Deborah Ross: 'My search for the perfect soap opera'

'The melodrama pounds away without mercy. Everybody shouts. Also, I do not like Phil, who looks as if he smells'
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The Independent Culture

In all my years, of which there have been many, I have never watched a soap, unless you count Crossroads, which I watched when I was a schoolgirl, and although everyone is so cruel about it now – the wobbly sets; chef Shughie McFee going to the freezer for some pork chops and never returning; Miss Diane inexplicably vacuuming in the background because a scriptwriter misspelt hovering with an extra 'o' – I absolutely adored it. But since then, as an adult? Zilch, although I'm not sure why.

Generally, I am a greedy, indiscriminate TV watcher. I watch property programmes in which a couple spend an hour looking at several homes before deciding none of them are right, and I don't consider it a waste of time. I watch episodes of Friends I've already seen once, twice, a hundred times before. I will watch Cash in the Attic, Bargain Hunt, Zoo Vet, Animal Park, Airline, Cook's Challenge and even that programme where people buy shitty little houses at auction. In other words, I watch programmes which even make me ask: how is this television? How, how, how? So it's not as if I'm choosy, is all I'm saying.

Of course, I'm not wholly ignorant when it comes to soaps. Bits and bobs have filtered through over time, and I don't live under a rock (except on Tuesdays, which is my Under Rock Day). Den and Angie, Ken and Deirdre, the Sugdens; I sort of feel I know who they are. Plus, my grandmother always watched Coronation Street, and I remember particularly being in her flat and watching an episode during which Hilda Ogden – a great Mrs Malaprop – described Elsie Tanner's new, black bathroom as "disgusting" and "phonographic". For many years afterwards, I thought phonographic was something terrifically dirty, and whenever we passed the 'Phonographic Equipment' building on the North Circular I would titter smuttily while my parents looked on uncomprehendingly.

I suppose it's the commitment that's always put me off soaps; all that business of having to be in the right place at the right time on the right night of the week, and when we acquired a video, that wasn't much help, as I could never work it, and wouldn't have remembered to programme it anyhow. But now there's Sky Plus and it's all available online, what's stopping me? I even think I would like to have a soap, if only so I can join in with those water cooler moments, although working from home as I do, I'll probably have to talk to myself at the tap in the kitchen, but that's OK. I can do that. Last time I met myself at the tap, I talked to myself about how I really must get off my arse and get the car MOT'd. It has to be more interesting than that.

So I'm here for the taking, basically, but which soap? If I were to take one up, which would it be? I decided to audition a few and, to this end, I watched a week's worth of the four big ones: EastEnders, Emmerdale, Coronation Street and Hollyoaks, which my teenage son watches in spite of himself. "It's terrible and I know it's terrible, but I can't help it," he explains. Alas, I sometimes fear he is just not very bright, and may even end up doing something in phonography.

While watching all these soaps, which amounted to two hours' worth of each, if nothing else, I have noticed many things about people I had never noticed before: the way they stare into the middle distance out of windows; the way they close doors behind them, lean back, then exhale; the way they never say goodbye at the end of telephone calls. Should you ever receive a phone call from someone who says what they have to say and then just abruptly hangs up, I can guarantee a soap character has been on the line. If I were you, I would use "call back" and then say: "Look, I know you've been framed for a murder and I know the woman who is about to marry your son is your long-lost daughter – although you don't know it, yet – and I know I know you've had amnesia, have come back from the dead, and are part of an intense love triangle and wear enormous earrings – what is all that about? – but there is never, ever any excuse for such rudeness." Honestly. Who do these people think they are? Now, here we go:


BBC1, Mondays and Fridays, 8pm, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 7.30pm

