Soap Opera

Why would anyone use such a gloriously varied, universally popular and participatory art as soap opera in a perjorative sense? Except maybe the Beeb who, when River City was in development, allegedly insisted on everyone referring to it as a "continuing drama" lest anyone should imagine that what they were creating was a soap!
In 1982 one Dorothy Hobson conducted a fascinating study into the relationship between Crossroads and its viewers. This is extensively reported in John Carey's iconoclastic "What Good Are the Arts?" (Buy it, read it and rejoice, Faber and Faber, 2005) He says "Taste is so bound up with self esteem, particularly among devotees of high art, that a sense of superiority to those with 'lower tastes' is almost impossible to relinquish without the risk of identity crisis."
Hobson researched audience response to the soap and found - unsurprisingly - that its viewers had a high level of critical awareness and that the soap was essentially a "popular art with communal participation which provoked a straightforward clash of cultures." The critics hated it purely because it offended their own cultural values.
Not so very long ago there was a scene in Corrie (My soap of choice) in which Emily, Audrey, Norris, Rita and - I think - Fred, sat around a dining table eating Sunday lunch and talking. It was a scene of such breathtaking skill (any playwright will tell you that dining tables can be death to drama) that I watched it in gobsmacked envy of the team that had created it. Each of these characters had his or her own densely woven back story. Each of them had a complex relationship with the others. And for all of them, something was also happening right now. Every character was being played by a fine actor, using a script to die for, with inspired direction that placed every member of the audience firmly at the table with them.
Not only that but they were all older characters, and yet they weren't being treated as figures of fun, or also-rans, but as real, three dimensional people, central to the drama. In short it was a dazzling tour de force.
Once upon a time, when a wandering poet arrived in a small Highland or Island community he would be asked "Do you know anything of the Fianna?" When the reply was in the affirmative, he would be invited to a village gathering to relate the next episode in the popular soap that was the story of Finn MacCumhaill,his warriors and their strong, dauntless women. So what is the difference between this ancient craving for story, and the animated discussions about the latest episode of this or that soap in the pub or the canteen? And why should one be intrinsically more valuable, or more culturally significant than the other?
The answer is, of course, that it isn't. But don't tell the elitists that. The shock to their self image might be disastrous. I often think they they are like the exclusive religious sect in the old joke - you know, the one where St Peter lets the newcomer climb up the ladder to peer quietly over the high wall of their heavenly enclosure because "they think they are the only ones in here!"

Comments