Return of soap siren set to bring destruction to East End

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EVEN by the standards of EastEnders, Sharon’s ethics are directed by a decidedly wobbly compass.

Where that woman treads there lies trouble (as someone maybe didn’t but probably should have said), so the drums of doom have started to throb with the news that the blonde siren is about to clatter into Albert Square again, no doubt leaving discarded stilletoes and the bodies of sundry weak and wasted men in her wake.

The BBC have confirmed that Sharon (née Stretton, previously Watts, then Mitchell) is to return to the soap opera next month, and will turn up in a wedding outfit. She appears to have ditched her latest man at the altar, and throws herself on the mercy of an ex-beau for help in getting her son back.

From what we know of her track record (including marrying Grant Mitchell then having an affair with his gangster brother Phil, and falling in love with her adoptive brother who then died) is that kind-hearted but often misguided Sharon will stir things up.

She’s coming back to the show next month after seven years away as show bosses prepare to screen seven episodes during one “explosive week”.

She makes her return to Walford as the programme goes back to BBC1 after being relegated to BBC2 from this coming Monday for the duration of the Olympics. As she reappears, all perma-tan, determined curls and attitude, we’re told that Phil Mitchell’s world begins to unravel because his girlfriend Shirley uncovers the truth about who killed her friend Heather.

(Still with me here?)

Executive producer Lorraine Newman said: “An exciting week packed full of dramatic twists and turns lies ahead for the audience and the justice they have been desperately waiting for has finally arrived.”

So it sounds like the Beeb fears the audience will drop off badly due to real life distractions happening elsewhere in the East End, and high-octane drama – meaning even more screeching than usual – is the way to claw back viewers once the show’s presence is re-established on its usual channel.

Hey-ho, another improbable storyline steams towards viewers who are probably still wrung out from the harrowing Baby Swap Saga. And if EastEnders gains a spike in viewing figures beyond what it would expect in the doldrums of August, who knows how its northern competitors in Coronation Street will respond? Another tram crashing over the viaduct? Don’t the viewers deserve a summer holiday from rather than a ratcheting up of the blood, fire and brimstone? We all know that popular drama is about everybody blurting out whatever’s in their head, no-one ever keeping a secret and the confrontations that ensue... but how and why 
did we stoical Brits become so hooked on the visible (and alarmingly audible) excess of emotion that the more epic storylines provoke?

Two academics at Huddersfield University are willing to have a stab at the question. Psychologist Viv Burr believes the reason we engage so wholeheartedly in a soap’s more dramatic storylines is that they present us with points of view and arguments that give us food for thought and make us examine our opinions and beliefs.

“Television can give what’s called ‘transformative education’”. says Dr Burr. She cites research done among regular viewers of the American drama Buffy The Vampire Slayer. “People clearly felt the storylines challenged their way of thinking and made them look again at how they judged certain situations. I wouldn’t be surprised if producers of these TV dramas feel they have a role in making us think more about our own feelings and beliefs.

“It feels to me that we’ve seen a greater and greater demand for these highly dramatic storylines, and they help to feed viewers’ constant need for stimulation. It’s the same with shows like The X Factor: we not only see the training and the performance but also the tragic human stories behind the competitors. I think it’s a cultural infection.”

Bruce Hanlin, a senior lecturer in journalism and media, has a great personal interest in popular TV drama. He believes the primary function of the periodic over-hyped and super-dramatic storyline is simply about chasing an ever more fragmented audience. However, a lot of that narrative is not so far-fetched these days.

“The plots of soaps often follow the more lurid headlines in gossip magazines and newspapers about the lives of celebrities, and dramatic plots are part of us all living in a more hyperactive world, where we are constantly plugged into dramatic stories in the lives of others. Even The Archers is infected by it.”