Crimes Against Soap Operas: The Not So Perfect Ten

Serial misdemeanours in Soapland

“First rule of comedy: you’ve got to have reality…”

– Edward ‘Ted’ Bovis (played by Paul Shane, Hi-de-Hi!, 1980 – 1988)

Regular readers of East of the M60 may well note the amount of coverage which this year’s General Election is getting with the little articles on each constituency east of the oft-mentioned motorway. For anyone thinking that East of the M60 is turning into a political blog, think again.

As well as focusing on the real soap opera regarding Brown, Cameron and Clegg, this has swung me towards a Not So Perfect Ten based on the world’s most popular form of televisual entertainment. That of the Party Election Broadcast.

Not!

I refer to a programming genre that has captivated audiences for over 60 years the world over: soap operas.

We’ve gone through the whole gamut of subject areas: hotels, Northern towns, farms, London suburbs, tedious housing estates, hospitals, prisons, even Spanish holiday resorts and North Sea ferries.

On a personal level, I’ve only ever been faithful to one soap; Coronation Street. I was too young to remember Brookside at its most left-wing, or appreciate storylines on the lambing season rather than burning sheep.

This post focuses on 10 points which tend to have a negative effect on the average soap opera. The part in the soap opera where you could tell it was bombing in the ratings and facing the axe within weeks. Usually these measures would be taken to improve ratings or to kill the cast off in style. I have refrained from some of the most obvious methods like poor scriptwriting and wooden acting.

Crimes Against Soap Operas:

  1. A fire or explosion to end all explosions;
  2. Death by re-scheduling;
  3. More episodes;
  4. The parody surpasses the original soap itself;
  5. Actors/actresses moving from soap to soap;
  6. Even more far-fetched storylines;
  7. A change of name and/or signature tune;
  8. Every councillor in Soapland is an independent or ratepayers’ alliance candidate;
  9. Same Character, Different Actor Syndrome;
  10. Lack of conversation between characters about other television programmes they have been watching.

1. The Mother of All Towering Infernos:

Imagine you’re a soap which has been long past its sell-by date. One which hasn’t led the zeitgeist among the offices and playgrounds rather than the Darby and Joan club. Your characters and stories are getting stale, so what do you do?

Nothing draws viewers to a sagging soap better than a fire, so much so that London Weekend Television went a step further with London’s Burning (1986 – 2002). Done well, it can lead to winning a new set of viewers, though at the behest of some devotees. Emmerdale was the most successful example. Crossroads faired worse: the fire at Crossroads Motel did little to reverse falling ratings, exacerbated by a rebrand in 1985.

2. Death by re-scheduling:

In the good old days before Sky+, the TV Times and/or Radio Times were the sole sources for detailed TV listings. If you were a regular viewer of any given programme (and knew which time it went out), you would make that your ‘appointment to view’. In the pre-video era, everything would stop for Coronation Street, Crossroads or The Squirrels.

Then, you find that your ITV franchise or BBC region has rescheduled your programme. Not once, nor twice, but several times over. Your routine’s in disarray because a Zodiac Game retrospective nicked the slot rightfully allocated to Emmerdale Farm!

The worst example of Death By Re-scheduling was Channel 4’s treatment of Brookside in 2002 – 2003. The Mersey Television soap. Prior to 2003, the soap went out thrice weekly. Then (unhappy with the direction Channel 4 was taking), Phil Redmond changed it to a single feature length episode on a Saturday afternoon. A bad move given that it was peak shopping time (and that Soccer Saturday was probably getting more viewers).

3. More episodes:

Do more episodes improve the viewing experience for its devotees? As an occasional Coronation Street viewer and anorak, I noticed a slight dilution in quality of storylines when the soap began being shown five times a week. I thought that Coronation Street was better when it had the three episodes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday (October 1989 – November 1994). I’m a firm believer in ‘less is more’, to allow fertile ground for one-off dramas and other soaps.

4. The parody surpasses the original soap:

Having a parodied version surpassing the original soap opera or any other series may not bode well for its longevity. Done well, it can spoil the viewers’ love of the original programme; therefore, the parody would outlive the soap in the public’s consciousness.

The best known and greatest example of this is Acorn Antiques, which cheerfully pokes fun at Crossroads. The late great Victoria Wood’s and Julie Walters’ attention to detail and lampooning of the Midlands soap is remarkable, even down to Crossroads’ end title sequence! ‘Allo ‘Allo (though not a soap) gloriously lampoons the more straight-laced Secret Army.

