Robert Sugden and the Curse of the Soap Opera Baby

Robron in happier times. Robert (Ryan Hawley) and Aaron (Danny Miller) at their wedding. |Image: ITV

Robron in happier times. Robert (Ryan Hawley) and Aaron (Danny Miller) at their wedding. |Image: ITV

I was going to keep my mouth shut. I was going to let this pass. But, I couldn’t. And I think it’s because I continually hold ITV’s fabulous Emmerdale to a higher standard.

Maybe that “hold” should be written in the past tense.

I’ve watched a lot of soaps my day, both in the U.S. and the U.K. and, let me tell you, British soaps are leagues and leagues better than their American counterparts, but when Rebecca White recently announced she was pregnant with Robert Sugden’s child, it was as if the Emmerdale writers were suddenly possessed by the zombified spirits of those sloppy, ineffectual scribes of the lame American daytime serial Days of our Lives. And my head nearly exploded.

I was disappointed. Then I got angry.

I got angry because Emmerdale is better than this.


Always the most interesting village in Yorkshire. What must the denizens of Demdyke and Robblesfield feel like?

Emmerdale, in recent years, has given us amazing drama when when Jackson Walsh was paralyzed, when Zak Dingle beat Cain nearly to death, when Jai Sharma locked Charity Dingle in a shipping container, when Val Pollard contracted HIV, when the helicopter crashed into the village hall, and, most recently, the exquisite story of Ashley Thomas’s decline into dementia. And that short list doesn’t even include the mother of all edge-of-your-seat storylines: Cameron Murray’s brilliantly psychotic reign of terror.

So, no, Emmerdale writers, just because you’ve assayed some marvelous stories in the past, doesn’t mean you get a pass on this ridiculous “the baby is Robert’s” tale.

First and foremost, it’s just simply lazy storytelling. Second, you don’t get to deliberately mess with, perhaps inarguably, the most popular couple on your show because you can’t think of something less hackneyed to do with them. Third, you don’t get to mess with your own audience’s expectations without feeling the repercussions. Fourth, if you want said audience to keep tuning in, stop monkeying around with the canvas because you feel like you can.

Bottom line: this comes down to privilege. In this case, it’s straight privilege. When serial writers hit on a male couple that works with the audience, they don’t know how to continue to make them dramatic – or at least interesting – without messing with their relationship. And the quickest, easiest, most ludicrous way to do that is to introduce a baby into the dynamic.

Think I’m kidding?


And baby makes three. Classic gay men with baby trope. Syed (Marc Elliott) and Christian (John Partridge) and sprog in EastEnders. |Image: Radio Times

Ste and (every boyfriend or husband)[Hollyoaks]: Ste has kids that are always cocking things up.

Craig and John-Paul [Hollyoaks]: An off-screen row about having a baby drove “McDean” apart and John-Paul returned to Chester to discover he was a father.

Christian and Syed [EastEnders]: Syed had a baby with an ex-wife.

Will and Sonny [Days of our Lives]: One of the most egregious uses of the baby cliché with a gay couple in the U.S.

Kyle and Oliver [One Live to Live]: Oliver has drunken sex with a woman who gets pregnant, then she dies and he fights for custody. Seriously?


Oliver Fish (Scott Evans) and boyfriend Kyle Lewis (Brett Claywell) and Oliver’s child, Sierra Rose, on the American drama One Life to Live.

There are others, but you get the idea.

What I find particularly galling about the Robert/Rebecca tryst is that it is so typical of people who do not know how to write for a bi character. “He’s bi, he’ll sleep with anyone. I think we should get Bex up the duff!” No! Stop it! Stop it right now!

Instead of exposing your audience to realistic bisexual people and interactions, you’re just prolonging and engraining a terrible myth about bisexual folks: that they’re all promiscuous and incapable of forming a lasting relationship with anyone of any gender.

And you know this, Emmerdale. You know it – or at least someone on your writing staff knows it – because in the eloquently written scenes where Robert opens up to Aaron – just before the car crash – Robert tells him that just because a woman offers it to him, doesn’t mean he’ll take it because he loves Aaron.

Then, the first time he has the opportunity, he does just that. You have ignored the story that you set in motion, you have ignored the entire character brief, and you have ignored the legions of fans that want these two men together, all for the sake of a lazy, cheap plot point that engrains stereotypes.

