Search
Close this search box.

A mirror to society

Recording interview with politician using professional camera

Screening social issues: The important role of TV dramas in tackling and raising awareness of social issues

By Joanna Cummings

On 1 January this year, ITV released the first of four episodes of Mr Bates vs The Post Office. This TV drama told the story of the British Post Office scandal, where hundreds of sub-postmasters and postmistresses were wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting. The story immediately captured public attention – 10 million people watched the programme – and within a week of the first episode, 1.2 million signatures had been added to a petition calling for the withdrawal of the former Post Office CEO’s CBE. By 23 February, King Charles had revoked the CBE and the following day Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced new legislation to exonerate and compensate the falsely accused.

Now, not all TV programmes covering important events have been able to change legislation. But these events show that a well-written piece of drama can play an important role in shaping public perceptions. Real life-inspired fictional dramas, with compelling storytelling and nuanced character portrayals, can not only help raise awareness of social issues – especially for people who might not become aware of them via other media, such as the news – but can also provide the ‘human element’ to big and potentially abstract issues. Even soap operas, often the victims of snobbery because of their mass appeal, have played an integral role in addressing serious subjects, including teenage pregnancy, domestic abuse, HIV and alcoholism.  

Here we look at some other key social themes that have been tackled by TV dramas.

Social issues

Cathy Come Home was a seminal TV drama that dealt with homelessness and the failings of the welfare system, issues not widely discussed in popular media at the time of its release in 1966. Like Mr Bates…, it proved to be a catalyst for social change, leading to the foundation of the homeless charity Shelter. In 1996 Hillsborough delved into the tragic events surrounding the Hillsborough disaster, where 96 football fans were crushed because of mismanagement by the South Yorkshire Police. Crucially, the drama not only dealt with police negligence but also focused on the victims and their families. It also influenced policy changes regarding crowd safety at sporting events. The miners’ strikes of the 1980s across the UK have also inspired many TV dramas: TV film Faith explored the impact of the strikes via the struggles of a South Wales mining family; the TV series Sherwood focused on the longer-term impact within a Nottinghamshire former mining community. Both of these dramas helped viewers see the strikes through a more human lens.

Political issues

For many people, the 1990s drama Our Friends in the North is considered the crème de la crème of TV that had a profound social impact. The series explored over 30 years of British social history through the lives and experiences of four characters, including political upheavals, social inequality and police corruption. Most importantly, the storyline concerning the building of cheap but dangerously low-quality housing projects in Newcastle was based on the real-life scandal of two council leaders, who had been ultimately sent to prison. In 2003, State of Play tackled the oil industry-backed corruption of high-ranking British ministers. This story may have been fictional, but it encouraged viewers to keep a sharper eye on those in power. In contrast, the comedy series The Thick of It satirised the workings of British government, even using real-life events or scandals as the basis for several storylines.  

LGBTQ+ issues

Since 1959’s South, the earliest known gay drama to be shown on UK television, many TV shows have played a significant role in depicting and addressing LGBTQ+ issues. Soaps led the way here – in 1994, Brookside showed the first ever lesbian kiss before the 9pm watershed. Shortly after, This Life, a drama portraying the lives of a group of young lawyers, attracted controversy for showing a sex scene with one of its gay characters; only a couple of years later the ground-breaking Queer as Folk boldly explored the lives of gay men in Manchester, helping to challenge stereotypes and provide greater visibility for the LGBTQ+ community. More recently, in 2021, It’s a Sin – by the same writer as Queer as Folk – depicted the lives of gay men during the 1980s’ HIV/AIDS crisis and led to an upsurge in HIV testing in the months following its release.

Racial issues

One of the most important issues facing society is systemic racism, a subject that has been incorporated repeatedly into the storylines of soaps, such as Eastenders, Emmerdale and Coronation Street. However, it was not explored properly as a stand-alone issue until the release of 2011’s Top Boy, which delved into the struggles of individuals in East London. Exploring the intersection of race and class, and of the impact of systemic issues on marginalised communities, the stereotype-shattering drama opened up broader conversations about racial issues and social inequality – as well as providing acting opportunities for previously unknown Black actors. (This demonstrated that we had made some progress since Til Death Do Us Part, a 1960s/1970s sitcom that was intended to satirise racism, but actually managed to perpetuate stereotypes – showing that there are risks to handling sensitive issues on TV if not carefully executed…)

At the heart of all these dramas? Yes, they inform, and yes, they simplify complex issues – but they ultimately offer a way to find the ‘human factor’ in real-life events which may be too overwhelming or too far back in history for us to understand. They force us to keep looking at the issues that shape us, and that should shape us, ultimately helping viewers to tap into their own empathy and understanding… and potentially change laws and minds.

Join the discussion

Which TV drama do you think has provided the best social commentary and impact?

Our new online community, Mensa Community, provides a digital space for you, our members, to discuss any number of topics and issues. If you haven’t already signed up, you can log in here using your My Mensa login details.

