Thursday, 2 June 2016

And then what happened? A defence of soap opera

And then what happened? A defence of soap opera

Why is it OK to sneer at soaps? Why should it be embarrassing, or a ‘guilty pleasure’, to enjoy them? And why are critics so terrified of taking soap seriously? 

Every now and again a review or feature appears in the online newspapers about EastEnders (BBC1) or Coronation Street (ITV). The comments below these articles are always the same. To save you the trouble of reading them in the future, I’ll reproduce a typical selection off the top of my head: 

“Are Angie and Den still at the Vic?”

“Coronation Street has never been the same since Ena Sharples died.”

“I can’t believe the BBC is wasting our licence fee on depressing rubbish like EastEnders.”

“Terrible acting and ridiculous plots. Stopped watching in 1990.”

“My wife likes EastEnders. I have to sit through this rubbish every night.”

“Banal fodder for the terminally stupid masses.”

“I haven’t watched EastEnders/Coronation Street since Dirty Den died/Deirdre had an affair with Mike Baldwin.

As you can see, the comments range from the crudely disingenuous (‘Is Angie still at the Vic?’ You know very well she isn’t), through clunky sarcasm to frankly cruel insults directed at cast members and scriptwriters. 

My personal favourite is the one from the man who explains that his wife loves EastEnders, and then goes on to pontificate about the dire intellectual level of the drama. I’ve read varieties of this comment many times - you have to wonder about the state of these writers marriages. 

Even when there is a grudging admission that soaps occasionally have good moments, a wry, superior tone is always present: great care is taken by the commenter to avoid any embarrassing suggestion that they might enjoy watching EastEnders or Coronation Street themselves. These people always seem to have watched episodes by accident, or in the distant past (it is somehow acceptable to know who Elsie Tanner was in Corrie, but not OK to know about Carla’s disastrous wedding last week). Strangely, though, they take the trouble to comment on articles about soap operas, and often reveal a remarkable familiarity with characters and plots. 

Critics and their clichés
The commenters are not entirely to blame for this snootiness, however, because they take their cue from formal reviewing. There is a standard tone journalists adopt when writing about soaps: tongue firmly in cheek, mocking, heavy on the sarcasm, sometimes witty, always implicitly condescending. 

This might partly be a legacy of the label, ‘soap opera’. The original soaps were, as you probably know, interspersed with detergent adverts aimed at a presumed audience of women at home, the ‘opera’ referring to melodrama in the content – plenty of scope for easy condescension there. 

More specifically, at least in the UK, it could be an unwitting homage to the enjoyable TV reviews by Nancy Banks-Smith in The Guardian. Banks-Smith once wrote that she “thought Coronation Street was a documentary, for I grew up in a pub like that with people exactly like that”. Her reviews of soaps were witty and whimsical, and the teasing was affectionate, the sort of mockery that happens between friends and family - she recognised the truth in the characters.

But Banks-Smith has had many imitators. The best, like Grace Dent’s ‘World of Lather’ column (also in The Guardian until 2012) took teasing and irreverence to a new level, but this reviewing style is now getting tired.

Reviewers seem to be saying, “I know you only watch soaps in an ironic sort of way, so let’s sit down together and rip the piss out of them.”

This strikes me as an oddly dismissive and lazy approach to an entire genre. For one thing, soaps have an impressive history – Coronation Street has been broadcast several times a week in the UK for over half a century (first episode was December 1960), EastEnders since 1985. If you want to delve back into radio soap, Mrs Dale’s Diary started in 1948 and ran to 1969, and The Archers, still going strong, started in 1951. Radio soap has an even longer history in America. 

Not that longevity and popularity have much to do with quality, but they do suggest that soap opera addresses a powerful human need. Criticism of soaps concentrates relentlessly on the worst the genre has to offer, the most farcical storylines, the most flagrant shark-jumping – it makes for easy laughs. Convincing, natural acting is often passed over, as is the observant, eccentric writing that makes Corrie sparkle in almost every episode. 

Lacey Turner's portrayal of her character Stacey's bipolar disorder and postpartum psychosis has won praise and multiple awards.