And not just stereotypes about bisexual and gay people, but stereotypes about how poorly stories are told on serials.

Not. Acceptable.

Robert Sudgen is an intricate, complex, deeply flawed character. And he has been since childhood. That’s why the story of his father finding him with another boy as a teenager works so well in the realm of retcon plausibility.


Emmerdale mainstay, the late Clive Hornby, played Jack Sugden, seen here with Karl Davies as Robert after the younger Sugden was met with the elder’s fist in an altercation. |Image: Yorkshire Television

Robert and Jack were famously always at war. Robert and Jack never understood one another and Robert’s love-hate relationship with his adoptive brother, Andy, has been well documented throughout the last two decades, especially as teens when they were jockeying for position as favorite son. It’s quite easy to infer that this bedroom incident may have been in the back of Jack’s mind when he sent Robert away from the village for good soon thereafter when the Sugden brothers and Katie Addyman were involved in the infamous “playing chicken car accident” that killed Max King.

Let’s also remember that Robert’s biological mother died when he was only several months old. And that he has an older maternal half-sister that we’ve all forgotten about. There are plenty of rich veins still left to mine in the psyche of Robert Sugden.

I hope Emmerdale has the strength of character to right this ship. Either have the baby be Ross Barton’s after all – the most practical solution – or have Rebecca die soon after giving birth in an emergency situation somewhere stupid like the stables at Wylie’s Farm (where Katie died!). Then have Aaron Dingle show up and deliver the baby or discover dead Rebecca. Something. Anything.


Aaron forgave Robert’s infidelities earlier this year before Rebecca revealed she did not get an abortion. It was too much for Aaron and the popular couple are now on the outs. |Image: ITV

And Emmerdale? Put RobRon back together. And figure out a way for them to have lots of drama in their lives without Robert cheating again. Danny Miller and Ryan Hawley are far too good to waste on the single notes you’ve been giving them lately.

From Male-on-Male Rape to Lunatics in Flooded Pubs: Why U.K. Soaps Leave the U.S. in the Dust

John Paul McQueen is about to be raped. That’s the bad news. The good news is that John Paul McQueen is a fictional person and no such real horror will be visited upon the actor who assays the character, James Sutton. But, the fact that he’s about to be raped by another man on television and that the aftereffects will be played out in a long-running storyline, well, that’s something we don’t see everyday. In the United States, that is.


Schoolteacher John Paul McQueen (James Sutton) on the U.K. soap Hollyoaks. The deep repercussions of the rape of the popular character will be felt for sometime throughout the fictional Chester village. |Image: Lime Pictures.

Soaps in the U.K. have been significantly more LGBT-inclusive than those in the U.S. I’ve written about a few of my favorites before and John Paul, specifically, here.

James Sutton portrayed John Paul during two stints (2006-8 and 2012-present) which have seen him transition from gay teen to father, schoolteacher and generally upstanding member of the community. The show has never shirked away from hard-hitting explorations of important issues, but one of their boldest may be the upcoming rape of John Paul by one of his students.

As one of the counselors that have been integral to story development notes, this is not about straight men and gay men; it’s about power. I’ve always been one to praise continuing dramas on this side of the pond for tackling big issues, but we’ve never been bold enough to go this far. And that’s a pity.

Here’s a terrific piece about the storyline.

Killer Cameron – The Dales’ Crazed Guy Next Door

At this year’s Inside Soap Awards in London, Dominic Power walked away with the statue for “Best Villain.” I’m not sure there was ever any competition.

I’ve been watching continuing dramas for a long, long time and I am pretty certain that I’ve never seen a portrayal as chilling as Power’s of guy-gone-unhinged Cameron Murray in the exceptional ITV soap Emmerdale.


Dominic Power as Cameron Murray, Debbie Dingle’s seemingly mild mannered mechanic/truck driver boyfriend from Jersey who turned the Yorkshire village of Emmerdale on its head.

And I think that the fact that he didn’t look like a serial killer — none of the classic tropes showed up — that audiences were stunned a year ago when he killed village baddie Carl King (and let then-girlfriend Chas take the rap). Surely his comeuppance would be quick and justice swift. Not so. He killed hapless farmer Alex Moss and, just when it looked like he was going to be exposed by Chas’ half-sister, Genny Walker, he offed Genny as well.


