Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Soap and Opium

It's often said that if Dickens were alive today he'd be writing for 'Stenders or Corrie - the vivid chararacterisation, the rich tapestry of life, the stress on ordinary people's lives, the anatomisation of their community etc. There's a lot of alternative snobbery too, of course: my dad would leave the room when the soaps came on, despising the rest of us for watching them - far beneath him, they were, in his rarified cultural cloud.  I've always been a defender of soaps, and not just in reaction to my dad: for the past year I have been coming down at 1.30 pm from working on my (to me, anyway) deep (but highly accessible!) novel, and have happily - indeed greedily - watched Neighbours while chomping my lunch, without any sense of cultural jarring whatever. The psychology, it has seemed to me, is brilliant, particularly between parents and children, a lot of the dialogue is very sharp, and there is a nicely wry overall view which provides moments of good comedy while dealing seriously with serious matters.

I have just been away for a fortnight with no telly and have come back to a kind of earthquake shift in the storylines. When I left, a key character, a handsome (and thus easily identifiable with) policeman in a central storyline concerning a love affair, was about to be taken into protective custody, with potential dire consequences (the end of the love affair, hints of the children involved being in danger of kidnap) and another key character had been dramatically carted off in a coma with some mystery illness. What's the situation now? The policeman has disappeared off the face of the earth (the plot was clearly a device to allow the actor to bow out), and his housemates are looking for a replacement, and the character who was in a coma a fortnight ago is bouncing around full of health and providing comic relief by interfering with their plans. And I have no idea how any of this happened, because the script gives no clue, and the characters are acting as though none of it did ever happen. It's that old familiar thing: soap amnesia, inevitable I guess in decades-long-running series, with shifting actors and storyliners, but a fundamental denial of the long-term psychological consequences of the past which Dickens always tackles head-on.

It could be answered of course that we don't always want anything so deep, but soaps dominate the culture.  A culture of forgetting?


Agnieszkas Shoes said...

I remember when Harold came back from the dead years ago.

There are some cases where it's less soap amnesia and more failing to capitalise on a potentially cracking storyline - I'm still waiting for Max to remember Tania got Shaun to bury him alive and leave him for dead.

There is some wonderful writing in soaps, though. I only ever see it when I'm on holiday, but Doctors never fails to impress me. And back in the day The Bill used to be incredible

Dan Holloway said...

sorry, that's me - pressed the wrong button!

Sally Zigmond said...

(I shall refrain from jokes about split personalities, Dan.)

That's the reason I stopped watching soaps. Not because I think they're beneath me (the writing is mainly sharp and incisive) but because they go around in circles like a dog chasing its tail. There is very little in the way of character development or cause and effect in the narrative. They're also somewhat 'incestuous' in that people rarely form relationships beyond the street, square or village in which they live, the only employment seems to be in the pub, cafe or local launderette. And everyone goes to the same pub every lunchtime and ever evening.

It's a kind of freedom to have finally shrugged them off.

Dan Holloway said...

That's exactly it, Sally, and something my wife and I are always shouting at the screen - the obvious answer to so many of the issues people have would be just to move away. The ways they have to explain how and why people stay become utterly torturous - and then when people DO move away, and there's a funeral or wedding of a family member you get those cringeworthy interjections about letters and phonecalls explaining why they can't come, rather than just saying they signed a 5 year deal with another channel!
So that's the soap paradox - at one and the same time the most and least nuclear families you'll find

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, and the worst thing is when characters suddenly get total personality transplants just to fit a storyline (must be the fault of storyliners and hell for the script writers).

Hang on, Dad, I'm coming with you!