Great LezBritain: An Overview of Lesbians in British Soap Opera

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"Great LezBritian" is a fortnightly stroll through the very best of British lesbo-centric entertainment and culture. Plus there will be some jolly good interviews with the top ladies who are waving the flag for gay UK.

In the UK, the soap opera is a staunch institution, as British as a cup of tea. Indeed, a character in soap land calling for the kettle to be put on is regularly the opening gambit to many a lively plot.

The British soap was established when BBC Radio 4 broadcasted The Archers in 1951. Set in an imagined village, many of the storylines were not on the cusp of anything especially thrilling – the threatened closure of the local shop being an example. Over the past few years, the writers of the Archers have looked outside of the village pub window and tried to realign the storylines with the happenings of modern society.  As a result, in 2006, characters Adam Macy and Ian Craig got hitched in soap’s first ever legal civil ceremony.

The right-wing media winced, and accused the BBC of betraying its listeners, and indeed many Brits could be found squirming on their leather upholstered chaise lounges. An insight into a cultural issue that Britain’s Sauvignon drinkers would rather ignore was forced upon them, and this is the biggest strength of the soap opera. They are a hefty vehicle when it comes to driving a reflection of society directly into people’s homes without their consent.

Unlike in the U.S, our flagship soap operas all have primetime viewing slots and are beaten in audience ratings only by Doctor Who and anything Simon Cowell turns his hand to. They are an important way of commenting on British culture, and as such, the Prime Minister will even mention a storyline to imply that he is in tune with the common people. 

Therefore, in Britain, pressure is placed on soap executives to portray characters and develop plots that represent the different factions and the gritty issues of our society. Some of these storylines do knock on the door of absurdity, but you do have to suspend a certain amount of disbelief and view the action through the assumption that soap operas by definition must be dramatic so that they can survive several shows a week for over forty years.

But if soap operas do aim to hold a somewhat hazy mirror up to British society, then why have so few lesbians walked along their fictitious streets, villages and squares?  And why can our soaps take on all encompassing stories of abuse, rape and cancer but seem unable to keep the lesbians that do turn up from packing their bags all too soon or discovering they are not in fact quite as lesbionic as we were led to believe.

So put the kettle on and reminisce as we recap some of the lesbian storylines that did once fill our soapy screens.

EMMERDALE Zoë Tate (Leah Bracknell) 1993 2005

Zoë had been kicking about Emmerdale Farm since 1989 but her character was very much like Tracey on EastEnders – seen but rarely heard. This was until Emmerdale was given a shake and a stir and Zoë the lesbian emerged like a wonderful slap round the face to many a nervous homophobic viewer. 

She told her husband Archie that she loveth the lady kind and became the first lesbian character on a British soap.  As actress Leah Bracknell, who played Zoë Tate remarked, “It wasn’t really until Zoë came out as a lesbian that she got interesting … her character is something of social interest – it’s an issue you can’t neglect.”

Zoë went onto “marry” her long-term girl-friend Emma (Rachel Ambler) in 1996, but as soap land does not exist unless there are tears at bedtime, this relationship broke down when Zoë bedded Emma’s ex, Susie.

Emma (Rachel Ambler) and Zoë (Leah Bracknell)

Zoë had several more dealings which were treated with the same kind of soap opera dusting that all relationships in soaps receive – whatever the gender – including affairs with the married kind, relationships with family friends and a liaison with a truck driver.

Her lowest moment was when she had a one-night stand with local mechanic Scott. But this was explained by her subsequent diagnosis as schizophrenic, and so it is forgivable that only during a moment of mental illness, did her eye waver from the ladies.

Actress Leah Bracknell left Emmerdale in 2005 and many waved a fond farewell to the longest running and possibly the best representation of a lesbian ever to grace British soap land. Emmerdale is still the only soap to allow its lesbian resident to exist without having to wear a sign around her neck that constantly reinforced her sexuality. Sometimes she was just having a drink, or working or visiting her brother. No other British soap opera has managed this since.

Considering their handling of Zoe, it was disappointing that in 2006, Emmerdale offered up such a cliché driven relationship between teenagers Debbie Dingle (Charley Webb) and Jasmine Thomas (Jenna Louise Coleman), which resulted in Jasmine becoming pregnant by Debbie’s evil dad Cain. Even though they did rekindle their relationship later on the show, the handling of the plot was a failed opportunity for Emmerdale to retain its lesbian crown. 

Debbie (Charley Webb) and Jasmine (Jenna Louise Coleman)

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