It was comradely of the BBC to screen a drama, The Road to Coronation Street, to mark the 50th anniversary of television's longest-running soap opera (the pride of rival ITV). And while the story-line was at times confusing for those of us not altogether familiar with the cast, what cannot be denied is the role played by soaps, from Corrie to EastEnders, in holding up a mirror to our national life. Nor is there any sign that the genre is on the wane. Channel 4 is about to pioneer a real-life soap, starring real people, set in the real London suburb of Notting Hill.
Whether or not Britain can claim authorship of the original television soap opera, however, the distilled vicissitudes of daily life have followed the spread of television around the world – with possibly unheralded effects. In the early summer of 1992, I reported briefly from Kishinev (now Chisinau), capital of newly independent Moldova. The region of Transnistria was trying to break away – it still is, but no longer violently. Shelling resounded from the hills; armed fighters were a common sight in city streets.
To sit in the reception of the main hotel in the early evening, however, was to witness a peculiar sight. The space gradually filled with young men in fatigues; they sought out somewhere to sit, casually laid down their weapons, and fell progressively silent as the appointed hour approached. For an hour or so they sat riveted to the latest episode of a Mexican soap opera. The Rich Also Cry, a Dallas-style romp about life, love and catastrophe, was broadcast across the vast territory of what had been the Soviet Union. That night's episode over, the shelling resumed and the fighters returned to their task.
You could argue that, as the Soviet Union collapsed into its various parts, The Rich Also Cry was a big factor, perhaps the decisive factor, in preventing all-out civil war. As a distraction, it was second to none. It kept Russian-speaking audiences anaesthetised from Kaliningrad in the west, where the naval base was disintegrating, to Vladivostok, where I and other Sakhalin-bound passengers were grounded for days by fog. The airport lounge was crammed when it came on, and if by chance you missed an episode, anyone could fill you in.
Russians now have their own, home-grown, TV soaps. But the racy imported kind are now playing big in, among other places, Iran, where they are dubbed into Farsi and shown on a half-heartedly banned satellite channel partly owned by Rupert Murdoch. Elsewhere in the Muslim world, television soap operas and sitcoms can be credited with keeping the public temperature down in Ramadan, through the long daylight hours of fasting.
Which might bring us back home with a bump. If the Government wants to draw the sting of threatened street protests this winter, it might encourage the broadcasters to make their soap operas extra-compulsive viewing as the dark and the cold set in.
Fast forward to the Seventies (the 1970s, that is)
Nothing makes you feel older than the return of phenomena you remember from ... well, let's just say long ago. I've recently felt as though I'm watching a 1970s, even late 1960s, replay. Drinks companies want to reintroduce returnable bottles (good for the environment and for extra pocket money). There is a loud lament for the return of flat-sharing, now it's so difficult to get that first "foot on the property ladder" – though I can't for the life of me understand why this is so terrible. Everyone did it in my day, and a fine rite of passage it was. No one expected to be able to buy a house straight from college.
Two more signs of the times. Teachers are apparently at a loss – all over again – to know what to do about the "distractingly" brief skirts girls are wearing to school, and calling for a ban on the 12-inch long (i.e. short) uniform skirts sold at a certain supermarket. What used to happen was that head-mistresses (as we called them then) got the girls down on their knees and measured the distance from ground to hem with a ruler. That was the apocrypha, at least.
And now, praise be, that ugly-American import, "dress-down Friday" is going. Civil servants have been told to smarten up on all five days of the working week, and the rest of us will surely have to follow. Eliminating that ill-defined "smart casual" strand from our wardrobes will not only save money, but enhance the street and office scene, too. Why didn't anyone think of that before?
Miliband junior must escape from his T-free zone
A few weeks ago, I tipped Ed Miliband to beat David to the Labour leadership on the grounds that traditional leadership qualities, as exemplified in elder siblings (confidence, bossiness, etc) were now less in demand that the softer skills (sociability, compromise) more characteristic of their younger brothers and sisters. If Ed wins, though, he will have to perform at the despatch box against David Cameron, and he is going to have to find a few Ts from somewhere, if he wants to persuade anyone beyond the vanishing New Labour caste.
I've heard several interviews with the younger Miliband recently, and I listened in vain for a letter T, so completely has he assimilated the Blairite glottal stop. In the family, I suppose, he doesn't need one, what with brother David, his late father Ralph, his mother, Marion, and his son, Daniel, though a T might come in useful for his partner, Justine.
Talking of annoying speech habits, I'm preparing a quiver of tranquilliser darts to shoot at the next speaker who fills the non-existent space between the end of a sentence and the full-stop with the phrase "going forward". It's otiose and it doesn't mean anything.