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Why EastEnders is in soapy bubble

As viewing figures plummet and the BBC loses Neighbours, the future looks bleak for soap on the box.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Culture

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It has been a sorry few days for BBC soap operas. Last Thursday, EastEnders recorded its second-lowest audience share ever. It marshalled a derisory four million viewers. Then the same programme cancelled an up-coming storyline featuring baby-snatching, due to the unsolved matter of Madeleine McCann’s abduction. The Corporation has also lost its rights to air Neighbours, having being outbid by Five to show the Australian soap from next year. Then, as if to heap humiliation on all the soaps, the Bafta award for best continuing drama was, for the first time, scooped by a non-soap: the hospital series, Casualty.

‘Cor blimey!’ as they exclaim in EastEnders, ‘Woss’ goin’ on?’ Or, ‘Crikey!’ as they say in Neighbours. The dutiful doctors of Holby, fictional home of Casualty, might concur: ‘the situation is indeed looking critical at the moment, I’m afraid’.

Casualty is a series that is shown in seasons rather than a continuous drama without break – so it is not technically a soap opera, say the purists. This is why, in taking the award, makers and fans of the other soaps were rattled: the award for best continuing drama is supposed to be a three-way fight between Coronation Street, EastEnders and Emmerdale.

But this is snooty semantics. Casualty is a soap in essence because it is beset by the same internal contradiction that afflicts all soap operas. Casualty is confused as to whether it should be prescriptive or descriptive: whether it should describe how people in rainy Salford or sunny Melbourne actually live – or, conversely, set an example of how they should conduct themselves, and how the world should be. Like most soaps, Casualty seeks to go down both avenues simultaneously, and this is the reason why the soap has always been an inferior genre.

Prescription

Some examples of the prescriptive approach are obvious. For instance, in the likes of EastEnders and Coronation Street, hardly anyone smokes cigarettes, unless they are villains or senile old hags. While in the alternate universe that is Hollyoaks and Neighbours, cigarettes don’t exist at all. And no one employs profanities that we hear in the real world. Instead, we are subjected to euphemisms that people stopped using in 1978, such as ‘blimey’, ‘flippin’ ‘eck’ or ‘I’m gonna duff you in’. It’s reminiscent of the time when the BBC used to over-dub films starring Eddie Murphy. The result was Axel Foley trying to intimidate a Beverly Hills gangster by calling him a ‘mother funker’ or ‘monkey feather’.

Then there is the moralising. I haven’t watched Casualty for about a year, but I do remember that not an episode went by without a patient being told to turn off her mobile phone; the chief nurse complaining about NHS cutbacks; or a 60-a-day smoker being told what a burden he is on the health service. Jehovah’s Witnesses were reminded how stupid they were to resist blood transfusions; Asian girls pregnant to white boys would fight their overbearing fathers for trying to force them into arranged marriage; estranged daughters would make peace with their dying dads; a man hurt in a ram-raid robbery would reveal the identity of a critically-ill accomplice, so his blood type can be identified, just in time; and the man wanting to bring private enterprise into the NHS would reveal himself to be a swivelled-eyed, cold-hearted swine.

Realism

If the prescriptive moralising of soaps can be irksome, its attempts at realism can be bizarre. There is the obvious point that in real life not everyone knows each other down the boozer; that entire pubs do not fall silent when two people start quarrelling; that not everyone is related to everyone else through multiple marriages; or that plane crashes do not routinely wipe out entire families in Tasmania or the Yorkshire Dales.

The most offensive aspect of Casualty is the manner in which the male surgeons are all six-foot tall, chisel-jawed lotharios and the female doctors dazzlingly blonde, hard-drinking nymphomaniacs. I live 200 metres from an NHS hospital and I can tell you that this is not the case. Caring, conscientious, underpaid and utterly deserving of our admiration, they are; specimens of physical perfection they are not.

The most obvious omission from soap operas is that of the television set itself. In TV land, no one ever watches television, and never chats in the Queen Vic about what they watched last night. One might argue that this would spoil our willing suspension of disbelief, in that, if the characters did watch too much TV, on our TVs, we might be reminded that we are merely observing actors ourselves. The irony is, of course, that we like to watch programmes that represent intimate, cosy communities because we no longer participate in them ourselves; we are too busy watching TV to be bothered to do so. Soaps have helped to kill the reality they seek to portray. The television is absent because it is the assassin.

This is not why I stopped watching EastEnders and Casualty. I just found them both ludicrous and self-important. The only soap I pay attention to now, I confess, is Neighbours, long after my friends stopped doing so. I like its jokiness and the fact that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Its writers are also wiser than you think. Some time ago Neighbours featured an ongoing storyline in which Susan Kinski (Jackie Woodburne) and her daughter Libby (Kym Valentine) became hopelessly addicted to watching a Brazilian soap opera, and laughed at how bad the acting was, how improbable the plots were. Nice. Very postmodern. Very self-referential: a crap soap opera within a crap soap opera. Very Philip K Dick, too. I wonder which soap opera the Brazilians were watching. Am I myself in a soap opera now, being watched by someone else?

This week Susan even used the word ‘semantic’. Now who said that Australians were morons?

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

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