During the Woolpack seige in October 2013, the hashtag #KillerCameron was trending worldwide, so popular was this storyline featuring Dominic Power as unhinged serial killer Cameron Murray. |Image: ITV

Eventually he got sent down, but escaped from a prison van and armed with old Zac Dingle’s shotgun, took a dozen people hostage in the village pub, the Woolpack, during a near-Biblical flood.

This was gripping, nail-biting television, folks. Part action movie, part horror movie, part exceptional drama, there wasn’t a second of this story that wasn’t among the best of the best of dramatic television broadcasting.


Cameron Murray (Dominic Power) and Debbie Dingle (Charley Webb) in the flooded Woolpack basement just before she gets away and he inadvertently offs himself at the end of the epic “seige week” on the ITV powerhouse Emmerdale. |Image: ITV

And when Cameron finally met his ignominious end — by electrocuting himself with a live light fixture in the flooded pub basement — you realized that nearly every storyline on the canvas was cinched together and drawn taught. A breathtaking thing. Even more breathtaking, I think, than building a replica of the Woolpack basement at the underwater stage at Pinewood Studios and filming the scenes like a major motion picture.

Give ITV props: they don’t skimp on production values. And it shows.

Dominic Power on the end of the Cameron Murray Era

Said Tony Stewart in the Daily Mirror after the Inside Soap Awards:

But the Yorkshire soap should have had more gongs. For their part in the Best Storyline of Cameron’s killer cover-up, either Charley Webb (Debbie Dingle) or Lucy Pargeter (Chas Spencer) should have walked away with the Best Actress accolade, even if Jacqueline Jossa as Lauren Branning has been one of the saving graces of the blighted EastEnders.

Both Charley and Lucy have been consistently magnificent as the lovers of serial killer Cameron Murray – with Dominic Power rightly celebrated as the Best Bad Boy, if only for his body count of three. Or four if we count his own electrocution in a cellar full of water last week. What a way to go!

Stewart did note that Emmerdale did win Best Soap. Like Murray, was there ever reason to doubt?

Now, if we can ever get some real gutsy storylines for Will and Sonny. After all, shouldn’t we be dealing with the effects of Nick Fallon’s prison rape by now? Days of our Lives’ writers might want to tune into Hollyoaks to get some story ideas. Just sayin.’

Richard Thorp, Emmerdale’s Alan Turner, dies aged 81 – Telegraph

Just watched him a few minutes ago on Emmerdale, in a scene with Paula Tilbrook. Sorry to see the old fellow go. It’s lovely on the U.K. soaps, that so many of the long-serving actors still get screen time. Eighty-five year old Freddie Jones had a cracking good front-burner story recently. You’ll not find much of that on TV in the States. RIP. Will miss ye at the Woollie, Alan.

Actor Richard Thorp, best known for his role as Alan Turner in ITV’s Yorkshire-based soap Emmerdale, has died aged 81.

Thorp played Alan Turner, the womanising manager of Home Farm and landlord of the Woolpack pub, since joining in 1982, making him the longest-serving actor in the serial. Thorp took a leave of absence from filming Emmerdale in 2010 following knee surgery. Since then he has played a minor role, but will continue to be seen on screen in previously recorded episodes, including Thursday’s in which he takes part in a fundraiser storyline at the Woolpack.

via Richard Thorp, Emmerdale’s Alan Turner, dies aged 81 – Telegraph.

Like Sands Through the Gay Hourglass — Ticked-Off at American Dramas. Again.

I watch soap operas. I’ve always watched soap operas. If done right, continuing drama is a terrific medium to examine social problems, to tell important stories, to educate. The genre’s progenitor, Irna Phillips, knew this. Agnes Nixon, creator of All My Children and One Life to Live knew this. So did Ted Corday. Ted Corday created Days of Our Lives in 1965.

When powerhouse performer Van Hansis (l) as Luke Snyder was matched with newcomer Jake Silbermann’s Noah Mayer, the two became American daytime television’s first gay supercouple and were central to the storyline of As The World Turns for the shows last several years on the air.

In the often laconic pacing of daily serials, audiences get to know characters on a level more intimate than in episodic storytelling and their emotional investment in those characters intensifies.

