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                                                            I HATE SOAP OPERA.

 

            Everywhere I go, people talk about what happened in recent episodes of Coronation Street and Eastenders. I can’t stand the rubbish.  My parents are addicted, and I often find myself obliged to sit through them for hours on end. If one of my parents is out, the other one will video them, while watching them, and I’ll end up having to suffer them again when the other parent gets home.  People are brainwashed with soaps. They are the new opium of the masses. 

            The media hype over Soap is out of control. Storylines take up headlines as if the events are real. If a soap character (not the actor or actress but who they are playing) is due to get married, or die, the newspapers will carry the story for weeks. If the actor is involved in some news event, the media will still mostly refer to them by character name (putting the actor name in brackets later on as if that doesn’t matter).

            The plot and thread of a major Soap is often given out weeks or days before events actually happen. We are told to tune in on Tuesday next to see a leading character drown, or get shot, etc. The script is virtually put before us. That would tell me not to bother watching, but it actually encourages more people to look in. The ratings soar.  There is a Pavlov’s dog behavioural experiment going on with soaps. People fall for it. Some resent it that I don’t. Soap will drive me from the room, or to pick up a book. Much of my computer time coincides with Soap opera transmission.

            Soaps originated from the gritty social realism of the kitchen sink dramas of the 1960’s. Excellent films like Saturday Night & Sunday Morning and Look Back In Anger had something to say and said it concisely within a ninety minute film with a beginning, middle and end. Soaps need to maintain a story ad infinitum to keep the serial going in perpetuity. Some soap like Coronation Street have been going for nearly fifty years. The problem is that to maintain such a show, the plots have to become increasingly sensational and extreme, but the myth is maintained that a Soap Opera is a slice of real life. There are working class characters just as in Look Back In Anger, sure, but reality has clearly taken a rain check.  Most Soaps deal with a group of people living in a single community, with a pub, and a row or two of houses. This small community will consist of people who habitually marry serial killers, have affairs with each other, discover long lost sons or daughters who they never mentioned in the years we knew them before hand, and more besides. Soap characters have as much life in one week as many of us face in a lifetime. A character will become a heroin addict, but only for about eight weeks. After that, they will go cold turkey, and go on to do something else instead. The years of trauma normally involved with such a crisis is usually quickly abandoned in soap.

            A problem with real life is that it is often quite dull. Soap characters can’t be seen watching soap operas all day, or reading a book. They don’t talk about the latest reality game shows, like Big Brother, etc. The producers make soaps more interesting (for the zombiefied viewers) by throwing in very unlikely events; in Coronation Street, one character has a viaduct fall on her. How many people can happily say that relates to something that happened to them in life?

            A key way of hooking viewers is to draw in actors and often comedians who have worked in other fields and are already famous as temporary or regular stars of the show. A bubbly genuinely talented comedienne like Barbara Windsor (of the Carry On Films) is reduced to playing a miserable downtrodden bar maid in Eastenders now.

            Another major ploy is the ‘kill off’. This serves two functions. One hand it enables the makers to hype a story to the full - - watch X have a heart attack. An armed robber shoots see Y. Etc; such will have the viewers abandoning everything to get home to see the show.  Some people   could get killed speeding in their cars to get home in time. I have been out with my parents on pleasant day trips, cut needlessly short by a desire to get home in time to see Coronation Street, (It’ll be good tonight, I’ll be told Daphne gets married…).

            On the other hand, the kill off keeps soap stars from commanding too high an income for their work. The kill off is almost seasonally tuned to the time when cast members will have their agents negotiating a pay rise. The rumours will fly round the studio that there will be a fire, and some people will be killed off. The cast members not making too big a demand for money will feel safer than those who want a more expensive ego massage.

            The gullible fans swallow it all in like sponges. Some fans have a hard time thinking of anything but the shows. It is tiresome to see a non soap show in which someone who was once in a soap appears, as the soap fans will whoop for joy at spotting them in the new role. So many jobbing actors start off their careers in the regional soaps that such star spotting is inevitable.

            Some fans have a hard time separating soap fiction from real life. In Coronation Street, a major character was Alan Bradley, played by Mark Eden, who (in character) beat up his wife, until he was eventually killed off by being run over by a tram on Blackpool Promenade. 

            This involves several leaps of faith by the fans. The plot had to contrive to move the characters from their regular activity in Manchester to Blackpool specially to have him get in the path of the tram at the right time. The media hyped up the situation so much that Mark Eden found himself accosted in pubs by fans that wanted to punch him for what he had done to his on screen wife. This happened even after the Bradley character had been killed off. Worse, in Blackpool, a special commemorative plaque marks the location of the tram tragedy, as if a real event had occurred there.

            Some soaps fail. Brookside, set in Liverpool got so far fetched after several years that it was cancelled. Sadly, other soaps drag on despite being just as ludicrous.  A few do so by having extreme events occurring. Emmerdale, (once called Emmerdale Farm until the makers decided to save themselves the cost of writing Farm every episode on the credits) got out of flagging ratings by having a spectacular plane crash over the village set for their farm community. This angered survivors and mourning relatives of the Lockerbie bombing plane crash, as the show was blatantly copying some aspects of their crisis for entertainment.

            Soaps have become increasingly pervasive.  Coronation Street used to be on twice a week. Now it is on virtually every night, sometimes more than once. At weekends there are omnibus editions that show episodes again, back to back. Like a virus, the soaps swallow the schedules.

            There is much dispute among fans and the medias to whether Coronation Street (Known as Corrie to its cult followers) is better or worse than Eastenders, which is seen as a rival show, but in fact the programme makers carefully avoid putting the shows on the opposing channels (BBC and ITV) at the same time. They actually work round each other, to ensure viewers get the full dose of opium and tat available.

            In America, Soaps work a little differently, in that they have limited seasons, rather being made as a continuing serial. The US Soaps also deal more with wealthy and beautiful powerful people than the UK ones which deal with working class folk It used to be the case in the US that there was more sex and bed-hopping, but that trend has been taken up in the UK too now. 

US Soaps tend to burn out fast through having over extreme credibility leaps – who can ever forget a whole series of Dallas being wiped out as a dream when someone (Patrick Duffy) killed off years before was taking a shower when the leading lady woke up from the dream? Surely Duffy’s previous role as The Man From Atlantis was less science fiction than that?

US Soaps were parodied mercilessly and brilliantly in a comedy called appropriately Soap, which took exaggerated plot jumps to extremes. In Soap, aliens in a UFO kidnap one character.  A few seasons later, Falcon Crest did the same thing to one of its characters, but Falcon Crest was not a comedy.

            Australian soaps are even worse, with a predominantly teenage cast, and a few token grown ups – the Aussie soaps seem to be just about kids skipping school to go surfing and snogging.

Soap stars that leave the serials rarely succeed in anything else, though the recording career of Kylie Minogue and Jason Donavon, after wisely abandoning Neighbours, has led many soap stars to pursue recording careers, most of which sink without trace.

A real nonsense of Soaps is the face change effect. This is where a cast member is killed off, but the character is kept on. Having the character vanish for a few months or years, and suddenly reappear with anew body, and no one notices anything different does this. Time Lords in TV fantasy Doctor Who regenerate less often.

Some Soap children do this when the producers tire of having them too young to have sex, so the underage kid vanishes and reappears above the age of legal consent for steamier storylines.

I am a big fan of Star Trek, but for years I never got to see it often as my parents wanted the Soaps on the rival channels at the same time. This was in the days when houses had just one TV and no video recorders. My father as ‘too far fetched’ would dismiss star Trek. I have endured the soaps enough to know better.

 

Arthur Chappell

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