Leading Article: Instant coffee, instant fame

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IT IS a triumph for Nestle and its advertising agency in this country, McCann Erickson, even if one involving a giant leap into naffdom, that this week sees the publication of the 'novelisation' of their Gold Blend instant-coffee television commercial (Love over Gold by 'Susannah James').

It is not the first 'book of the advert'. That seems to have been Fly Fishing by J R Hartley, published in 1991, which originated in a long-running Yellow Pages commercial. In this, a distinguished elderly gent resembling the late actor Wilfrid Hyde-White rings around second-hand bookshops to locate a book of that title, eventually with success.

No doubt publishers and booksellers were maddened by requests from fishermen for the book. One was Roddy Bloomfield, publishing director of Stanley Paul, who commissioned an amateur fisherman friend and fellow publisher, Michael Russell, to write a book to supply the long-felt need. Far from being a fishing manual, it is a Wodehousian chronicle of the life and times of J R Hartley, minimally interspersed with fishing expeditions. It has sold more than 100,000 hardback copies in Britain, spawning a sequel, J R Hartley Casts Again, published last October.

The most unusual aspect of the Nestle advertisements, which have been going since 1987, is the continuity of the story-line. Will the female character, played by Sharon Maughan, win the heart of her neighbour, played by Tony Head? Or will she succumb to a less desirable competitor? Despite the heavy 'yuck' factor and the improbable matchmaking role assigned to instant coffee in each 40-second episode, thousands of people thirsted to know the answers, plaguing Nestle with their inquiries. When the Sun discovered that a confession of love was to be made in the next episode, the revelation provided the main front-page story, relegating to a lesser spot the news that a minor player in another long-running soap opera, the Princess Royal, was to marry again.

That front-page story was a high-water mark in the blurring of real life and soap opera. The most frequent form this takes is in the merging of television characters and the actors and actresses who portray them. The longer running and more popular the soap opera, the more complete the process tends to become. One frequent victim has been the actor Leslie Grantham, regularly referred to in the tabloids as Dirty Den, his role in EastEnders, and treated as if his screen and real-life characters were one.

Our oldest soap is Radio 4's The Archers, running since 1951. Its admirers have not only formed an Archers Addicts club, but also send cards, flowers or wreaths, as appropriate, to the BBC's Pebble Mill studios when leading characters have babies, marry or die. Inevitably, the actors come to identify with the characters they have been playing for so long; and for many listeners, those characters become more intensely familiar than their friends. This interpenetration of life and art lies at the heart of enjoyment of good plays and novels. The difference with soap operas is that vicarious living can take place at two levels: with the screen characters, and with the actors who portray them. Yet that, too, is not new: the public has always been interested in the private lives of well-known actors - even if they have generally gained their fame elsewhere than in commercials.