How the UK soaps are raising awareness of debt issues!
31st August 2017
Soap operas aren’t exactly renowned for their realistic portrayals of life, but now and again, they can act as important platforms for opening up conversations about some really pertinent real-world issues.
The Impact of Debt
Earlier this year, the soap EastEnders was praised for its depiction of a character struggling with debt. On the show, Lee Carter spirals further and further into debt after borrowing money to fund a lavish wedding ceremony. The character also suffers from depression, which is aggravated by his financial troubles and causes him to contemplate suicide.
One debt advisor, Jane Clark, praised this storyline for highlighting ‘the impact that debt can have on a person, not just on their finances but on their physical and mental health as well’.
The connections made between debt and mental health in this plot are the main reason it has been praised for its truthful depiction of problem debt. The Royal College of Psychiatrists found, in 2010, that half of UK adults living with problem debt also had a mental health issue, whilst in a survey carried out by Creditfix, 86% of people seeking help with their debts reported a noticeable impact on their mental health.
Despite its prevalence, problem debt is still a taboo topic, so much that mainstream depictions could encourage more open discussion – especially a depiction which delves into the diverse ways that struggling with debt can impact upon a person’s life.
A Relevant Plot
Coronation Street has also tackled the issue of debt in recent years, as mechanic Tyrone racks up debts trying to give his daughter, Hope, who suffers from cancer, the best possible Christmas. Further on in the storyline, demanding letters from creditors finally drive him to steal money from the garage where he works.
The Irish charity, Cliona’s Foundation, which helps families with the costs of childcare, suggested that this plot was, sadly, a reality for many families. The fact that Tyrone fell into debt trying to take care of his child, whilst a little too close to reality for some viewers, could also help to show that, in the right circumstances, anyone could fall into debt.
Plots such as these are relatable for many of the millions of viewers who tune into soaps on a regular basis, as wages fail to keep pace with rising living costs, driving UK households further into debt.
Earlier this year, Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), described the current levels of unsecured debt faced by UK households as edging into a ‘danger zone’. Having such a relevant issue portrayed on soap operas could encourage people to seek help, as well as raising awareness of the impact which debt can have on a person’s life.
Iain Macleod, the producer of Hollyoaks, agrees that soaps have a ‘responsibility’ to tackle such hard-hitting subjects. Despite the show’s early evening slot, Macleod insists that depicting diverse challenging issues is important for raising awareness and making those who might be struggling feel less alone. The show has also included storylines which involve characters falling into debt by gambling.
The depiction of debt problems in UK soaps is not always met with the enthusiastic reception which EastEnders received earlier this year. In 2014, Coronation Street was criticised by fans for the depiction of a bailiff which was deemed by many as ‘scaremongering’.
The episode showed a bailiff entering a home, despite the fact that only a 12-year-old child was inside, and proceeding to seize the family’s possessions – actions which would be illegal in the real world. On one hand, soap operas are known for their melodramatic, and non-realistic, storylines – this drama is part of what hooks viewers.
However, since the genre frequently portrays issues which are encountered by some of its regular viewers, some believe that soap operas have a responsibility to depict them as realistically as possible, to avoid misinforming its viewership.
Such a frightening depiction of bailiffs could also lead to people who are struggling with debt being too afraid to admit that they have a problem, for fear of the consequences for themselves and loved ones.
Repossession itself is also a last resort for recovering debts, and the plot bypassed the fact that help is out there for people with debt problems – such as Individual Voluntary Arrangements (IVAs) and Protected Trust Deeds. Even in cases where bailiffs are involved, a depiction such as this suggests that people have fewer rights when it comes to bailiff visits than they actually do.
If a soap opera chose to accurately depict these rights, it would be a great way to increase public knowledge, and, maybe, an actual visit from the bailiffs would be less terrifying.
Overall, soap operas in the UK are to be commended for raising awareness of the issues surrounding problem debt with their portrayals. Seeing familiar characters struggle with debt can encourage people to seek the help they need, as well as helping them to better understand the impact which debt can have on lives.
However, as with any sensitive issue, it needs to be approached carefully, and soap opera producers must be careful to present plots to their viewers which are accurate enough to be helpful.