV Festival (Isabel Infantes/PA)

Happy Valley creator Sally Wainwright has said she thinks soap operas have become “more crazy and unbelievable” due to the vast volume of episodes which they are now outputting.

Reflecting on the current health of the genre at the Edinburgh TV Festival, the former Coronation Street writer admitted she grew up on soap operas but that she “got out of the habit” of watching them.

She said: “I think one of the reasons I got a bit bored with the soaps was it felt like all the stories got a bit samey, a bit similar, they all involve romance, well certainly that happened in Coronation Street.

“I think (they became) obsessed with getting younger viewers and so making stories about younger people, and ignoring the fact that the key audience was kind of older than that.”

Wainwright, who joined Coronation Street in 1994 and left the ITV show in 1999, added that she thinks there is “so much turnover of plot, that it inevitably becomes melodramatic”.

Coronation Street was originally broadcast twice weekly and began airing six times a week in 2017. ITV’s Emmerdale also tends to air every weeknight while BBC’s EastEnders broadcasts around four episodes a week.

The writer added: “Coronation Street went out twice a week in, kind of, in its heyday, I think, in the 1980s and the early 90s.

“It was such a classy show. It was proper kitchen sink drama and it was about the real things that happen to real people.

“And I think when it goes out at that volume, like five times a week, inevitably the ravages of story, it just becomes more heightened and more crazy and more unbelievable.

“I don’t know if that’s been a problem that it’s become less grounded.”

Wainwright’s original drama series At Home With The Braithwaites helped her rise to prominence and she went on to create shows including 2009’s Unforgiven, Last Tango In Halifax, Gentleman Jack and hit BBC series Happy Valley, starring Sarah Lancashire.

Reflecting on her time in the Coronation Street writing room, she admitted that she did not initially have the “confidence” to contribute to storylines as she was “terrified of getting laughed at”.

She recalled being “in awe” of everyone who worked in the writers’ room when she joined, which she said had around two women within its 15-writer team at the time.

Wainwright also recalled that it was a time when writers would go to the pub at lunch, which she said would mean the afternoon could be a “misogynistic, racist bloodbath”.

She added: “It wasn’t a nasty atmosphere, I’d heard all soaps were at the time, but it was very lively and often very funny but there was an edge to it.”

Happy Valley
Happy Valley Sarah Lancashire as Sergeant Catherine Cawood in the hit BBC show Happy Valley (Matt Squire/PA)

The writer, 60, revealed that she had worried about the prospect of retirement but found she enjoyed taking six months off last year after finishing Happy Valley more than she thought she would.

However, she said she has “more ideas” than she ever has including wanting to do a project on pioneering English pilot Amy Johnson, who was the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia.

“I can’t get anybody to be interested in Amy Johnson and I don’t know why. I think she’s one of the most fascinating people and I think her story is extraordinary.”

It was announced on Thursday at the festival that the BBC has commissioned another drama series from Wainwright will see a “celebration of women of a certain age” who form a punk rock band called Hot Flush.

The final day of the annual festival will also see award-winning screenwriter Jesse Armstrong, who is behind hit shows including Succession, Peep Show, Fresh Meat and The Thick Of It, in conversation with journalist Marina Hyde to talk about his career and the state of the industry.

BBC Comedy Festival 2023
BBC Comedy Festival 2023 Screenwriter Jesse Armstrong (Patrick Olner/BBC/PA)

Actress, writer and comedian Meera Syal will end the festival by delivering the Alternative MacTaggart speech.

She rose to fame as one of the creators and stars of BBC sketch comedy show Goodness Gracious Me and is also well known for her role in The Kumars At No. 42.

She will speak to the festival’s executive chair, Fatima Salaria, about the highs and the lows of being a British Asian woman in the film and TV industry and “reflecting on the importance of representation and giving voice to unheard stories”.