Wooden plots, but beautiful bodies - and they're German

Imre Karacs in Bonn on the belated birth of the home-grown soap
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The Independent Online
Clemens tries to resolve the row between Barbara and Jorg, but he sides with Barbara. Jorg, distraught by this betrayal, is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Philip, meanwhile, distances himself from Fabian, because Fabian does not return his love. But Fabian is beginning to miss Philip, and is confused about his own feelings. To complicate matters further, Leon has come home with the wrong baby. How will Lea react to that?

You may not care but to millions of Germans hooked on Good Times, Bad Times this is what really matters; it is certainly a lot more captivating than pictures of the slow-moving floods in the east.

There is little evidence of good times in Germany's most popular soap, broadcast on the biggest commercial channel, RTL, at dinner time five nights a week. The protagonists, especially the males, are always weeping. Lovers are constantly jilted, triangles form and reform to no one's apparent satisfaction. But it is German.

Research shows that the world's second richest audience has had its fill of Americana and is clamouring for domestic soap. Dallas and its descendants, dubbed into German, have been dumped on the naffest stations, while the big networks are packing their schedules with home-grown stuff. The ratings are soaring, advertising revenue is pouring in. For one minute's coital interruption on Good Times, Bad Times, RTL rakes in DM132,000 (pounds 44,000).

From the television moguls' perspective this would be a healthy state of affairs were it not for a fatal shortage of home-grown talent. Whether this is why viewers never actually see Leon's howling baby must remain RTL's secret. But the fact is that, as in the Australian counterparts, there are too few actors and actresses to go around. The performances are therefore unbelievably wooden, although that might also have something to do with the plots.

A shortage of people to fill the screen is one thing, but there are also too few authors to dream up the meandering story lines. For too long, insiders complain, German television lived off the cut-price fare manufactured on the other side of the Atlantic. Now that the market has caught up with domestic demand, local scriptwriters are having to be sent on crash courses. Glacier-like plots, such as those in the infamous Black Forest Clinic, which British viewers switched off in droves when it was shown on Channel 4, are out.

Today's hospital dramas have plenty of blood and gore, just like their Chicago equivalents. Cops and robbers have also got rougher. Instead of Streets of San Francisco, the Germans get a far more violent Streets of Berlin. And the torsos in Bergwacht (Mountain Watch) are superior to the pneumatic beach bums coming from the US.

The only problem is that German soaps seem limp by international comparison. One can argue how much Neighbours reflects contemporary Australian society, but Good Times, Bad Times bears no resemblance to life in Germany today. Supposedly it takes place in Berlin, at least judging by the car number plates of the smarmy lawyer who spends all his time trying to impregnate women 20 years his junior. But the surroundings, homes and clothing hearken to another world. Young men sport ponytails, women wear skimpy, tight- fitting T-shirts on fabulously bronzed bodies. Nobody smokes. This ain't Germany, this is Australia.

It so happens that Good Times, Bad Times and some of the other successful soaps are produced by Ufa, a partner of Grundy, the begetter of Neighbours. Clearly, not all resemblance to antipodean characters, fictional or otherwise, is accidental. But until Germans learn to write German plots, the audience must put up with it.