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Trash TV, trash people?

There’s one thing that the liberal left and the conservative right share in common: they hate soap operas and the stupid people who watch them.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Culture

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Tomorrow sees the hosting of the tenth-anniversary British Soap Awards. The ceremony will be broadcast next Wednesday, and what an unwittingly perverse celebration of unhappiness and moral bullying it will undoubtedly be.

I concede that announcing that one despises soap operas, decrying them as inconsequential or unrealistic or miserable, is yet another one of those very easy and feeble methods of ingratiating oneself at dinner parties. Like denouncing ‘reality TV’, Rupert Murdoch or George W Bush, it is also a means by which fogeyish Tories and puritan left-liberals can find comforting common ground – and for both similar despicable reasons.

By declaring that Big Brother or The X-Factor both feature morons, and are watched by morons, one is unwittingly making a class statement – that is, ‘Aren’t the proletariat stupid?’. The middle-class, liberal left secretly despise the working class because they invariably don’t live up to the romanticised fantasies that lefties have constructed regarding them. They believe the working classes should be joining Fabian groups, discussing the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 or whether Oliver Cromwell was right to crush the Levellers. Instead they become irritated and reproachful as to the fact that the working classes are usually more interested in football, betting, boozing, Hollyoaks and Emmerdale.

The liberal left hate Murdoch because the working classes read the Sun and the News of the World, and are not interested in the correct opinions of George Monbiot and Polly Toynbee. They deridingly cackle at people who voted for George W Bush and caricature them as in-bred rednecks. The palpable spite that some liberals have towards the working class is akin to that of a lover spurned.

At least the malice that emanates from High Tories is more honest. They have always detested what they now call ‘the underclass’, whom they regard as vulgar and dangerous. And today, they are now frequently described in the Tory press as ‘feral’, a dehumanising adjective that reminds one of the way Punch magazine used to represent, and simianise, the Irish in the nineteenth century.

High Tories hate the working class for what they are; the liberal-left hates the working classes for what they are not. Thus, conservatives perceive soaps as a representation of the violent, idiotic predisposition of ‘the underclass’ – as watched by ‘the underclass’. Liberals perceive soaps as an opiate of the masses – which is why entryist liberal-left screenwriters of soaps use the medium as a means of trying to alter reality.

Still, I do also loathe British soap operas. Just because one finds oneself in bad company, it doesn’t have to mean one has to change one’s opinion. But I generally eschew them not out of any class sensibilities. I usually don’t watch them mainly because I think they are largely rubbish. I despise them most of all because they reflect our miserable, narcissistic, self-righteous, therapeutic age that wallows in self-pity.

‘Have you been affected by any of the issues addressed in this programme?’ has become a mandatory coda as the credits roll at the end of the likes of EastEnders or Hollyoaks. Just as the social worker replaced the priest as the stranger with whom we were meant to share our concerns, now the soap opera has taken on the role of the social worker. Fact and fiction blend as we are urged to use the humble soap opera as a vehicle through which to address our problems, real, imagined, or – thanks to the guiding hand of the programme in question – invented.

I don’t mind the fact that soap operas are unrealistic. This foible is inherent in the genre. A realistic soap would be very dull indeed. Can you imagine a soap based on your community and your day-to-day life? Yes, it would be boring. But it’s the fact that so many soap operas are deliberately and didactically unrealistic that really grates.

In one nominated show, the teen soap Hollyoaks, no one ever smokes cigarettes. The show was created by Phil Redmond, the man behind Brookside, in which no one ever smoked either. I suspect some official policy here. Are we meant to believe that not a single person in Chester or Liverpool enjoys the odd fag?

At least another nominee, EastEnders, does have a smoker. But their token chimney pot, Dot Cotton, is a Christian. Spot the connection? Smoker + Christian = Wrong. And of course, in EastEnders, black people and gays are always saintly, and working-class white males are usually creeps and villains. Respectively, this is how the liberal-left wants society to be in the first instance – and in the second, fears it is.

It may be wholly unoriginal to point out that EastEnders is a carnival of misery. There is also the theory that humans are both invariably drawn to narratives – no matter how fantastic – and enjoy deriving pleasure from the misfortunes of others – whether those others are real life characters or not. So complaining that EastEnders is too gloomy is, I admit, as ridiculous as complaining that Schindler’s List wasn’t funny.

Yet it’s not the misery that is a relentless mainstay of today soaps; it’s the way they seek to remedy today’s miseries, and to lecture us surreptitiously about how we might correct our behaviour. I’m old enough to know that homophobes, racists, murderers, adulterers, fraudsters, rapists and paedophiles are wrong, but wouldn’t it be nice if sometimes they didn’t come to a sticky end? Wouldn’t it be nice, and more accurate, if occasionally they did not get their comeuppance? And wouldn’t it be even better if soap operas – that is, works of fiction – existed not to inform or educate, but merely to entertain?

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist. Visit his blog here.

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