Is a gay kiss just a kiss?

Observations on soaps

On Thursday 11 March, the residents of Ambridge were due to hear their first gay kiss on The Archers - or more likely, slurpy sound effects inserted into a conversation between the characters Adam Macy and Ian Craig. Producers said it was "a kiss just like any other", and they wanted to avoid anything too "dramatic or sensational".

But is this just another instance of The Archers "clambering on the bandwagon of cheap populism", as the Tory MP Julian Brazier claimed four years ago when Jolene Rogers and Sid Perks showered together? The simple defence is that everyone else has done it. Coronation Street only got round to its first gay kiss last year, but Emmerdale gave us the first lesbian wedding nine years ago. EastEnders had a gay kiss as long ago as 1989. It provoked outrage from Mary Whitehouse and questions in the Commons.

Producers always say they're doing it to reflect modern society and educate people about vital issues. What utter guff. True, the use of soaps for education survives both here and abroad. David Blunkett launched the Year of Reading on the set of EastEnders. Brookside (which offered us sisterly incest in 1996) gave us the heartwarming tale of Niamh Musgrove admitting to reading difficulties.

In 2002, the UN roped in producers from EastEnders to work on Heart and Soul in Kenya, a soap dealing with issues such as HIV/Aids and government corruption. In the 1990s, the EastEnders team helped produce a soap in Kazakhstan (called Crossroads, oddly enough) with £1m government funding. Its mission was to explain issues such as free markets, ethnic tolerance and political reform.

The Kazakh Crossroads lasted five years and 465 episodes. But when the Brits left, the locals dissolved the Kazakh/Russian intermarriages. Although the government and development agencies could still rent space for their messages, the tone shifted to the Kazakhs' preferred soaps - trashy US imports such as Sunset Beach.

The same trajectory can be seen in British soaps. When it started in the 1950s, The Archers was overtly educational, being designed to persuade farmers to improve their techniques - big producers, such as the Archers and Aldridges, were portrayed as better than the inefficient Walter Gabriel. But by 1972, the BBC had to admit that it was entertainment, not education. Brookside veered between education (fuel prices, Ofsted reports, a character's deafness) and excess (bodies under the patio, lipstick lesbianism, gas explosions). Emmerdale Farm raunched things up by dropping the farm and most of the agricultural talk. When that didn't work, they dropped a plane on the village.

But soaps are still happiest when they can combine education with ratings. In EastEnders, Martin Fowler (whose brother Mark is HIV positive) ran over Jamie Mitchell. Not only was Fowler an unlicensed driver, he was sending a text on his mobile phone. A double whammy: public education, and a neat ratings spike.