The late Christopher Schemering, a journalist devoted to daytime drama, once noted that “as characterizations grow and the narrative stretches out over months and years and becomes more complex and ambiguous, one’s involvement deepens, forcing one to come to terms with the quirks of human nature, the darker sides of fundamentally good people. And thus there is the possibility of the viewer experiencing something new or complex or feeling some way he has never felt before.”

In some areas American continuing dramas have been at the vanguard and in others they have lagged woefully, often laughably, behind the times. Take gay issues, for example. On As The World Turns, when Luke Snyder fell in love with Noah Mayer, the two shared daytime’s first male same sex kiss — in 2007!

Today, with only four continuing dramas left on the networks in America, the important stories being told are few and far between. Serial drama, scared of being axed , is playing it safe, rehashing old school stories, pandering to the most conservative elements possible.

The Old Days
The one show that has shown some cojones is Days of Our Lives which, 45 years into its run, introduced its first gay character,  Sonny Kiriakis, and began an exploration of the sexuality of Will Horton. Will’s coming-to-terms-and-subsequently-coming-out story was positively glacial in its pacing, but featured Emmy-winning performances by Chandler Massey as Will, who was often matched note-for-note by Freddie Smith as Sonny and soap veteran Deidre Hall as Will’s maternal grandmother Marlena.

The story of Will Horton (Emmy winner Chandler Massey, left) discovering himself and his love story with Sonny Kiriakis (Freddie Smith) has been achingly slow, but powerful performances by the duo have overshadowed the tepid and hackneyed plotting by the Days of Our Lives writers.

In Nov. 2012, Will and Sonny — now a couple — finally consummated their relationship. Unlike a few years earlier on As The World Turns where Luke and Noah barely kissed and were never seen in bed, it was refreshing to see Will and Sonny actually acting like a couple, tearing their clothes off and showing them in bed — albeit chastely covered — for extended scenes.

But, of course, there’s now a stupid twist. Before Will got together with Sonny, he had a one-off with his ex-girlfriend, Gabi, and —imagine this — she’s pregnant.

Oh. My. God. I just want to kick someone in the teeth.

Now, I will admit that when I was Will’s age, when I was coming to terms with my sexuality, I did sleep with a few (a very few) women, but 30 years ago, there’s not a single woman that I knew in college that would not hesitate to have an abortion. In fact, at my relatively conservative university, there were plenty who did. Plenty. I can’t even count how many times we chipped in to fund a friend’s termination. I don’t think we understood condoms at all!

Today, odds are that Gabi is going to keep this baby and it’s going to throw a monkey wrench into the Will and Sonny pairing. And that just pisses me off.

Why? Well, because while I recognize that it’s a soap and that there have to be twists and turns in the drama, I want those turns be something relevant. Something not so stupid. Something that tells the audience that we understand that this is not a plotline from the 1970s. Something that shows the gay community  — shows young gay men — that the writers want to tell a story that matters.

I looked forward to Will and Sonny scenes because I had hope. Now, I’m kinda disgusted by the whole stupid business. And that’s really sad, because these are terrific young actors.

American soaps should take a lesson from European soaps, where gay characters have been the norm for years. If you haven’t been watching, like I have, through bit torrents and VPN’s, here’s a few favorite pairings over the last few years, and a few American contemporaries.

AARSON in Emmerdale

The working-class pairing of builder Jackson Walsh (Marc Silcock, left) and mechanic Aaron Livesy (Danny Miller) ended tragically after a train accident left Jackson paralyzed from the neck down on ITV’s rural powerhouse Emmerdale. Aaron later helped Jackson die in a controversial assisted suicide plot.

I loved this story. Village bad boy mechanic Aaron Livesy had a torturous, often brutal coming-out story. He lashed out physically at step-father Paddy and even at Jackson, the young man who he was attracted to. When he finally came to terms with his sexuality, his happiness was short-lived when Jackson’s van was hit by a train at a level crossing and he was paralyzed. Marc Silcock spent the next six months acting using only his head before Jackson begged his mother, magnificently played by Pauline Quirke, and boyfriend Aaron to help him commit suicide.

After his death, Aaron was charged with murder and after he got off, he began a period of self-harm, where he continually cut himself. After therapy, he found happiness with gay rugby player Ed Roberts and followed him to France.

