Emmerdale – 27 June. Star rating: 1 star.
Eastenders – 8 July 2004. Star rating: 5 stars.
Strange things are happening in soaps, writes Sally Gillen. Social workers, for so long demonised in popular drama as merciless child snatchers and snoopers, are now being portrayed in an altogether different light. Over two weeks there were three appearances (a record?) by social workers, two of which were in a single episode of Emmerdale. But celebration may be premature.
Gone was the stereotype of old, but in its place was an equally dangerous one: the grinning do-gooder. An assessment of a schizophrenic single mother-of-two’s suitability to adopt was swift (completed in two questions) and superficial. The assessor seemed in serious danger of jaw ache, so wide was the fixed grin she adopted in tandem with a patronising head-cocked-to-one-side pose. A hospital social worker featured later wasn’t much better. She too seemed to rely alone on her grinning skills to pacify a cantankerous old lady.
Broadbrush characterisations and to some extent stereotypes are inevitable in soaps. But for social workers there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. In EastEnders, a social worker assessing an older African-Caribbean couple as foster carers, was not only blessed with an ability to communicate by more than the power of the grin but he possessed a modicum of intelligence and that most rare of qualities in the soap social worker – empathy.