EastEnders is set around a square in the East End of London, with much of the action taking place in a pub called the Queen Vic, although sometimes it moves to a "caff" or a street market of the kind that does not look like a destination street market. You wouldn't want to shop there rather than at Portobello, say, or Columbia Road. (If you know all this, I'm sorry, but it's entirely new to me). It stars Barbara Windsor as Peggy Mitchell who wears Chanel-style jackets teamed with the meatiest camel toe I have ever seen. If I were Ms Windsor's dresser I might say to her: "Babs, let's give your front-bottom a bit of air today, and not hoist your slacks up quite so high? How does that sound?" Peggy does overweening sentimentality or she does rocketing rage. She does not do any of the emotions in-between. She is quite tiny, and maybe just doesn't have room? She is particularly sentimental around Ronnie and Roxy, sisters who run a nightclub where, interestingly, customers walk in and out during the day. It's a day/night club which, I suppose, makes sense for those who struggle to stay up late. Anyway, Roxy, it seems, was interfered with as a child by her own father. Glenda, Roxie's mother, knew about this as it was happening, and did nothing. Peggy learns that Glenda knew about this and did nothing. Peggy rockets with rage and tells all to Roxie because if there is something else I have learnt about soaps it is this: no one can keep their bloody mouth shut. Peggy tells Glenda to "get aht!!!!" then prepares for a family dinner. "It's a family dinner, what's the worst that can happen?" she asks, stupidly. Her sister, Sal, arrives with a trifle and an arsenal of insults. "Get aht my house," Peggy screams at her sister. She then goes over the road to see her son, Phil, but since she last saw him he has become a crack addict, and now sits around morosely like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, but perhaps less enigmatically. Phil tries to throttle Peggy and then throws her out on the street. A stringy woman with stringy hair – Shirley? – thinks she can save Phil. "I won't see him go down," she says. Meanwhile, a man called Minty declares his love for a fat lady who seems nice if a bit simple. Is that baby theirs? I've no idea, but wish them well all the same.

The facts: It was first aired on 19 February 1985; it achieved its highest-ever ratings on Christmas Day, 1986, when 30.5 million tuned it to watch Den serve Angie her divorce papers; I once sat behind Dr Legg on a bus although didn't know until the woman next to me whispered: "That's Dr Legg from EastEnders." "Wow," I said, because I don't want to appear as out of it as I am.

Best/worst line, as the two often amount to the same thing: Shirley to Peggy, said in the heat of the moment, as you do: "You're like a geriatric jockey, riding on everyone's back and digging your heels in."

Would I watch again? Probably not. The melodrama pounds away without mercy. Everybody shouts at each other while jabbing them in the chest. There are lighter moments, but they are so obviously lighter moments, and so heavily played, they are self-defeating. Also, I did not like Phil, who looks as if he smells.


ITV, every weekday at 7pm, with an extra episode on Thursdays at 8pm

I thought that, as the one rural soap, there would be vets and new-born foals on wobbly legs – who doesn't love a new-born foal on wobbly legs? – but not a bit of it. Instead, it's a flinty-eyed Amanda Donohoe (from LA Law!) wandering around in a sleeveless top. Does she know she's not in California? A boy called Ryan is in jail for some murder he didn't do. Amanda knows he didn't do it but she isn't saying who did. "Keep away from my family," she tells this man who keeps sidling up to her and saying things like: "They've let the real killer go, haven't they?" And: "I don't know what game you're playing." Alas, he does not say: "Put a jumper on, love. You're in Yorkshire now." There are some familiar faces. Suzanne Shaw from Hear'Say plays a plump minx who flirts with a man then stays behind and kisses him, and if that doesn't sound exciting, it's probably because it isn't. Pauline Quirke pops up but, sadly, isn't given much to do, bar sit under a pub umbrella and look sad. Patrick Mower mooches about wearing a leather shoestring choker, which can put you off a man quicker than a ponytail. Nicola locks her husband in the pub cellar, but do we care? I think not.

The facts: The first episode aired on 16 October, 1972; in 1993, a plane crashed into the village, killing four people; it's popular in Finland.

Best/worst line: Patrick Mower: "Nicola, let your husband out of the cellar!" Why? He's very dull. Best place for him.

Would I watch again? The countryside looked nice, but it's all plot and no character. Everyone is silly or boring, usually both. It needs more foals. And maybe some piglets.


