Life mirrors soap when east meets 'EastEnders'

MOSCOW DAYS

Now I don't want to sound snobbish, but dinner parties among Britons in Moscow have changed. A year ago the agenda was clear: Boris Yeltsin's health, the warring factions in the Kremlin, the difficulties of trading in a market awash with mafiosi. All this, followed by a spot of light moaning, over the port, about how hard it still is to find everyday products, like shoe laces, in the shops.

Now you can forget it. Visitors to Moscow, be warned. Do not accept an invitation from a fellow countryman unless you can hold your end up in a lengthy debate about that most English of institutions, the popular television soap opera, EastEnders.

And we're not talking about a vague chat. You must be the master of every detail; the attempted assassination of Ian Beale, David Wicks' adultery, Phil Mitchell's drunkenness. Call a Mitchell a Witchell, mix up a Cathy with a Cindy, and you might as well

have muddled Tolstoy with Trotsky. What more would you expect from a foreign community which has spent years studying every detail of the inner workings of the Kremlin?

Obsession is not too strong a word. The wife of a high- flying British executive complained recently of being woken as her husband sleep-ranted about the soap's latest twist. Any unexpected development sets Moscow's telephone lines burning. Hosts have been known to time their parties to avoid clashing with the serial. "The thing is," a hopelessly addicted friend recently told me, "it is all so, so ... Shakespearian".

The pedlar of this addiction is a Russian cable company, Kosmos TV, which pipes a package of British, American, French, Russian, German and Italian channels into the homes of those wealthy enough to afford their fees. Until recently their market, which is confined to the Moscow region, was almost entirely expatriates - diplomats, businessmen, and journalists who depended on CNN, the US network NBC, and the BBC. But in the last 10 months, it has seen a sudden rush of thousands of Russian subscribers - some 8,000, according to the company. Wealthy Russians, who have travelled to the West and want to remain in touch with the outside world, can now bring you up to date with the last airing of The Antiques Road Show, Dad's Army, Are You Being Served?, or - unfortunately - Noel's House Party. If EastEnders were more comprehensible to non-English-speakers (or non- East-enders, if the truth be told), then no doubt it would have a large Russian following.

Certainly, the appetite is there; the Russian addiction to soap operas rivals that of the British. In fact, it is so strong that the Russian television companies - keen supporters of Mr Yeltsin - contrived to lay on extra episodes of Santa Barbara and the Latin American soap Tropicana on election day last July, in the hope that the Communist-supporting babushki (grandmothers) would decide to stay at home in front of the television.

In the last few months, a new programme called Man in the Mask has appeared on Russian screens. It delves into those areas which the country still find hard to confront. Guests appear in front of a studio audience clad in a steel mask. Last week, we saw a homosexual who explained that he could not discuss his sexual orientation on television without a disguise - a claim that is highly credible given Russia's macho culture and widespread homophobia. Before that, it was an alcoholic. The ratings are soaring.

Soon there will be more. Russia's five main channels will face rivalry from three new cable and satellite networks, which intend to bombard the 148 million population with sport, music, films, news and - of course - advertising. The largest of these, NTV Plus, is run by NTV, a private company which had a reputation for independence until the presidential election, when it used the airwaves shamelessly to support Mr Yeltsin. Another new outfit, Ren-TV, has the backing of Yuri Luzhkov, the powerful Mayor of Moscow and likely contender to fill Mr Yeltsin's shoes.

None of this will make any difference to Moscow's hard core of EastEnders fans. Whatever is beamed down from the heavens is unlikely to break their habit. They know the two places have much in common. They both have an alcohol addiction, though Russia has the bigger problem; the sight of a dead- drunk man unconscious on the ground merits no more attention here than an upturned dustbin. (Not long ago, I watched a group of youths using a comatose drunk as a stepping stone on the pavement). Contract killers (the square's latest drama) run amok. They both have clans, family feuding, gossip. Is it too much to suggest that Albert Square could very easily be Red Square? Or have I been to too many dinners?

Phil Reeves

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