Do soaps effectively shine a light on the many faces of adoption in the UK?

On soaps, there’s no such thing as a happy ever after.

Fairytale weddings lead to fractious marriages. Joyful celebrations often end in disaster. And when babies are born, it’s merely the start of the story, because what inevitably follows are the tumultuous childhoods. At the moment, on both Emmerdale and EastEnders, we’re exploring the next chapter in the lives of two soap kids through the prism of adoption – and, boy oh boy, have we seen some drama.

Over on Emmerdale, Charity recently faced down an attempt to stymie her adoption of young Johnny, when the boy’s biological dad Kirin resurfaced with some cash demands. And in EastEnders, Denise is currently reeling from the shock of discovering that the adoptive parents of her son Raymond (who she gave up back in 2017) have been killed in a car crash.

So far, so soapy. Blackmail, an errant ne’er-do-well dad, a long-lost kid returning out of the blue – this kind of thing has been the bread and butter of our continuing dramas for as long as anyone can remember.

But what these plotlines also prove is that, when it comes to soap characters, there’s no such thing as a full stop. And that adoption, rather than being a perfect remedy, can actually be a messy business.

The ongoing structure of these shows means that we get a beginning but never an ending. The drama we witness exists in one, long continuous middle – and it’s here that the melodramatic stuff of soap life happens.

We instinctively knew that when Denise said goodbye to her baby three years ago that one day he’d be back. In much the same way as we can comfortably predict that Johnny will face plenty of moral dilemmas in the future due to the wayward Charity being his co-parent.

And OK, soaps can justifiably criticised for being sensationalist, baroque and crammed full with the kind of cliffhangers that are mercifully rare in reality.

But they can be pertinent too, and in the case of adoption, able to demonstrate that the process isn’t necessarily a magical solution that erases past scars and offers a bright future. Adoptive parents in the Street or the Square may appear to be offering a welcome home to children who’ve had a damaging or tragic start to life, but how much nurturing do they actually provide?

For instance, have you noticed how the majority of adopted soap kids have wise heads on relatively young shoulders? It’s fortunate that they do, as being skilled in the art of diplomacy seems to be a key requirement, what with life behind closed doors often being a battleground.

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Let’s consider the evidence. No sooner had Summer on Coronation Street opted for Billy and Todd to be her legal guardians than she was having to navigate the fallout following their breakup. It’s the same story we’ve seen replayed countless times, where so-called role models turn out to be anything but.

Tracy Barlow was adopted by Ken in 1986, only for his marriage to Deirdre to then implode four years later. And on EastEnders, Sharon was forever caught in the middle as landlady mum Angie hit the bottle and dad Den hit on her best mate from school.

Yet despite these undeniable tensions, there’s often a sense that the adoptive family is where a character ought to be. Stray too far beyond the boundaries of the neighbourhood and you’re asking for trouble. Just look again at Sharon, who tracked down her mother Carol Hanley in 1990, only to be met with disinterest.

And worse was to come when Sharon later crossed paths with her father Gavin Sullivan. So vicious was gangster Gav that he made Den Watts look like a UN peacekeeper. The moral to this story? Keep within your adopted soap clan. They may be love cheats and alcoholics, but at least they’re not psychopaths who want to abduct and kill you.

The danger, of course, doesn’t only come from birth parents with a grudge – drama also inevitably ensues when those who were given up for adoption as babies make a comeback to the community.

Denise on EastEnders may be finding that the past has returned to haunt her thanks to Raymond’s reappearance, but she certainly isn’t the first to experience this kind of shock to their system. Long-time viewers will recall that the set-up to this storyline (adoptive parents are killed in a car crash) is strikingly similar to what Sonia experienced when a young Rebecca came back into her life.

But it’s when kids return under their own steam in search of biological parents that things really go badly wrong.

There was poor Danielle Jones, who was reunited in Walford with mother Ronnie Mitchell, only to end up bouncing off Janine Butcher’s car bonnet. And troubled Donna Ludlow who, after being rejected by mum Kathy Beale, overdosed on heroin and choked on her own vomit.

