Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Soaps, Suds and Bubbles

I've been watching the British soap awards, in lieu of anything vaguely entertaining on TV. It wasn't a bad impression of more famous award shows, like the Oscars or the BAFTAs, but as actors are generally chosen for character rather than appearances, it was somewhat less decorative. So I've been musing a little on the nature of soap operas, and what they actually tell us about ourselves.

Most American soaps, like Dallas and Dynasty in the 80s, and things like 90210 now, are aspirational, a glimpse of a high life that most people will never see otherwise. Everyone is beautiful, perfect hair, teeth and clothes, a cast made of models, twentysomething teenagers with thirtysomething parents, waking up in the morning with perfectly coiffed hair and full make up. Presumably this is so little Americans have something to aim for. Unattainable personal standards are so important to the psychiatric industry.

Australian soaps like Neighbours and Home and Away tend towards a more realistic approach, vaguely 'normal' people doing normal jobs and living in houses within the reach of an average Australian. I lived in Australia for 5 years, and the world of Neighbours is a reasonable reflection of life in a city like Melbourne. The town of Erinsborough was actually based on a combination of Melbourne and Sydney. Australians are probabaly more likely to see someone like themselves on screen than anyone else.

Soaps in Britain, however, tend to be based around working class people living depressing, catastrophe-ridden lives on the brink of poverty, presumably so that everyone has a chance to watch the shows and think, 'oh well, at least I'm not doing as badly as {insert name here}'. Most British TV entertainment remains class based, not just the soap operas but also most of our comedy shows as well. 'Have I Got News For You' is largely based around the interaction between public school boy Ian Hislop and people's choice Paul Merton, 'QI' gets a lot of its humour from the headmasterly Stephen Fry talking down to the working class Alan Davies and guests like Sean Locke and Mark Steel, etc. To quote John Lennon: 'they keep you doped with religion and sex and TV / and you think you're so clever and classless and free / but you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see'.

But back to the soaps... I must admit I felt vindicated tonight. 'EastEnders', the only soap opera I watch (probably because it reminds me why I don't live in London anymore) swept the board at the awards. Best soap, best actor, best actress, sexiest actor, etc.

Scott Maslen, who was voted both best and sexiest actor, plays a character called Jack Branning, who was the subject of a poem of mine. Some of you may have seen this, as it was published on the EastEnders website, but for those who haven't, it's below:

Knowing Jack

Jack had loved his brother's wife,
The black girl
And the blonde one
And her sister (who got pregnant)
And their cousin, who, if anything,
Was even blonder still.
I've seen him in the club
And in the Square and in a coma
But I've never really met him:
I think I never will.

And yet I know him so well.

I know his family, his history,
Assorted tales of woe,
A man of mystery,
James Bond with an E20 postcode.

I know Jack better
Than some of my closest friends
Because they don't come into my home
Four nights a week,
Telling me their stories,
Giving me a window to their lives
And emphasising significant moments with a drum roll.

Or do they?
I was forgetting about Facebook.

I've come to think of Facebook
Not as a telephone but a television,
Not a communications tool
But an entertainment medium,
Each 'friend' a channel,
Each post a programme,
An episode of the soap opera of their lives.

Yes, I have friends who are like Newsnight,
Like Horizon or Arena,
Discussing high-falutin' ideas
From a position of authority.

But I also have friends who are like EastEnders,
Like Shameless or Skins or Jeremy Vile,
Car crash TV reduced to bile,
Misspelt polemic
And relationship status updates
On an hourly basis
Long into the night.

Do I really know them?
Or is this like applying graphology to a signature,
Doomed to fail
Because the public face of someone
Only shows what they want to be seen?

Do I know Jack?
Or do I 'know Jack'?


  1. If there is one thing i really cant stand it is soaps, for all the reasons you have listed above. we are either subjected to images of people and lives so unattainable it is ridiculous, or so chaotic and sad it is downright depressing. I sometimes think my life could be turned into a soap, but it would bring people down too much, and would seem unrealistic in all it's horrific glory. Can one person really go through all that? yes she can, and she did, and avoiding watching the soaps helps me keep a more positive outlook on life. I dont mind other people watching them, and it is quite amusing when your sat in a cafe, to hear people talking about the previous nights episode, but somehow i also find it sad, that while we are all prepared to share our views over what is happening in Eastenders, we have somehow forgotton that in real life people have issues and problems, and we dont really share those anymore. I just wonder if there was a much stronger sense of community before the TV came along, because there seems to be a huge lack of it now. I know the internet is full of social commumities, but they are just as warped and unrealistic as the soaps, and often just a minute snapshot of a person's thoughts, that happened to escape from their mind, onto a keyboard and into everyone elses lives, no i dont care that the *bleep bleep* dumped you, you were only seeing him for two days, how bad can it be. Is all this technology turning me into a grumpy old woman, maybe, or maybe i just have no patience for the constant drivel i have to sift through to find a gem worth reading. Thank Heavens for blogs :)

  2. The reason people talk about soap characters with such affection is that they really feel like they know them. I'm sure I've spent hundreds of hours in the company of Phil Mitchell, for example. People talk about the characters like they are chatting about their mates, because they feel like mates. It's funny. But it's just a natural human response. When you share experiences with people, whether they're 2D figures on-screen or not, you are naturally drawn closer to them, and with some of the experiences some people have had, you might as well be married to them.

    I definitely think there is a reduced sense of community since the TV, though. Before it became so all-consuming, people had to actually leave the house and go to where other people where before they had visual entertainment. They had to go to an art gallery, a theatre, a cinema or whatever, all places that give a sense of community. I love it when I'm at a movie and everyone laughs at the same time. It's like we're sharing the experience.

    But once the TV started taking over the world, people stayed at home on their own and got their entertainment there. It was one less reason to leave the house and actually spend time in the company of other humans. TV made it possible for millions of people to laugh at the same joke at the same time told by the same comedian and for all of them to be alone.

    And yeah, there's a hell of a lot of shit on Facebook. I hate the ones that have all the surveys. Sometimes you might be interested in whatever the photo is supposed to be, but not interested enough to tell Matalan what you think of their products.