Never doubt my dedication to duty, nor my self-sacrifice to the art of blogging. For the purposes of research I sat with my mother and watched episodes of both Corrie and Enders, and will next take paracetamol and get an early night. But let’s be serious for a moment, since soaps are largely po-faced affairs.
Call me obtuse but I’ve never once been tempted to become hooked on soap operas, any more than I’ve been tempted to become addicted to crack cocaine. Nor indeed any of the soapish period drama series that seem so popular, from Upstairs Downstairs in the 70s through to Downton Abbey now; plus ça change, plus chest la même chose, as the French so aptly put it.
While some arrive and others die, there is a hard core of soaps that stick around seemingly forever. My mother listens religiously to The Archers (a whopping 63 years on, the longest-running radio soap in the world), and assiduously watches Coronation Street (53 years and counting, longest-running TV soap in existence) and Eastenders (28 thus far), though she might equally have been addicted to Emmerdale (41), Hollyoaks (18) and probably many more.
In the past there was Crossroads (24, then an extra 2 rising from the soapy grave before being consigned to the inner circle of hell, AKA Birmingham.) And these are only the most popular British soaps – we have American and Aussie soaps polluting our airwaves, not to mention the cheapo cheapo late night cult soaps with sets flimsy as cardboard (there will be plenty who remember Prisoner Cell Block H, not that I ever watched it!) Of the American soaps over the years, I found them totally unwatchable, except that Dallas dubbed into German was a scream when I was living over there – as if the dubbed voices bore any relationship whatever to the bodies from which they allegedly emanated.
Fair enough, soaps get big ratings because they prove a degree of escapism for a lot of people, a small proportion of whom take them very seriously indeed and quite possibly mistake them for real life. Far be it from me to deny pleasure for anyone, though I reserve the right to price the balloon in the vain hope it might get us back to some credibility in our drama habits, though I doubt very much that will impress the cognoscenti.
Indeed, I can imagine friends queueing up to call me a snob, but I think I’m entitled to a gentle blog in which to expand and justify my opinion that life is too short to watch soaps as a parallel form of reality TV or even, in the memorable words of Frank Lloyd Wright, “chewing gum for the eyes.”
Wikipedia’s definition of the term runs thus:
A soap opera, often referred to simply as a soap, is a serial drama, on television or radio, that features multiple related story lines dealing with the lives of multiple characters. The stories in these series typically focus heavily on emotional relationships to the point of melodrama. The name soap opera stems from the fact that many of the sponsors and producers of the original dramatic serials’ broadcast on radio were soap manufacturers, such as Dial Corporation, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Lever Brothers….
…all of which leads me on very neatly to my first point:
1) Storylines: The point about soaps is that they depend on multi-threaded story lines that drag in the sponsors, viewers and the advertisers, which means artificial mini-climaxes at every ad-break and the conclusion of every episode, plus the denouement of very storyline, timed to coincide with whatever event will pull in the biggest count of viewers. Easy to be cynical, but character development, realistic or not, will not suffice, so the story lines have to be ever-more dramatic. Consequently, the murder rates and propensity to appalling accidents in the locations, fictional or real, where soaps are set tends to soar many times above the national average. If you believed the number of murders in Morse it’s a wonder anyone in Oxfordshire is still alive.
But for all these nuggets to spice up the drama, fact is that soaps are designed to run and run and run and run and run, which means that unlike adaptations of books or even drama series, there is ultimately no point to the drama, no denouement, no turning point of the plot, at which events reach a natural and logical conclusion. They go on for no obvious reason, other than that the network has an investment in the sets and the actors and in setting up the drama.
Take long-running dramas like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, House, Dexter, Friends (at 10 series, arguably the longest any sitcom could get away with), Coupling, in fact in any series you care to name they reach a point where all the possible story lines have been exhausted, so rather than continuing and letting the quality of drama plummet and undo the great work of previous seasons, the characters are retired and a new drama is born somewhere else. They don’t outstay their welcome, and in so doing preserve their reputation. Fawlty Towers achieved legendary status by demonstrating in the course of a mere 12 episodes that quality wins out over quantity in the longer run.
Except to TV networks there is a yawning gap to fill every evening, and an audience desperate to have some story in which to immerse themselves. So, in the case of soaps they continue ad infinitum, regardless of the obvious fact that there is bugger all to be said, but they keep saying it in every possible variation.
2) Melodrama: Soaps like to think they provide a gritty yet heart-rending reflection of real life. They don’t, nothing like it. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, they run the gamut of emotions from A to B, culminating in artificial and unrealistic conflicts approximately every 10 minutes. The characters seem at one another’s throats, yelling at one another, flouncing out almost continuously, which if it happened in real life would make normal life impossible to negotiate.
While in a sense soaps are always dull and pointless (see above), the fact that writers try to spice things up just makes them stretches the reaction of characters to situations so far beyond the realms of reality and credibility that snapping point vanished long since.
3) Characters: While we’re on the subject of characters, are there any featuring in soaps that are actually sympathetic without being either feeble or self-pitying? Maybe some more than others but by and large they are caricatures of an unlikeable hue who go about their business and interact with other characters to no obvious benefit. They seem to be up to no good at regular intervals, presumably living normal lives being dull viewing. They rarely if ever seem to have any point or purpose to their existence.
Not so, I am told, for they are often like virtue characters from Victorian melodramas, acting out their raison d’être for all they are worth. Not just hubris or sloth or lust or whatever sin it happens to be, but so often they seem to exist in a single dimension and have little more substance to justify their existence. A gay character seems to go on about being gay pretty for a great deal of their screen time; a single mother blathers on about being a single mother; and so on – one aspect of their life dominates the character. No doubt aficionados will point to others who have work issues or family crises, but my observations tend to suggest a lot of characters are not especially rounded.
Of course, there are the “much loved” long-serving characters, generally employed for their comic potential, about whom the audience cares more than about their own children. For me, I can truly say that on my sample viewing that I didn’t give a tuppenny toss about any one of them…. To empathise you need to care about them, and most characters I’ve seen on soaps seem very difficult to care about, those that are not already pantomime villains.
4) Longevity: ….Ah, but then I hear you say that Millward bloke doesn’t watch day in, day out for years in order to develop a deep-seated care for these characters. I could say I have more important things to do with my life and watching soaps is not one of them, but that would not persuade the addicts.
The characters might gradually morph into similar but different talking heads. So what? You might equally say the same about much “entertainment” TV, but essentially years go by and the same stuff happens in soaps, repetitiously and almost continuously throughout the week.
Unlike the drama series and sitcoms I mentioned before, soaps die a natural death many times over, but like the undead return for more hauntings from beyond the grave. How do they do it? Doubtless with teams of hundreds of writers, who are tasked with keeping it fresh and whipping up controversial new plot lines that will add a touch of spice in order to keep tongues wagging and stories about the stories bubbling in the tabloids, but as writing goes it is hollow and empty, not crafted. Better to kill them all off and start again, and I’m quite sure that’s been tried too!
5) Commercialism: not so much in the UK (product placement being illegal in the UK, though I’m quite sure it does go on), but soaps are a natural haven for subtle methods of bringing a product to the attention of the audience, thereby to expand the influence of product advertisers. No doubt it brings in huge money for the makers of such programmes, but as far as I’m concerned it undermines the production values of any drama – and yes, I do include the Carry on Camping Saxa salt interlude!
Yes, I realise you don’t give a monkeys what I think but trust me there are much, much, much better things you could be watching. How about starting with the greatest movies of all time?