Then there are the long-lost soap offspring who are soon revealed to be steeped in deceit. At the more benign end of the scale we have Corrie’s Jude Appleton, who was adopted after being abandoned by his traumatised mum Mary. He re-entered her life claiming to be a marine biologist – in reality, he was an assistant in an aquarium’s gift shop.

More noxious are those who happen to find their way to the village of Hollyoaks: think murderous Nico Blake (who smothered her granddad Patrick to death) and Niall Rafferty (who sought lethal revenge on the McQueens).

Thankfully, not all parent-child reunions go so gruesomely awry. Debbie’s Emmerdale debut in 2002 found her being fostered by Paddy and Emily Kirk after her adoptive mother fell ill.

But in a credulity-busting twist, it soon transpired that Debbie’s real mum Charity and dad Cain were living in the same village. You’d have thought this would be a recipe for disaster, but Debs, Cain and Charity have rubbed along quite well over the years, at least by the standards of the Dingles, where dysfunctionality is very much the watchword.

Granted you have to overlook the poor example Charity sets with her scams, Cain’s tendency to bundle his enemies into car boots and the fact that Debbie once got shacked up with a serial killer, but somehow the three of them seem to make it work.

And that’s the thing about successful family units on soaps: they really do come in all forms.

In fact, unofficial “adoptions” happen all the time. Just consider the sheer number of characters who start out as lodgers and soon become beloved members of the household. Eddie Yeats with the Ogdens, Curly Watts with the Duckworths, Arthur “Fatboy” Chubb with Dot Branning.

There are also those who are adopted by the neighbourhood at large, something that has become a particular feature on Corrie, where the likes of Roy Cropper, Hayley Patterson and Sean Tully all found their place in the pecking order.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised by this.

Despite the hallmark of modern soap being their bust-ups, explosions, extra-marital affairs and murders, what they all still secretly strive towards are those family ideals of love, loyalty and neighbourliness. Don’t believe me? Well, all you need to do is witness the way a community rallies when faced with a tram crash or bus smash. Or how Phil Mitchell prioritises the bonds of “faaaamily” above all else.

Despite his Neanderthal approach to parenting, Phil is actually an interesting case when it comes to considering how attitudes towards adoption have changed down the decades.

Thirty years ago, when Ken on Corrie officially made Tracy a member of the Barlow family, that was kind of thought to be the end of the story. Rather than exploring how Tracy felt, she was instead sent upstairs to her bedroom for a couple of years to play cassette tapes.

But when Phil recently decided to adopt Sharon’s son Dennis, he made the error of trying to graft his sensibilities onto a young boy with a growing personality of his own.

Adoption is now recognised to be a more nuanced process than it once was, with children no longer viewed as a blank canvas. Phil’s rather warped attempts to mould Dennis into a mini Mitchell ended up backfiring in the most tragic way imaginable, with the youngster losing his life. Perhaps if Phil had taken Dennis’s own feelings into account more often, events might not have turned out the way they did?

There will be some, of course, who feel I’m judging Phil too harshly. Others, that I’m not being judgmental enough. But that’s the thing about soaps – they invite our opinions, our speculation, our gossip.

And, more importantly, no matter how wildly dramatic these storylines might feel at times, when done well, they also give an insight into a world that viewers might not have any experience of otherwise.

We are allowed access to the fears and secrets of the characters, so we end up willing them on, while scrutinising their triumphs and failings to a greater degree than we perhaps would with members of our own extended families.

Watching soap is, in a way, like parenting: we invest in these people, recognise their faults, but love them still.  In short, we have adopted all of them.

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Adoption Month

Adoption Month is a month-long series covering all aspects of adoption.

For the next four weeks, which includes National Adoption Week from October 14-19, we will be speaking to people who have been affected by adoption in some way, from those who chose to welcome someone else’s child into their family to others who were that child.

We’ll also be talking to experts in the field and answering as many questions as possible associated with adoption, as well as offering invaluable advice along the way.

If you have a story to tell or want to share any of your own advice please do get in touch at [email protected]

  • Why we’re talking about adoption this month
  • How to adopt a child – from how long it takes to how you can prepare
  • The most Googled questions on adoption, answered

Visit our Adoption Month page for more.

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