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How the soap kills the murder plot

Murder mysteries are titillating and intriguing in literary and cinematic forms, but TV just can’t seem to pull them off.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Culture

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In the week that Wussie and Wossie have been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons, one could forgive the BBC for taking the opportunity to engage in a bit of ‘burying bad news’. For the ‘bad news’ in question, the much-promoted death of Max in EastEnders (1), is not only a bit embarrassing, it captures just how silly this soap opera has become.

Perhaps it is unfair to single out EastEnders. After all, when it comes to murder, TV dramas and soaps have been getting it horribly wrong since the late 1980s. I used to think this was because TV producers were only concerned with middle-class murders in safe areas (2), but I now think it is simply because TV is the wrong medium for murder stories.

While Australian soaps such as Neighbours and Home and Away more correctly and realistically depict urban life as a routine series of arguments about banalities like school bullying, domestic discontent or unreciprocated adolescent love, British and American dramas have in recent years tended to go for sensationalist storylines that inevitably result in homicide.

Reading the daytime TV listings of past and present you’d think half of the Western world’s population share the same predisposition to murder as people like Jeffrey Dahmer or Harold Shipman. If it’s not inbred farmers from the West Country knocking each other off in Midsomer Murders, then its Glaswegian smackheads knifing each other in Taggart or David Jason very angrily and earnestly investigating homicides in some fictitious English town in A Touch of Frost. From across the Atlantic, we get resurrected episodes of Dick Van Dyke as a Los Angeles super sleuth in Diagnosis Murder and Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) in Murder, She Wrote picking up the bloody pieces of the carnage committed on a daily basis in Maine.

Don’t the protagonists in Murder, She Wrote realise by now that inviting Jessica Fletcher over for the weekend is possibly not a good idea? Don’t the characters in Casualty realise that moving to Bristol might be unwise? If I was a fictional character in Inspector Morse or Cracker, I would think twice about living in Oxford or Manchester. It’s like walking into an elevator and seeing Bruce Willis in a vest. In short, it doesn’t bode very well.

If the Western world’s murder rate in TV fiction were reflected in reality, Mogadishu would be an attractive holiday destination. So why doesn’t the murder mystery tale suit television, when it is so well suited both to literature (think Raymond Chandler and Arthur Conan-Doyle, for instance) and cinema (Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock)? Why do we still admire The Big Sleep, Bullitt or The French Connection, but at the same time regard TV murder stories as a little ridiculous?

Nowhere is this ridiculousness more apparent than in the soap opera. Television soaps by their very definition have an open-ended narrative structure, no beginning and end, hence they have to rely on novelty and, to avoid repetition, cheap tricks and absurd story lines. Most of all, their scripts are written in a hurry and to tight deadlines. This has had bizarre consequences, such as in Dallas when Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) died in series seven only to remerge in series eight when it was revealed that the entire seventh series had been Pam Ewing’s (Victoria Principal) dream, and that Bobby was still, in fact, alive.

Brookside was put out of its misery after people began to realise that the cosy Liverpool suburbs don’t really have that many murderers, heroin addicts and saucy lesbians. But Chester, as portrayed in Hollyoaks, is still apparently inhabited by matricidal lunatics, schizophrenics and homosexual priests. And then there’s Dennis ‘Dirty Den’ Watts, played by Leslie Grantham, who was killed off in EastEnders. Twice.

Max Branning (Jake Wood) is the latest EastEnders character to face the chop. The chief murder suspect in this storyline is his brother Jack Branning (Scott Maslen), who has been sleeping with Max’s estranged wife Tanya Branning (Jo Joyner). But Jack has also been having an affair with Ronnie Mitchell (Samantha Janus), and Max also had an affair with Stacey Slater (Lacey Turner), girlfriend of Max’s own son Bradley (Charlie Clements).

Max persuaded Stacey to have an abortion, and on last night’s show kissed Tanya, which she believed in hindsight to be a result of him giving her a fictitious sob story about Jack beating him up, and threatening him with a gun. So what the makers of EastEnders are presumably trying to suggest is that Jack, Stacey, Tanya and Bradley have a motive to kill Max in this preposterous ‘whodunnit’.

This story would be too preposterous even for Jerry Springer or Jeremy Kyle, let alone make a credible script for a film. At least when back in the day Harold and Lou took magic mushrooms by mistake, or there was a storyline about a Korean family protesting they had not eaten their neighbours’ dog, you got the feeling that the makers of Neighbours weren’t quite taking the programme seriously.

The problem with EastEnders is that its BBC makers do take it quite seriously, seeing it as a gritty and ‘challenging’ description of working-class London – indeed, they believe it should be a prescriptive portrayal. But the truth is that, as anyone who has lived in London will tell you, it is not. A murder storyline about teenagers involved in a gangland feud, or a housewife killing her husband, would be more realistic, but not very intriguing.

When a soap opera resorts to a murder storyline, you know it’s suffering from a lack of faith in itself. Murder storylines are often sensationalist substitutes for creating a decent narrative. Last night’s EastEnders might have seen Max’s demise, but don’t bet against him coming back to life again.

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

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) See EastEnders – Judgement Day for Max, YouTube

(2) See Middle-class murder: so much more palatable, by Patrick West

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