ITV, Mondays and Fridays, 7.30 & 8.30pm, Thursdays, 8.30pm

I adored old Betty who says things like "what a palaver" and probably also says "that hits the spot" whenever she has a first sip of tea. It is comforting somehow. There are a couple, stodgy Steve and a rather livelier Becky, who are desperate to adopt but, just before they go before the adoption panel, Becky cadges a fag from a woman who turns out to be on that panel. Becky has said on the paperwork that she does not smoke. Steve and Becky are turned down and, I admit it, I was moved. (Hey, Becky, I've got a teenage boy you can have. And his career prospects in phonography look good.) A woman has trapped a man by pretending to be pregnant. Obviously, she cannot think nine months ahead.

Kim Marsh from Hear'Say serves behind the bar in the pub. Honestly, what are the chances of that apostrophe getting a job on a soap soon? Pretty high, I'd have thought. Watch out for it in Holby City. Becky's sister, Kylie, turns up, and has "good person" written all over her. Only kidding. She is evil. Ken and Deirdre are picking at the carcass of their marriage. Ken has the hump with Deirdre because she had an affair but, as Deirdre points out, he had an affair first although, as Ken points out, before he had that affair, she had an affair and so on, until the very beginning of time. Deirdre speaks like a drag queen, God bless her. In the end, they settle for a TV supper and separate bedrooms. Meanwhile, a little boy is in hospital, having been brought in unconscious with a lump on his head. His parents are beside themselves, while you count down to the moment the social workers arrive to quiz them on that bump 10, 9, 8... here they are. Sophie is gay but hasn't told her dad – mad-eyed Kevin – or her mum, sniffy Sally. Sally has heard rumours but knows they are not true. "I know you are normal," she says to Sophie.

The facts: First aired 9 December, 1960; Ken has had 24 lovers and three wives and has married Deirdre twice; notable scriptwriters include Jack Rosenthal, while notable actors include Pete Postlethwaite, Joanna Lumley and Ian McKellen.

Best/worst line: Ken: "Is this our future? A TV dinner with a side order of resentment." Deirdre, hopefully: "I just thought a snack on a tray would be nice." I'm not sure Deirdre understands how to save a marriage.

Would I watch again? Yes, I think so. It's much more character-driven than the others, has a better sense of place and a more full-blooded sense of humour. It is also better acted – Becky and Fizz are particularly good – and has a lovely Greek chorus of terrific old biddies: Emily, Rita, Betty. I liked it. I want Steve and Betty to get a baby.


Channel 4, every weekday at 6.30pm

A beautiful black woman, Gabby, sits in a restaurant and shrugs her cardigan to her elbows when the restaurant owner comes over to chat her up. This must be CARDIGAN FLIRTING! I've heard about it, obviously, but had never actually seen it until now. Then, when her horrid, gangster-ish husband turns up, she shrugs the cardigan back up onto her shoulders. This is how to signal the END OF CARDIGAN FLIRTING! Who knew? The rest of the soap looks as if it's been shot in a Magnet kitchen showroom and is peopled by Cheryl Cole look-alikes and boys slicked in hair gel – very flammable; would love to set fire to them one day – who have spent too long in the gym and have arms like thighs.

Jem is not happy with her dad: "You attacked my boyfriend and broke his leg and you also attacked Jasmine's boyfriend, too. Why?" Why, indeed. Jem has a boyfriend, Ravi, who is thigh-armed. Ravi has a one-night stand with Eva. Ravi swears Eva to secrecy, so Eva says to Anita: "I slept with Ravi last night". Anita tells Jem. Jem says to Ravi: "Why?" He says: "I didn't mean to," as if he'd just broken a cup. The doorbells all look as if they've been stuck on with Blu-Tack. There is also a day/night club. There is one girl who is a university student. She wears Peter Pan collars and is also a lesbian.

The facts: First aired on 23 October 1995; in 2009 Hollyoaks was the most-nominated soap at the British Soap Awards but failed to win anything.

Best/worst line: The restaurant owner, who doesn't know if he can rescue Gabby from her hateful marriage: "I've done my bronze lifesaver and if there's one thing I learnt, it's that you can't save people unless they want saving." And some drowning people don't want saving?

Would I watch again? I'd rather knock my teeth out with a mallet.

Conclusion: Coronation Street is the winner and I have actually continued watching. I am even meeting myself later at the tap to talk about Hayley's wedding. I can't wait!