Also strange is that a soap will receive serious critical attention only when it is reformulated as a drama series – the US Netflix series Orange is the New Black has received deservedly positive reviews, but it owes a huge debt to the fabulous Prisoner: Cell Block H (Australia, 1979-1986, UK 1987-91; 692 episodes) which served as the butt of critics’ mockery for years. Perhaps critics see the robust popularity of soaps as a challenge, obliging then to keep their gloves off at all times.
Soap opera: a unique narrative form

The general disdain is much more curious – and more interesting - when you consider what a soap is, dramatically speaking. A soap is a story that never ends. There are narrative arcs, plots and subplots, denouements and revelations, exits, entrances (and countless re-entrances), explosions, sexual disasters, murders, love and pathos, tragedies and bad hair days, but it is never, ever over. If last night the cobbles (or the square) were strewn with corpses, in the morning, surviving characters get up, make tea and toast and get on with it. No final curtain. In this sense, soap is the only genre that comes close to mirroring the shapeless, untidy, ongoing experience of real life. 

Barbara Windsor made her final appearance as Peggy Mitchell in May 2016.

Soaps answer the childlike question, ‘And then what happened?’, and they are the only form of fictional narrative that can really do this. Who hasn’t wondered what happened next when a story ends? Who hasn’t felt that melancholia as the remaining pages in a deeply absorbing novel get fewer and fewer? Who hasn’t struggled to remind themselves that a fictional character never actually existed? Novels can have sequels but in the end the author dies. Film sequels are notoriously difficult to make successfully. TV drama serials come closest, but their stories tend to be contained within each season, character development has to fight with the demands of plot, and the long hiatus between seasons undermines realism. 

Soaps by contrast have a luxurious freedom to concentrate on character - the quirks and idiosyncrasies that make people memorable - developed at the leisurely pace of daily life and in the commonplace contexts of sitting rooms, pubs, cafés, workbenches, and corner shops. The characters insert themselves into your life over the months, years, and decades, becoming as familiar as family and friends and more so than neighbours. 

Catherine Tyldesley's character, Eva Price, is a Coronation Street classic. Always immaculate, Eva is placid and pragmatic until provoked - then she deploys the most formidable withering look in soap. 

The mythical soap addict who ‘talks about soap characters as if they were real’ is mocked, but would the same contempt be directed at someone talking about characters from novels, or cinema, in this way? I doubt that anybody ever thought that soaps were ‘real’. The point is that they are real for half an hour each evening.

As someone who has always found it remarkably easy to suspend disbelief, both in written fiction and film, I’m always mentally prepared to co-operate with the writer, or actor, in maintaining the pretence, and the writing or acting has to be pretty poor to prevent this happening at least temporarily. Sometimes, though, a soap will introduce a new actor who turns out to be truly terrible (more often in EastEnders, Coronation Street is more circumspect about introducing new cast members). That sudden burst of pure rage when the whole illusion is shattered by really bad acting shows how efficient soaps usually are at creating the illusion in the first place. 

Where do soaps go wrong?

If you accept that there is nothing intrinsically ridiculous about soap opera, it becomes easier to criticise soaps honestly and ask how they could be better. 

First, there are a number of tropes and traps. Some are so hoary they almost define the genre, but are still worth questioning.

1. Storyline stretching
An obvious recent example is the murder of Lucy Beale in EastEnders. I’m in two minds about this one. On the one hand, this murder of a character who was never very likeable when alive seems tortuously drawn out, but in terms of plausibility, a murder and its concealment would certainly reverberate for years. Storyline stretching, like cliffhanging, is most irritating when it manipulates the viewer too crudely, and when the plotline was weak to begin with.

2. The repeatedly interrupted revelation
This is my personal bugbear. The character has just started to spill the beans, when another person arrives, or their mobile goes off, etc. Next episode, repeat. It feels cynical and mocks the viewer’s intelligence. 
3. The coincidental crossing of paths
If someone is getting a little too close to another person, of course it is always the partner of one of them who just happens to be passing, not any other member of the cast. 
4. Waking up in perfect makeup 
Kudos to Kellie Bright, who plays Linda Carter in EastEnders, for defying this: Linda regularly appears entirely makeup-free in the mornings. It’s fascinating to see her transformation from bareface to glitter and glamour. Actors in other genres are guilty of waking up in perfect makeup, of course, but it looks sillier in a soap than a film.

Kellie Bright as Linda Carter

5. Eating breakfast in cafés every day
Do people really do this? It must be expensive. Also under this heading is cooking full fry-up breakfasts on a weekday, high launderette use in Eastenders (don’t any of them have washing machines?), and the profligate use of taxis. 

6. Weird concepts of distance
Talking about places like Brighton or Oxford (an hour away by train from London), as if they were the other side of the planet, and as if people who move there are effectively lost to the civilised world. 
7. Shouting near eavesdroppers
Loudly discussing highly sensitive personal matters (the body under your patio, adultery, your cross-dressing habit) in places like your local pub where people know you.

