Television Review

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The Independent Culture
JUST AS uncanny coincidences are bound to happen every so often (and shouldn't be taken as proof that the unseen hand of Providence is at work), so life is always at risk of seeming to imitate art. There is, after all, such an awful lot of life going on, and we have a strong urge to read familiar patterns into events. But does that mean that art really has an affect on the course of events?

The main theme of the last part of Never Ending Stories (BBC2), Mark Lawson's agreeably partial analysis of soap-culture, was the relationship between soap operas and reality. Lawson's case was that the cultural dominance of soaps has affected the way we perceive the world. In support of this, he came up with a number of examples of real-life events - the trials of OJ Simpson and Louise Woodward, the Monica-Bill business - which have been compared to soap opera. The resemblances are clear enough: each of these real-life affairs involved sensational events and strong emotions unfolding over a period of weeks. The OJ trial even displaced many daytime soaps in American television schedules, and the soaps have not yet recovered from the effect on their ratings.

Lawson took the argument further, proposing that President Clinton owed his political survival to soap's narrative conventions. Accustomed by soap viewing to the idea of characters going through a period of high drama before returning to normal, humdrum life, the American people were prepared, post-Monica, to let Clinton carry on as normal - to forgive and forget. As further evidence of the political influence of soaps, he dredged up a photograph of Margaret Thatcher in the Rovers Return; and, of course, there was Our Tony shoving his oar into the Deirdre Rachid case.

The programme was closely argued, with some entertaining counter-examples of the tenuous relationship between real-life and soap. The American show The Guiding Light, which started out on radio in the Thirties and is still going strong on television, recently included a storyline involving the murderous clone of one of the main characters. The show's executive producer defended this on the grounds that: "It was an extrapolation of something that's going on in the world."

But I don't think Lawson proved his case. What he did show was that modern politicians have a strong populist bent (Mr Blair has also gone out of his way to show an interest in football and pop music, and to be nice to the The Sun); and that soap opera has become the predominant contemporary metaphor for implausibility and melodrama. Whether soap has made us see the world in more melodramatic or implausible terms is another matter.

I suspect a programme like 21st-Century Stalking (BBC1) would have been possible without the influence of soap. This was advertised as a programme about "cyber- stalking" - using computers as a medium for harassment, and even soliciting violence. It began with the case of Gary Dellapenta, an American security guard who took revenge on a woman who rejected his advances by logging on to Internet sex chat-rooms, and posing as a woman with fantasies of violent masochistic sex. Using the love-object's home address, he invited men to break the door down, rip off her clothes, tie her up and rape her. On six occasions, men responding to the invitation tried to break her door down.

In fact, most of the programme was about more conventional, though no less shocking, instances of sexual harassment and threat; the cyber-stalking angle turned out to be a come on. In fact, the whole programme had a repellently sensationalist, attention-grabbing tone. We got some broadly phrased warnings about how common this form of crime is, with no hard statistics to back them up. At one point, a psychologist claimed that stalking is a problem in Britain as well as the United States (all these cases were in California); but we weren't offered any evidence of this. The crimes were reconstructed in an overly dramatic fashion, with lots of fast cutting and jittery music (and, I noticed, Gary Dellapenta was transformed from an obese, ageing security guard, as seen on a police mug-shot, to a much more glamorous figure).

At a point where Hollywood feels that the stalk 'n' slash genre is too hackneyed to be tackled in any way except ironically, documentary television still feels able to try all the old exploitative tricks.

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