I love Soap Opera – oops, sorry: I mean “continuing drama”, foolish of me. Soap Opera is naturally a poor title, since it implies this kind of drama is melodramatic and somewhat, well, soapy which connotes the notion (to me at least) that whilst it might *seem* ordinary on the outside, if ingested it causes an unpleasant taste in the mouth and potential stomach upsets. Okay, that is not working at all. Let’s try again. I like Soap Opera because of this:
That’s right, the scraps. Or fights, fisticuffs, rucks, rowdiness or whatever else you’d care to call them. A friend of mine last night (also called Dave, natch) enquired why I would like “such drivel” when I am apparently “an intelligent, educated woman” to which I replied, “It’s like my own life”… But as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realised what a falsehood this actually is. I don’t even know the names of the people on my street, let alone who their partners are so I might plot against them, sleep with them, or kill them. And let’s face it: this is part of why I watch Soap: it’s LARGER than life. I have no relatives who have run off to Milan recently after setting up their brother (Sarah-Louise in Coronation Street); I have not slept with my father-in-law (Stacy in Eastenders); I have not bet half my livelihood on a game of poker (Darren in Hollyoaks); I have not paid one of my employees to have a baby for me and nor do I know anyone who has done this either (Perdy and Grayson in Emmerdale). These scenarios and the inevitable confrontations that follow keep us hooked: we look at these characters and say “I know what’s coming next and IT’S ALL BAD.” It’s extreme voyeurism, with no consequences for us. Like, well-wicked man. Innit.
So why on earth would my first response be “It’s like my own life” when it so obviously is not? The answer, it would seem, is not in the characters; I think I would be hard pushed to find people as amoral and ever-changing as those in Soapland. You cannot ever depend on a Soap character; you can actually have a kid grow up WITHIN a soap, right in front of the nation’s eyes, yet still they surprise you. Take David Platt, Tracey Barlow or Rosie Webster as examples of this. They all come from what we imagine to be pretty “decent” families, yet David is Machiavellian in the extreme in his hatred of his mother Gail at just 16; Rosie at 17 is a poisonous little vixen, not to mention a tramp; as for Tracey… It would seem being a drug abuser, a transplant patient and selling her own baby was not enough, for this year she put the icing on the cake by murdering boyfriend Charlie in cold blood. Yeah baby! Though Eastenders has touched on notions of murder with Steve Owen’s shady operations in the 90s and Little Dennis’ murder of that other gangster bloke (not to mention Carl’s murder of his father in Emmerdale last year on Christmas Day and the legendary Brookside in the 80s and Barry Grant, though they both killed in fits of pique rather than as a calculated move), cold-blooded murder is something that only Coronation Street has *really* tackled in-depth of late in the “Big Three”; they had the first serial killer in UK Soap Opera of course with Richard Hillman and the “killer Corrie” storyline around the turn of the millenium. His stalking of wife Gail’s mother Audrey, subsequent killing of Maxine and attempt murder of Emily was enthralling stuff.
However, this inability to depend on your child, best friend, spouse or even parent is not limited to Coronation Street: Eastenders too has seen betrayal aplenty on various different guises. Who can forget The Mitchell Brothers almost killing each other when Grant discovered Phil had slept with Sharon? Or Den’s Demise, subsequent resurrection a decade or so later and then second murder by Chrissie, Sam and Zoe before he was buried under the concrete floor of the Vic beer cellar? Or Grant’s infidelity with second wife Tiffany’s own mother? The ensuing argument caused Tiffany to fall down the stairs on Christmas Day, survive a serious head injury, then get run over and killed by father-in-law Frank’s car on New Year’s Eve in front of her own daughter Courtney?? The same goes for Emmerdale. We might only be in a tiny village in the Yorkshire Dales, but lovers, siblings, parents and friends battle it out over trysts new and old, straight and gay. Is there no level these characters will not sink to??
It would seem not. And that’s why those of us who like soap opera, love it. It helps strengthen social bonds I think, especially amongst women: I would venture that women in particular like the longevity of soap opera, they buy into the storylines, look forward to them, appreciate the characters as extensions of those in their own lives, maybe sometimes relate those stories to things that have happened to them, though naturally those on TV are bigger, madder, more flourescent.
But that still doesn’t answer my question: why on earth did I say it was like my own life when it so patently is not, in any conceivable way?
The answer? It’s Arena.
I’ve lived in small villages like Emmerdale. I’ve lived in bigger connurbations like Walford in Eastenders or streets like that in Coronation Street. It’s these elements that encourage us to identify with these larger-than-life characters. It’s less “make believe” than the big HOLLYWOOD sign or fantastic like the Arctic. It’s in-between. It’s what we know. In between that sandwich of what we know then, the “make-believe” has been injected. And it works. Decades of soap opera tells us it works.
There’s the thought that soap opera caters for the lowest common demoninator. I disagree. Soap Opera is a huge machine and like all huge machines, it needs skilled people to make it work. Writing Soap is not easy; if it was, everyone would do it. It’s long been an ambition of mine to write Soap – I watched these programmes literally since I was a child, I’ve grown up with them. I enjoy them. I refuse to apologise for this or my ambition. Catering for the lowest common demoninator means to me producing something with no skill and no thought of the outcome of the output -not a definition that fits Soap as far as I’m concerned. If you don’t like Soap, don’t watch it. But don’t dismiss it. Has any other programme lasted as long as say, Coronation Street, 45-odd years and still counting? That’s real power.