Television: Sex and death before the watershed

The Critics
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Every week a staggering 20 million adults in Britain fail to watch a soap on television. This means that they do not understand half of the stories in our great tabloid newspapers ("Death threats made me leave the Street says Fred", "How drugs nearly cost me my life, by Albert Square's Juliet"), miss out on strange conversations in the ladies' loos at work ("So then they dug up the patio, and there he was!") and cannot tell whether they are being maligned or flattered if someone tells them that they have all the seductiveness of a Des Barnes. They are socially disadvantaged and, up until this week, I was one of them.

But for a complete day this week I sat down and watched all the soap I could manage, so that I could present this report, and thus help those of my fellow citizens who are similarly out of step. Read carefully and you should be able to get back into the swing of things.

Now, there are certain universal rules to soap opera which we should deal with at the outset. Rule One concerns characters. There must be a matriarch; when they appear in the text I shall mark them "M". There will usually be adulterers (A), harmless idiots (HI), entrepreneurs (E), troubled teenagers (TT), bad guys (BG), violent boyfriends (VB), Winona Ryder lookalikes (WR), melting hunks (MH) and get-ahead gals (GG). Sometimes these categories overlap (AEBG is a good combination), sometimes this is inconceivable (as in HIMWR).

The Second Rule enables you to spot soap stars in the street or at flash parties. Because the camera needs to see most of the face of each person in a conversation, they learn to speak to each other at an angle of 30 degrees, facing outwards like the pages of an open book. So if you find yourself speaking to someone who insists on talking along the line of their own shoulders, you know where they've been.

The Third Rule is that the first episode of each soap every week usually begins with breakfast. In Coronation Street this is a hearty affair, brought down from the Granada canteen just minutes earlier. EastEnders have orange juice (the Elstree kitchens are too far away from the set), Brookside has coffee in white mugs, Neighbours always feed a baby in a high chair, Emmerdale-ians (being countryfolk and early risers) have finished breakfast before the cameras arrive.

With most of these programmes - and like most people - there was a time when I watched one or other of them, and then gave up or lost the habit. The onset usually coincided with a new girlfriend and the disillusion followed some months after parting. Thus it was with Neighbours (BBC1, Mon-Fri). Three factors made me pack it in some eight years ago. I couldn't hack the lost children / parents / uncles now magically returned; was alarmed by the exceptional mortality rate, with characters suffering almost every conceivable kind of accident ("That's where he was standing when the koala hit him." "Unbelievable, mate." "Yes. Only his glasses were left behind"); and - above all - I was worried that the plot-lines (involving nubile 14-year-old schoolgirls in French kissing) might get me placed on some kind of register if I carried on watching.

Nevertheless back I went. This being Australia, and the month being August, it was, of course, St Valentine's Day in Ramsey Street. There was only one character I recognised, Helen Daniels (M), who is a touch of artistic Hampstead in philistine Mooney Ponds. Chief Philistine is Cheryl Stark (Super-M), a woman whose hair is bigger than her head, whose earrings are bigger than her ears and whose chemise is bigger than a king-size duvet. Her son Brett (TT - one of many) is oppressed by her, and reduced to lines like "I'm sick to death with being easy-going Brett Stark!"

The plot in Neighbours doesn't matter - never really did. These lines were spoken during Tuesday's episode: "Look, there's no easy way to say this. You and I, well, we're not making it, are we?" Sob. Walk-out. And you know there's no point investing much emotional energy in the unhappy couple, because both will soon be dead. "Watch that hang-glider, Cody, I think it's coming down! Codyyyyyy!" I can't be bothered.

Brookside (C4, Tues, Wed & Fri) has a similarly brutal way with its inhabitants. See Merseyside and die is its motto. I used to watch it from 1982 to round about 1985, with a return for the Jordache wifebeating-rape-murder-patio-trial-suicide (M, TTx2, BG, VB) interlude. I packed Brooky in when it was taken over by Barry and Terry in "Eh, oh, soft lad, it's the bizzies, where did that pile of video-recorders come from?" mood.