A lesser known work was Cobblers, an parody of Neighbours which appeared in the last series of The Kenny Everett Television Show (BBC One, 1987-88).

5. The Soap Star Roundabout:

Having the same actors from Soap A moving to Soap B, C and thereafter may breed a short term jolt in viewing figures due to character recognition. Sometimes, familiarity breeds contempt, which allows little or no room for new actors or actress to make their breakthrough. For example, Todd Carty is the Frank Worthington of the soap world. Since 1977, he has appeared on Grange Hill, his own spin-off show Tucker’s Luck, EastEnders and The Bill. In Australia, Mark Little is their equivalent, before he moved to the UK.

6. Far-fetched storylines:

The story regarding the lesbian kiss may have won plaudits with the popular press, but there comes a time when these cutting edge stories begin to turn surreal. Instead of the lesbian kiss, we now await the storyline of a Lesbian Scientologist who turns out to be a paedophile (and has an addiction to Hollands’ Meat and Potato pies), as audiences yearn for more and more outrageous storylines. Or so they think.

The problem with such storylines is that the programme loses credibility, sense of purpose, and ultimately viewing figures. Dallas didn’t recover after the Bobby Ewing shower scene; Happy Days didn’t recover after The Fonz jumped over a shark with waterskis. That storyline alone led to a new phrase in the TV reviewer’s source book: ‘jumping the shark’. This denotes the point where the programme begins to go downhill.

7. A New Tune Sweeps Many a Viewer to ITV:

If you look at the most successful soaps, you will find one thing in common. The signature tune and/or titles have been virtually unchanged from the start. For example, EastEnders has remained faithful to the aerial view of London titles and (apart from one year) had the same theme tune since it began in March 1985. Coronation Street has had the same Eric Spear composed theme tune since 1960 (apart from a single episode commemorating Emily Nugent’s wedding with Ernest Bishop in 1972).

Now, compare these with The Bill and Crossroads: both programmes have had much changed title sequences and signature tunes. Both programmes have gone to the TV Studios in the sky. Did it work? Nope. Even the most state of the art titles do not gloss over insipid storylines and sensationalist plots.

The exception to this rule is Emmerdale; which had dropped the ‘Farm’ moniker to concentrate more on the lives of its residents in Beckindale. The changeover was more pragmatic rather than by stealth.

8. Surely, Weatherfield should be a safe Labour seat?

Being as Weatherfield is based in and around Salford (fictitiously of course) and even has an 0161 code to boot, you would have expected Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) or Hazel Blears (Salford) to be their Westminster representative.

Like the City of London, neither Walford, nor Beckindale and Weatherfield return a MP to the House of Commons. In local government, the councillors are usually independents, which do not best reflect the voting profiles in Soapland. In Weatherfield, I would have expected a 3 seat ward with three Labour councillors elected on a turnout of 23%.

I suppose this is done to avoid having the channel being accused of political bias. Then again, the mayor of the Greater London Assembly Boris Johnson made a cameo appearance in Walford. Is there any chance of seeing Sir Richard Leese on the cobbles of Coronation Street then?

9. Same character, different actor:

Darius Perkins and Jason Donovan played Scott Robinson; Coronation Street has had four people playing Tracy Barlow; and as for David Platt, don’t get me started.

The British soap opera producer has had a penchant for changing the actor of each character. In most common cases, this is so younger players can concentrate on their exams more. A good move; though not so good if the new bod has a six pack compared with his weedy predecessor.

10. Does anybody watch the telly in Soapland?

Up until recently (thanks also to The Royle Family influencing this), few people discuss what they watched on telly the previous night. In recent years, Coronation Street has had the odd reference to Loose Women or any other ITV programmes namechecked by its characters.

Though The Royle Family shows the most candid expression of telly watching, it was Brookside which included scenes of people the telly. In this case, a fictitious soap opera made especially for the residents of Brookside Close known as Meadowcroft.

Where are the satellite dishes? Does anybody go to The Flying Horse to watch Manchester United on a big screen with a hooky Sky dish?

Finally…

Feel free to add to this post by stating other Crimes Against Soap Operas. Your input is much appreciated, as ever.

S.V., 09 April 2010.

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