Stan Hey: Stressed, bullied, always at breaking point: that's the writers not the actors

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The Independent Online

If the soap opera industry is in trouble, don't waste sympathy on those actors who will get "written out" in violent circumstances to boost ratings. And don't fret about the producers who will get the "Friday night summons" from the head of drama, followed by five minutes to clear their desks.

If the soap opera industry is in trouble, don't waste sympathy on those actors who will get "written out" in violent circumstances to boost ratings. And don't fret about the producers who will get the "Friday night summons" from the head of drama, followed by five minutes to clear their desks.

Actors who've played soap "characters" can enjoy a new life, either in pantomimes, or perhaps even in full-length drama if they've become "iconic", either for their evil persona or "Cockney sparrer" charm. Sacked soap producers get promoted sideways, or bunged a "sweetener", to prevent them taking plot-lines of the show elsewhere.

The real sufferers in behind-the-scenes bloodbaths will be the writers. In the production of soap operas, they are at the very end of the food chain. They are, if you will, the laboratory rats of this high-pressure, results-orientated industry. Chained to their laptops, they will be fed on raw plots, which they must shape, no matter how preposterous they are.

The real power in the soap-opera world lies with the "story-liners". Commanded by management to produce several hours of soap a week, the story-liners must trawl the dark recesses of their psyche, scour the newspapers, listen to the radio and prowl the internet. They will scrape up the slimiest off-cuts of low-life to provide stories for their soap's characters. Having completed this Augean task, they hand the material to the writers and give them five days to produce a workable script.

Soap operas are rigorously planned. Each production office will have a huge board along one wall, with a list of character names down the left side and the schedule of episode numbers running across the top. At the inter-section of these two lines, the "plots" will be filled in with red pens, so the producers know what is happening to any given character in any given week.

Thus, Character "A" may be moving inexorably towards his ex-sniffer dog's violent death in Week 36, while Character "B" will need a life-saving liver transplant from his dying Jehovah's Witness brother, Character "C", in Week 39. Character "D" will be arrested as an al-Qa'ida suspect in Week 42, and in Week 45, a character called Al-Qa'ida will move into the street, square, close or village. And at Christmas, anything goes.

It is the writers' job to make sense of the plots issued by the "Story-line Gestapo". No deviations are tolerated. Dialogue must be kept short and snarling, confrontations must be confected at two-minute intervals, and each episode must end with a "tease" or "cliffhanger". The writer can expect to get £5,000 to 10,000 an episode, before he is sacked, burnt-out or certified insane. For the soap-opera industry is a "soap" in its own right.

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