8. The Day Out 
For some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on, excursion or holiday episodes never work. Seeing the cast out of context, larking about in the country, produces the same awkward, deflated sensation I remember from childhood when you suddenly realise you are not a pirate or a witch, youre just playing a game. 

Many of these objections are trivial, often the result of lazy plotting, but cumulatively they erode realism and frustrate viewers. Other criticisms are more serious.

Melodrama versus character 

You have to sympathise with writers faced with producing stories for several episodes a week, indefinitely. The big trap is to resort to the set-piece disaster – a fire, train/car/tram crash, followed by a convenient cull of cast members and a rich supply of episode fodder for weeks or months. The more often this happens, the more credulity is stretched and the greater the risk of descending into farce. 

More generally, I think soaps massively overestimate viewers’ appetite for sensational events and personal meltdowns over character development and realism. Characters in EastEnders face once-in-a-lifetime crises almost weekly, which obviously cheapens the impact for viewers. Conversations are feverishly emotional both in content and delivery (Sharon being the archetype here), and the preoccupations of the characters are also almost exclusively emotional rather than practical. ‘Can you change the barrel?’ and ‘Would you watch my stall for a minute?’ seem to be the only sops to everyday dialogue.

This is probably the exact opposite of viewers’ experience – work, money, housing, transport, children, schools, shopping, domestic and medical difficulties form the daily texture of most lives, and it is normal life that is the natural constituency of the soap – it is not as if the schedules were short of high-octane dramas full of murder, sex, police, and so on.

Making drama out of the superficially ordinary, and developing believable characters, presents a much tougher, but potentially more interesting, challenge for writers, and here Coronation Street succeeds better than EastEnders. New characters are introduced to the Street almost imperceptibly. If they fit, they stay (let
s hope this is true of the wonderful Gemma, played by Dolly-Rose Campbell). People just chat, without contributing to any particular plotline, but enriching our impression of that person. Some characters do very little but drink in the Rovers, dress hair, or serve customers, for weeks at a time. The action is all in the talk: one surreal exchange between Norris, Mary and Rita in the Kabin (a newsagent) is worth a thousand tram crashes.  

Having said that, as I was writing this article, the hapless Gail Platt discovered that the corpse of a local gangster had been buried under her bed for months, and her own children were the murderers, so the Street is hardly immune from the siren call of melodrama. 

Kate Ford has twice won the 'Best Bitch' award for her character Tracy Barlow in Coronation Street. 

EastEnders has some superb well-established characters, and many promising ones, but they often seem swamped and sidelined by overheated plotting. EastEnders has also suffered from the real-life erosion of its original 1980s context, a shabby square in the traditionally working-class East End of London. Runaway house-price inflation in London has made it highly unlikely that any of the characters could afford to live in these desirable terraced houses – or should I say ‘properties’ – today. Coronation Street, set in the Manchester area, remains more credible. Its hard to know what EastEnders should do about this, but some acknowledgement of the housing crisis in the plots might be a start.* 

And what they do right . . . 

British and Australian soaps, unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the world, are free from prurient and obsequious fascination with the lives of the rich and pampered, and this is a massive plus. At their best, as in all good drama, soaps show that there is no such thing as an ‘ordinary person’, a ‘minor character’, or an ordinary place, but they need to stay aware of what they are good at.

Coronation Street: The action is all in the talk: one brief, surreal conversation between Norris, Mary, and Rita is worth a thousand tram crashes.

* It seems that someone might be reading this blog (!) because since I wrote this article, EastEnders has started to include quite a few references to house prices, difficulties with rent, and so on.

© Josephine Gardiner 2016


  1. I really enjoyed reading this. It's high time the snobbery surrounding soaps was challenged as rigorously as this. Thanks. The likes of Dickens & Conan Doyle were originally published in weekly serial form. What was that other than 19th Century soap in the most widely-available medium of the time?

    My only gripe regarding modern soaps is their ubiquity. When they moved from twice weekly to four or five times it became impossible to keep track of plots unless adopting couch potato status. For instance, in EastEnders an old character was recently reintroduced (complete with obligatory new head) whose back story was instantly familiar to other cast members yet I have no idea what dastardly deeds he committed that appal the denizens of Albert Square.

  2. Thanks very much for commenting. I think the main point I was trying to make was that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with soap as a genre and that critics should criticise soaps more honestly rather than using them as convenient material to make facile jokes or show off their own writing. Soaps ARE sometimes good - and so they could be better.

    I think the new EastEnders character you mention is called Stephen - and I have no idea who he is supposed to be, or where he comes from, either!