Further reading

Latest news from Mensa

More from Mensa

A mirror to society

Screening social issues: The important role of TV dramas in tackling and raising awareness of social issues

By Joanna Cummings

On 1 January this year, ITV released the first of four episodes of Mr Bates vs The Post Office. This TV drama told the story of the British Post Office scandal, where hundreds of sub-postmasters and postmistresses were wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting. The story immediately captured public attention – 10 million people watched the programme – and within a week of the first episode, 1.2 million signatures had been added to a petition calling for the withdrawal of the former Post Office CEO’s CBE. By 23 February, King Charles had revoked the CBE and the following day Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced new legislation to exonerate and compensate the falsely accused.

Now, not all TV programmes covering important events have been able to change legislation. But these events show that a well-written piece of drama can play an important role in shaping public perceptions. Real life-inspired fictional dramas, with compelling storytelling and nuanced character portrayals, can not only help raise awareness of social issues – especially for people who might not become aware of them via other media, such as the news – but can also provide the ‘human element’ to big and potentially abstract issues. Even soap operas, often the victims of snobbery because of their mass appeal, have played an integral role in addressing serious subjects, including teenage pregnancy, domestic abuse, HIV and alcoholism.  

Here we look at some other key social themes that have been tackled by TV dramas.

Social issues

Cathy Come Home was a seminal TV drama that dealt with homelessness and the failings of the welfare system, issues not widely discussed in popular media at the time of its release in 1966. Like Mr Bates…, it proved to be a catalyst for social change, leading to the foundation of the homeless charity Shelter. In 1996 Hillsborough delved into the tragic events surrounding the Hillsborough disaster, where 96 football fans were crushed because of mismanagement by the South Yorkshire Police. Crucially, the drama not only dealt with police negligence but also focused on the victims and their families. It also influenced policy changes regarding crowd safety at sporting events. The miners’ strikes of the 1980s across the UK have also inspired many TV dramas: TV film Faith explored the impact of the strikes via the struggles of a South Wales mining family; the TV series Sherwood focused on the longer-term impact within a Nottinghamshire former mining community. Both of these dramas helped viewers see the strikes through a more human lens.

Political issues

For many people, the 1990s drama Our Friends in the North is considered the crème de la crème of TV that had a profound social impact. The series explored over 30 years of British social history through the lives and experiences of four characters, including political upheavals, social inequality and police corruption. Most importantly, the storyline concerning the building of cheap but dangerously low-quality housing projects in Newcastle was based on the real-life scandal of two council leaders, who had been ultimately sent to prison. In 2003, State of Play tackled the oil industry-backed corruption of high-ranking British ministers. This story may have been fictional, but it encouraged viewers to keep a sharper eye on those in power. In contrast, the comedy series The Thick of It satirised the workings of British government, even using real-life events or scandals as the basis for several storylines.  

LGBTQ+ issues

Since 1959’s South, the earliest known gay drama to be shown on UK television, many TV shows have played a significant role in depicting and addressing LGBTQ+ issues. Soaps led the way here – in 1994, Brookside showed the first ever lesbian kiss before the 9pm watershed. Shortly after, This Life, a drama portraying the lives of a group of young lawyers, attracted controversy for showing a sex scene with one of its gay characters; only a couple of years later the ground-breaking Queer as Folk boldly explored the lives of gay men in Manchester, helping to challenge stereotypes and provide greater visibility for the LGBTQ+ community. More recently, in 2021, It’s a Sin – by the same writer as Queer as Folk – depicted the lives of gay men during the 1980s’ HIV/AIDS crisis and led to an upsurge in HIV testing in the months following its release.

Racial issues

One of the most important issues facing society is systemic racism, a subject that has been incorporated repeatedly into the storylines of soaps, such as Eastenders, Emmerdale and Coronation Street. However, it was not explored properly as a stand-alone issue until the release of 2011’s Top Boy, which delved into the struggles of individuals in East London. Exploring the intersection of race and class, and of the impact of systemic issues on marginalised communities, the stereotype-shattering drama opened up broader conversations about racial issues and social inequality – as well as providing acting opportunities for previously unknown Black actors. (This demonstrated that we had made some progress since Til Death Do Us Part, a 1960s/1970s sitcom that was intended to satirise racism, but actually managed to perpetuate stereotypes – showing that there are risks to handling sensitive issues on TV if not carefully executed…)

At the heart of all these dramas? Yes, they inform, and yes, they simplify complex issues – but they ultimately offer a way to find the ‘human factor’ in real-life events which may be too overwhelming or too far back in history for us to understand. They force us to keep looking at the issues that shape us, and that should shape us, ultimately helping viewers to tap into their own empathy and understanding… and potentially change laws and minds.

Join the discussion

Which TV drama do you think has provided the best social commentary and impact?

Our new online community, Mensa Community, provides a digital space for you, our members, to discuss any number of topics and issues. If you haven’t already signed up, you can log in here using your My Mensa login details.

Further reading

Related Resources

Got What it Takes

Take the Mensa IQ Test to see if you have what it takes to join the world’s highest IQ society.

Share this online