And no one is there that I recognise - a staggering indictment of the lack of stable communities and the prevalence of dysfunctional families in Britain today. Consider the Simpsons: Bel to husband, Ollie (at 30 degrees), "Look at us. We have a daughter whose marriage lasted six months, and a son who claims he's gay!" The truth is actually much worse. The son (TTMH) has walked out on his wife (despite the fact that he seems to be only about 15 years old), because he and his sister (GG) are having it off. "Oprah Winfrey could devote a whole programme to that family," says a neighbour, who has just broken up with his own wife and dumped his own children. What a clever line that is!

More is to follow, for Ollie and Bel find themselves looking after home- alone child Louise (left by her mother, Samantha), who then runs away and falls into a pond which is approximately one foot by six inches in size. Amazingly, given the local longevity problems, she survives. By the end of the week the bizzies (never far away from the Close) are at the airport to arrest the errant Mum. And I enjoyed almost every second of it.

EastEnders (BBC1, Mon, Tues & Thurs) is much more restrained, and far more moralistic. Cindy (A) is two-timing Ian (E), who calls in a private dick to follow her, thus prolonging the pleasure of her discovery. The rest is a tale of four Svengalis and their Trilbys. Dan (BGMHE) is leading Tony (TT) into the drugs business; Alistair (Christian) is baptising Sarah (TT) into the church and an anti-drugs crusade; Bianca (GG) is marrying her boyfriend whether he likes it or not; and Joe (VBBG) is trying to get Simon back - which he blows by whacking Simon's pregnant sister Tiffany (WR). Meanwhile Mark (HIV), is giving a lecture on his condition at the Community Centre, allowing a nice opportunity for some health education (allowing a BBC executive to tick a performance box) and Sarah is baptised there later, thus bringing most of the cast together for some catharsis. Pat (M) has not moved from the same seat in the pub for three episodes, leading to confusion on my part about the timescale. Is she a lush, or is this all the same day? Find out next week.

Emmerdale (ITV, Tues & Thurs) seems to me to be a soap too far. Located in the Mediterranean heat of the Yorkshire Dales - where the chronic lack of rain must now be threatening the livelihoods of the farmers - this failed to live up to its reputation for extraordinary disasters (plane crashes, Ebola epidemics, etc). The opening titles indicate a variety of uninteresting country pursuits (lambs gambolling, mountain-biking, tractor-slaloming, Range Rover-ing) and the plot duly delivers on these. Viv is contemplating becoming an A with Terry: "Let's not kid ourselves." "I am a married woman." "Don't tease me, we're both too old." "It's a dangerous game." "It's more than a game to me." They deserve each other - a lifetime's cliche-ing together.

Sultry pregnant Kim has been an A with Dave, but it's over. Rachel might have been an L with Zoe, but that's over too. Also over is Bessie (M)'s bike, rammed by an escaping bimbo in a sports car. Within five seconds of this tedious accident 10 villagers (I counted) have appeared in the street to argue the toss. Do they have nothing better to do?

And so to the M of them all, Coronation Street (ITV, Mon, Wed & Fri). I fancy WRGG Anne Malone like anything (cheekbones like the wheel-scythes on Boadicea's chariot, dark, twinkly eyes) and wonder why she is with an HI like Andy. So that she can Bianca him (see above) without fear, I suppose. I just hope she keeps out of the boozer. For never has any pub had more barmaids per square inch than are packed behind the peculiarly shaped bar of the Street's famous local. Vera Duckworth (M), Betty Turpin (demi-M), Jude, Jude's Mum and a new bint in leathers, squeeze their ample frames past each other to deliver pints to Curly (HI), Rita (M) and the man with the castrato speaking voice, Kevin Webster (E). One day there will be nipple lock in the Rover's Return. And that's where Corry differs from, say, Brookside. If the Merseysiders were engaging in Lesbian frotteurism, Phil Redmond would call it social realism and put out a press release. But when they do it in Salford, you're left to work it out for yourself.