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.

Watching a lot of TV not on TV

Back in May, I reported that I was fed up with television and was giving up the habit. Well, I did it. Sort of. I did jettison my cable so that I only have the super bargain basement basic cable just in case I need to know what’s going on locally, but other than that I just do not bother.

I get the vast majority of my television from Hulu and Netflix and YouTube and the handful of series I watch on the Web. Google’s somewhat-clunky-but-still-revolutionary Chromecast has eased the transition significantly, I have to say. Here are a few things that have grabbed me lately:

EmmerdaleEMMERDALE — American dramatic serials only wish they were in the same league as this powerhouse from ITV in the U.K. Airing six times a week (twice on Thursdays), Emmerdale is a half-hour drama about the most interesting village in Yorkshire. Fires, floods, famine, good-guys-gone-bad, bad-guys-gone-good, lesbians with children, snarky old people, elder-abusing ex-priests — you can find them all having a pint down the Woolpack. If I don’t watch, I start to twitch. Nowt better, as they say in the Dales. (Tonight, an evil bastard is going to burn down Moira Barton’s farm and this time it has nothing to do with her taking up with village shady character Cain Dingle. Oh, it’s a cracker, this one!)

Pramface Series 2 PRAMFACE — This smart and funny offering from BBC3 tells the story of Jamie and Laura. He’s a 16-year-old who has his first sexual experience at an end-of-term party with a very drunk 18-year-old on her way to university. And, of course, she gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby. From that hackneyed premise, comes a simply lovely, hilarious comedy about class, about age, about finding your own path, and about listening to others. The first two series — 13 total episodes — are on Hulu. A third series has been shot and set to air in the U.K. in 2014. Highly recommended.

Whites_(TV_series) WHITES — Alan Davies stars as Roland White, a chef who is both pompous and potentially past it. Darren Boyd is his ever-suffering sous chef. Set in the kitchen of a restaurant at a posh English country hotel, this BBC offering feels a bit like an update of the Lenny Henry classic Chef! crossed with Ireland’s Raw. The Beeb only produced one season. It’s on Hulu. It’s quite sweet.

Rev_-_main_cast REV. — Tom Hollander plays the titular reverend in this delightful BBC2 sitcom.You know Hollander from, well, every period costume drama produced in the U.K. in the last 20 years it seems. He also plays Hugo Weaving’s lover, Darren, in Bedrooms and Hallways, my entry in the most overlooked comedy of the 1990s competition. Smart and human, this is not your ordinary vicar-out-of-step-with-the-world sort of comedy. It addresses many of the struggles of modern life. It also won the 2011 BAFTA for best comedy. Two seasons are out. A third is to be released in 2014. BTW – watch for Simon McBurney’s fantastic turn as the Archdeacon. Brilliant.

The-Inbetweeners-001 THE INBETWEENERS — Laugh-out-loud funny and often raunchy comedy about a group of teenage boys getting up to what teenage boys get up to — mostly having to do with sex and drinking. But, God, is it funny. I thought I was going to have a stroke, I laughed so hard. American audiences with no knowledge of the English educational system may find terms like “A levels” and “GCSEs” and “Sixth Form College” and “revising” completely and utterly baffling. It might help you to peruse Wikipedia for a minute. For the education references; not for the sex jokes. Well, a working knowledge of “slapper” and “up the duff” and “bell end”  would help, I suppose! On Hulu.

MV5BMTQ2ODgyOTM4NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDI1ODY3OQ@@._V1__SX640_SY720_ HE’S WITH ME — Web series written by and starring Jason Cicci about a friendship between a gay man and a straight man and their close circle of friends. It spirals out from that premise in some interesting ways. By and large, it’s worth a look, though there is one episode in the middle of the first series (I don’t remember which, sorry) that I thought was a total clinker, but, I liked the characters enough to pick it back up. I’m not sure that it didn’t stray a bit from its intended trajectory, but I won’t fault it too much for that. I really liked the way Cicci (and director Sebastian La Cause) buttoned up the first season. Surprise standout: Ryan Duncan as Benny Costa. You can’t help but love him! Available on YouTube.

holding_video MISS FISHER’S MURDER MYSTERIES — Fabulous flapper Phyrne Fisher is at the wheel of her Hispano-Suiza as she careens around 1928 Melbourne searching for clues to solve the latest case dropped in her lap. With the help of her companion and maid, Dot, cabbies Bert and Cec, her able houseman Mr. Butler, and to the consternation of Detective-Inspector Jack Robinson, who harbors a bit of a crush on the freewheeling Miss Fisher, who helps herself to lovers and clues, as well as a “gasper” or two, Miss Fisher is to the 1920s as Mad Men is to the 1960s: costume and set and properties design to die for. Essie Davis is sensational in the title role, but I have a soft spot for Hugo Johnstone-Burt as unsure young constable Hugh Collins. The ABC series (Australian Broadcasting Company, that is) is just wrapping series two Down Under, but the first series is on Netflix. Watch it. (Based on Kerry Greenwood’s Hon. Phryne Fisher novels.)

P.S. — Congratulations to HUSBANDS on two Writers Guild Awards for “I Do Over,”  parts one and two, which aired on CW Seed.

Also kudos to EASTSIDERS on nominations for an International Press Academy Satellite award. The Kickstarter-backed series aired on

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.’