It was a storyline that didn’t hold back and it was anchored by the astonishing Danny Miller as Aaron. Today, Ali and Ruby, lesbians with children, have taken up residence in the most interesting village in Yorkshire.

Multicultural Clash in the Square

Sparks flew on the BBC’s venerable EastEnders when Christian Clarke (John Partridge, right) met Syed Masood (Marc Elliott, left). The volatile pair got a happy ending and left Albert Square together in Nov. 2012

When Christian Clarke introduced himself to Syed Masood for the first time on EastEnders, he stuck out his hand and said, “Christian.” Syed took it, shook, and replied, “Muslim.” It was the perfect launch of their story which saw Christian chase Syed and Syed continue to be unable to reconcile his strong Muslim faith with his homosexuality and his intense attraction to Christian.

The pair broke up, got back together, broke up again, fought, loved, made up, and ultimately involved everyone in both of their families in their personal dramas. The Masood family initially disowned Syed as a traitor to the faith, then they reconciled, but refused to recognize Christian, then finally accepted the pair and even hosted a civil partnership ceremony for the duo.

Syed, ever fighting against his instincts, lied, stole, made terrible choices, but you always found yourself rooting for this particular underdog. The BBC did do the same thing that I’m pissed off at NBC for; they made Syed father a child, and while it made me roll my eyes, there was a cultural divide  that they were mining and  it wasn’t quite as ham-fisted as what they are doing with Will.

After a final break-up, Christian and Syed made up yet again at the eleventh hour and the dynamic couple left Walford together, bringing a close to a story that one could not even imagine seeing on American television.

The Chester Suburbs: The Gayest Part of England
Hollyoaks is the Channel 4 soap that is geared toward younger audiences but is a guilty pleasure for many in the U.K., who watch it in an omnibus edition on the weekends. Hollyoaks is often fearless in its storytelling and tackles issues that would never pass muster in the States.

James Sutton (l) and Guy Burnet played the tortured pairing of John Paul and Craig on Channel 4’s Hollyoaks. After a sunset ending, Sutton returns to the Chester suburb — alone, we surmise — to reprise his role in Dec. 2012.

Take John Paul McQueen and Craig Dean. John Paul was introduced as a student questioning his sexuality when he meets Craig Dean, a long-term and previously heterosexual character. The two strike up a close friendship which, for John Paul, turns quickly into something else. While John Paul was on a linear track, Craig was tortured by his feelings for John Paul and continually swore off of him.

Both straight in real life, Sutton and Burnet took very different tacks when approaching their characters. Sutton felt completely comfortable playing John Paul as gay while Burnet said he was initially against having Craig be attracted to a man. As the characterization progressed, Burnet felt that he wanted to provoke a reaction — it didn’t matter to him whether you loved or hated Craig, but he wanted to push your buttons.

And he did. Burnet’s angst as Craig was palpable and as an audience member, you could feel him fighting and not understanding these feelings he was having for someone he considered a close mate. When he finally accepted that he loved John Paul — but adamantly refused to be labeled as gay or bisexual — the two agreed to go to Ireland together so Craig could continue his studies at Trinity College. When Craig couldn’t bring himself to hold John Paul’s hand in public, in the airport, John Paul had a change of heart and left Craig to return to Hollyoaks village.

John-Paul McQueen (James Sutton, right) began an affair with young priest Kieron (Jake Hendriks) after his ill-fated romance with Craig Dean on the UK sudser Hollyoaks.

With Craig out of the picture, John Paul began a relationship with Father Kieron Hobbs, an even more scandalous pairing. John Paul supported Kieron as he left the Church and embarked on a life among the “out and proud.” Of course, this was short-lived, too, as Kieron was killed by John Paul’s pyscho half-brother — no one yet knew he was related to the McQueens — except Kieron! — yes, another twist.

Complicating things for John Paul was the return of Craig Dean, intent on finally claiming John Paul. Guy Burnet returned to the show for a month to reprise his role so that the beloved (albeit conflicted) supercouple could ride off into the sunset — on a train — together, after Craig was finally able to kiss John Paul in public.


Hollyoaks’ newest pairing of American Doug Carter (P.J. Brennan) and former bad boy Ste Hay (Kieron Richardson) is actually part of a love triangle that includes Ste’s former lover, Brendan, devilishly played by Emmett J. Scanlan.

