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SOAP SUDS Radio 4
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According to Julia Smith, interviewed on Soap Suds on Wednesday, soap opera is "the modern equivalent of what the Iliad was to Greek culture"; and she created EastEnders, so she ought to know.

This has quite transformed my view of Homer. To understand the Iliad properly, you have to forget all the traditional nattering on about the wine-dark sea and the sufferings arising from the wrath of the son of Peleus. Instead, try to imagine Menelaus confronting Helen ("It's... Paris, isn't it?"), Achilles storming off to sulk in his tent while Briseis cries: "Achilles, no - can't you see I love you?" And Petroclus stops running after him ("Maybe it's better this way, Bri").

Think in terms of Barbara Windsor playing rosy-fingered Dawn, landlady of the local taverna, and Hector stepping out of the shower while Andromache tells him she's just had the strangest dream. Do you see what Julia Smith is getting at now?

Probably not: the point about soaps is that they are anything but heirs to a heroic literary tradition. One thing that emerges from the first part of Soap Suds, a five-part investigation of the genre, is that the central concerns of soap are domestic, trivial and, most importantly, feminine. Hilary Kingsley spoke eloquently about Coronation Street when it first arrived on the screen: at a time when television was full of men being manly, competing with each other and the world, the Street was the first to take women seriously: "They were talking about everyday problems, basic things like, 'Can I pay the gas bill?' and 'Do I fancy this bloke?' and 'Do the neighbours look down on me because I'm a tarty old slag?' "

But the programme's big problem was not that it took soaps seriously, but that it didn't take them seriously enough. They can seem comical to the outsider; and John Walters, mine genial host, is never one to let an easy joke go unmade. There was a lot of hypocrisy here. On the one hand, he was happy to carp at the pettiness and narrow middle-class concerns of early soaps like Mrs Dale's Diary; on the other, he confessed to a lifelong love of The Archers.

It's worth pointing out that taking working-class characters seriously is a relatively novel development in Borsetshire. Still, it's probably not worth getting into a lather about: by and large, this was good, clean entertainment. And kind to your skin.

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