TELEVISION: Is Auntie the real pornographer-in-chief?
Sunday 10 August 1997
There you have it - a decade or more in 18 words. For in Neighbours nothing changes. At all. Not the furniture, not the scripts, not the settings, not the characters. The names might be altered from week to week: Zeke gives way to Jason, Gail dies and is replaced by Babs, but they are much the same people.
Or, in the case of Harold and Madge, exactly the same people. Having killed Harold off in a freak sea-falling incident several years ago, and sent Madge to learn acting in Perth, the script-writers found themselves lacking someone to mouth Harold's old-time morality and do Oliver Hardy impressions. Eschewing the series's usual Dr Who reincarnative capacity to bring characters back, but played by actors of entirely different looks and body types, this time the originals were reintroduced.
And how economical this is! No need to search for new locations - "this is the spot where I disappeared," says Harold. No requirement to lash out on new costumes - Madge is "wearing the original dress she wore last time". And certainly no need to invent new dialogue - "I can't wait for you to meet Scott and Charlene - again." Scott and Charlene! Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue! My God, a lot of very soapy water has flowed under the Erinsborough bridge since those two strutted the floorboards of Ramsay Street.
In fact only Helen has remained. In Neighbours terms her longevity is little short of miraculous - almost biblical in fact. It is as though Sheila Grant still lived in Brookside Close, having survived two cults, three sieges, one murder attempt, five stalkers, terminal cancer and marriage to Jimmy Corkhill. Helen is permitted to dispense balmy wisdom and ask impertinent questions which no one seems to resent.
Apart from Helen, everyone else is either 18 or 50. Parents and aunts are packed into small houses with thousands of adolescents. Breakfast- time is one long disgorgement from unseen bedrooms and bathrooms as, one by one, they emerge, arouse or allay suspicions about last night - and then go off to work or school. The young guys are hormonal hunks, with shoulder-length blonde hair and puzzled expressions. One - the iffy one - is always the handyman, helping out in the gardens. The Sheilas are all teeth and tits, their breasts straining athletically out of skimpy blouses.
Hunks and Sheilas are in permanent collision, explaining the almost pheremonal attraction Neighbours has for the 12 to 16 age group. "I want our relationship to be as open as possible," says teeth. Mistake. Her next line is: "I wrecked everything with one kiss." Soon her ravaged boyfriend is seen gazing out to sea - at Harold's spot. And then he's gone, leaving the programme in one abrupt amputation. One second you're supposed to care about his agony, and the next he's buggered off - to be immediately replaced by a country cousin, about whom one of the adolescent females (breasts as sharp as HB pencils) asks, "Is he spunky?"
Is he spunky? Now there's a question that would have a very different meaning in the mouth of a character from This Life (BBC2, Thurs). Such has been the circus surrounding this show that I can hardly bear to mention it. Anyway you've seen it now, and know what happened. A synopsis though, for those stranded on Folegandros during the recent Greek ferry strike. Bad but sexy Miles did marry old Francesca, and Rachel told poor Egg about Milly's incomprehensible affair with O'Donnell. Watched by a grieving Anna, Milly met her best moment when she stomped on to the dance floor and gave Rachel one - bam! - right in the kisser.
All the things that I have to come to like about the series were present in the last episode. A guilt-ridden Milly was being very sick after downing a whole bottle of vodka, and Egg asked "Shall I get you a bucket?", rushed into the kitchen, couldn't find the bucket and snatched up a saucepan, telling his bemused housemates, "Don't worry, I'll wash it up". It was tacky and true and funny, like when - in an earlier episode - Kira and Joe lost a condom during intercourse. It happens, but not often on telly - which is what marks This Life out as genuinely modern.
The relationship between the characters and drugs, for instance, is remarkably casual. They just do it, whether it is Miles snorting a line of coke, or - and look at this written down - Ferdy and Lenny, the gay Scottish plumber, high on E, having passionate anal sex in the loo during Miles and Francesca's reception. Moral: there isn't a moral.
Then there's the more-or-less 100 per cent adultery. Milly cheats on Egg with O'Donnell (who is even more miserable and humourless than she is). O'Donnell cheats on Milly with his wife. Miles cheats on Francesca with Anna. Egg doesn't cheat on anybody and consequently everyone thinks he's a bit soft. Moral: be discreet when you cheat - but cheat. It's the only way of finding out what you really want.
So should it come back? Can it? Miles is now married, Milly and Egg have split up, Milly and O'Donnell have split up, Milly and work have split up, Ferdy wants to move in with Lenny. Well, Miles was important, but Anna is the key. Her feisty vulnerability, her wit and slightly raddled sexiness make her a proper contemporary heroine. And anything Daniela Nardini does seems to be interesting. Provided Anna stays in the house, it can all be reconstructed around her: new loves, disasters, friends to advise, colleagues at work. I could even cope - way down the line - with Anna as a mum. I'd also like to see more of Kira, who, with her two- toned hair and innocent enthusiasm, is a completely realised character.
In my addled state this week, I imagined a cross between Neighbours and This Life, in which you get to see Harold and Madge getting drunk and having it off, and in which Jack Davenport can return to the screen as Miles's long-lost identical twin brother, who everyone thought was dead. This may not be as absurd as it sounds, for, at the end of this episode of This Life, we saw a tanned Mystery Man in a ridiculous Aussie shirt arriving at the wedding reception, taking one look at the mayhem and muttering "Outstanding", happily to himself. Warren was there for a reason - and he looked real spunky.
Now, how about this for bad language? Anna is telling Milly to pull herself together: "You're sad and lonely and fucked-up. Have some fucking self- respect and put us out of our fucking misery, OK?" On BBC2 this swearing is fine. On Channel 4, however, they'd have to justify it by making it part of something like the "Renegade TV" season, which started with Irvine Welsh's The Granton Star Cause (C4, Mon).
This was the very funny and coprophilic tale of useless young Boab (Bob, in English), who - in one day - is chucked out of the soccer team, thrown over by his "burrd" (more breasts), sacked, kicked out of home, beaten up by police turned into a fly by God (Maurice Roeves), and - finally - allowed to wreak brief, poisonous and literally shitty revenge on his tormentors, before being swatted by his sadomasochistic mother. Nothing there that old Miles and Ferdy haven't done. But although the language was foul, and amyl nitrate was taken, this was very much a moral fable. Boab, as God points out, is feckless, purely reactive and a waste of space. He should have taken control of his life, and made something of it. Instead he pissed it up the wall.
Originally Richard Wilson was wanted for God - whose interlude was Welsh's equivalent of the deus ex machina "Grand Inquisitor" chapter in The Brothers Karamazov - but turned the part down. Roeves was (as usual) excellent; it was, however, a didactic role that could have been equally appropriately played by David Blunkett or Gordon Brown.
So why not run it as part of a "Moral TV" season? My rather shallow theory is that this would not have upset the Daily Mail enough. The Mail - though completely ignoring the cheerful rum, bum, E and buggery of This Life - is always ready with a choleric editorial as soon as a nipple or a dyke appears on Channel 4. Which - according to Wildean logic - suits Channel 4 just fine. But one wonders, therefore, where this season business will end. Will we have Degenerate TV? Jackoff TV? Nail Your Dick to a Plank TV (to celebrate the famous Spanner case)? Or - for genuinely polymorphous perverts - how about the Harold and Madge season? No, that's going too far.
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