John Paul McQueen and Craig Dean — known to fans by the portmanteau McDean — may have been the best-loved gay pairing in Hollyoaks, but they certainly haven’t been the last.

When young rogue Ste Hay came out, he was drawn to Brendan Brady, a nefarious older club owner. The two embarked on what may be television’s first same-sex domestic violence storyline with Brendan  beating up Ste to keep him compliant.

When Ste finally left Brendan, he started a business with American expat Doug Carter and subsequently fell in love with him. Doug offered Ste stability — or as much stability as you can expect from an adorable ex-drug dealer — and the two married in 2012 in a ceremony marred by, you guessed it, over-the-top tragedy!

Through it all, a palpable attraction between Ste and Brendan remains and their storylines have continued to intersect because of it. Fan bases for both couples have developed, using the portmanteaus Stug and Stendan, which may signal continued screen time for all three popular actors who, by the way, are not the only gay characters on the show.

The KISH of Death in Llanview

Brett Claywell and Scott Evans as Kyle Lewis and Oliver Fish on One Life to Live. Claywell’s intense Kyle balanced the “Aw, Shucks” genuineness of Evans’ Fish, creating an example of actors’ better attention to detail than their writers.

Of course, popularity of characters or excellent storytelling doesn’t mean you’ll be around for long. Especially if you’re on an American soap.

One Life to Live, known for years for relatively insane plot twists, sought to capitalize on the ground already broken by As The World Turns by introducing a gay storyline, this time with hospital resident Kyle Lewis and cop Oliver Fish.

Oliver’s backstory, including a college relationship with Kyle, is revealed as he comes out publicly. When the two finally sleep together, OLTL took it a step farther than the prudish ATWT and actually showed the two in bed together.

Featuring decent if not great writing and played with layered nuance by Evans and Claywell, Kish, as the couple was known, quickly became a fan favorite. Of course, that didn’t stop OLTL from introducing the now ubiquitous “gay man has sex with a woman and woman gets pregnant” sub-plot. At the end of the day, the writers wrapped up the ridiculousness of the plot and as a shock to both actors and their fans, abruptly let them go and the duo went off to that part of Llanview where there were no TV cameras.

Executive Producer Frank Valentini said Kish caused the show’s low ratings, but everyone knew different. All daytime ratings were tanking and they no longer were looking for chances to take. When Claywell and Evans’ departed, OLTL hit new ratings lows. A year and a half later, the show ended.

The Nuke Option?

Eric Sheffer Stevens (l) joined As The World Turns in its last year on the air as Dr. Reid Oliver. His pairing with Van Hansis’ Luke divided audiences between those who wanted to see the electric pairing of Stevens and Hansis and those wanting a happy ending for Luke and his former love, Noah, played by Jake Silbermann. Reid Oliver’s death was central to the plot of the show’s finale, though it did not satisfy many viewers.

When the powers that be brought in acerbic, pompous and handsome super neurosurgeon Dr. Reid Oliver ten months before the end of As The World Turns, everyone was shocked by Eric Sheffer Stevens’ immediate chemistry with Van Hansis and the character brought in to cure Luke’s longtime love Noah of his blindness — it’s a soap, remember — ended up electrifying and dividing viewers to become the central plot capstone of the show’s 54 year run.

Like Guy Burnet’s intense portrayal of Craig Dean in Hollyoaks, you couldn’t turn away from Stevens when he was on screen. He might not have been pushing the buttons that you wanted pushed, but, by God, he was pushing buttons.

Reid died — another train accident! — and his heart was donated to save Chris Hughes leaving Luke heart-broken and Noah to head to California alone, which did little to satisfy the Nuke (Noah and Luke) or the Lure (Luke and Reid) fanbases, but it served, I think, the show’s long and complex history well. Head writer Jean Passanante remarked that if the show hadn’t already been cancelled, Reid, Luke and Noah may well have become American television’s first front-burner gay love triangle.

Looking back, I have to say I loved the last year of As The World Turns, as it was my soap for many years. And while there were utterly and completely ridiculous derailments along the way — Ameera, anyone? — none of the gay guys ever knocked up anyone. And that’s a helluva lot better than what we’ve got now.

[Update: A year and a half later, Days of our Lives surprised the hell out of me. Good on them. See I Do…]