February 26, 2020

Let’s compare and contrast two women with eventful lives.

Elsie Tanner — a long-time resident of a small street in the Manchester suburb of Weatherfield — worked as a seamstress, with occasional stints at other jobs. She was married three times. Her first husband abandoned her and their two young children; her second, an American soldier, was killed by a fellow GI in a squalid dispute over gambling debts; her third marriage ended in divorce. Eventually Elsie moved to Portugal to run a wine bar with an old flame.

Sharon Watts is a long-time resident of a square in the London suburb of Walford. She is the adopted child of publicans Den and Angie Watts, and has worked mostly as a pub/nightclub manager. She has also been married three times — to mechanic Grant Mitchell, her adoptive brother Dennis, and to Grant’s brother Phil, an alcoholic, drug-addicted gangster.

Sharon’s father Den faked his own death but returned 20 years later, only to be murdered by his new wife and secretly buried under his own pub. Sharon’s second husband — her father’s biological son Dennis — was also murdered, by gangsters, shortly afterwards. Sharon gave birth to his son, also named Dennis, but he was recently drowned (aged 13) in a freak boat accident; at the same moment Sharon (aged 51) gave birth to a child by her toyboy lover, Keanu.

Sharon’s biological father Gavin (who also faked his own death, and was married to Sharon’s mother-in-law, who also faked her own death) turned out to be a gangster, who kidnapped Sharon’s third husband Phil, doused her house with petrol, and threw her auntie from a window to her death.

Sharon has been involved in five separate car accidents, three kidnappings, and she’s been seriously assaulted more times than I can accurately ascertain, usually by gangsters. Oh, and she’s also addicted to painkillers, has no spleen, and she was a pop singer.

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In some ways, the characters are similar. They’re both tough, no-nonsense ladies with dubious reputations and hearts of gold. But Elsie lived at a time when British TV soap operas went out just twice a week, and were part of a rich tapestry of varied prime-time programming.

Sharon came of age just as this changed, with the soaps becoming scheduling juggernauts, the number of episodes per week gradually creeping up and up. Eastenders is now transmitted four, sometimes five nights of the week; Coronation Street — incredibly — now regularly takes up three hours of the ITV weekly schedule. Emmerdale runs every weekday night, with regular double-length episodes.

It’s not hard to see why. In an increasingly crowded media marketplace, there are solid commercial incentives for loading the schedules with reliable ratings winners with strong followings. But the unintended consequence is the removal of something quite valuable from our pop-cultural landscape: a sense of the worth of ordinary people and ordinary lives as subjects for examination and reflection through drama.

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British soap operas were, back in the day, notoriously unglamorous and uneventful in comparison to their wild, high-concept American counterparts. Granada executives were famously nervous at the genesis of Coronation Street in 1960, worried that it was a show where “nothing happened”. In the 1980s, Clive James used to end his TV round-ups of exotically bloody clips from foreign language soaps with quips about how unlikely such scenes would be at Emmerdale Farm, as it then was.

Dramatic events certainly happened in the soaps of old — and it would be a mistake to characterise them as convivial fluff. They always, necessarily, dealt in a heightened version of reality, and were often hard-nosed and full of incident.

It is the nature of those incidents that was different. The bread-and-butter stories of Coronation Street in the Sixties right through to Nineties (when — full disclosure — I worked on it) were illicit affairs, non-violent disputes, financial precariousness, and, most centrally, the examination of long-standing marriages and other family relationships.

People rubbing along in situations not too far removed from our own. Jealousy, rivalry, luckiness and unluckiness in love. Anybody can identify with those. My guess is that very few of us, thankfully, can exclaim: “Oh, that’s exactly what happened to me!” when people suffocate in a car boot, or drown alongside their sister on the eve of their wedding, or get kidnapped and tortured in an abandoned basement, all of which have occurred in our soaps fairly recently.

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The transformation of the media landscape transformed our soaps. As more material was demanded to fill more slots, and as competing distractions continued to pile higher and higher, more and more extraordinary and unlikely events and stunts were necessary to draw viewers’ attention.

It’s ironic that as levels of recorded crime in the real world have gone down, the soaps have got increasingly ensanguined. It’s funny to think that statistically speaking you were much more likely to be a victim of violence when Weatherfield was a much more genial place than it is now.

Coronation Street, to its credit, retains much of its humour and charm. The writing has kept up to a very high standard. The problem is that the sheer volume of material, and the overload of accidents, murders and other tragic events, strains credibility. Characters bear huge amounts of personal tragedy and grief. It’s hard to imagine how, for example, David Platt (father stabbed to death, wife stabbed to death, stepfather a serial killer, hid the body of a drug dealer down a manhole, etc) can function in society even in his wonky way.

The purpose of all these big events is to sustain ratings, or at least to stem their inevitable decline. Increasing ratings is out of the question, as entertainment options proliferate and our mass culture becomes more and more a selection of niches.

Committing to watching the big three British soaps is a big ask now. It will take up about 10 hours of your evenings a week. You can still occasionally find the drama of the everyday in other more digestible shows such as Last Tango in Halifax, or even a comedy like This Country, but that’s about it. The rest is mostly sudden explosions and/or stabbings.

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The attention-grabbing nature of modern media has, I think, blotted out the idea that ordinary life is dramatic. We have lost, or are losing, a realistic sense of of our reflected selves.

This has political implications, too. The shock among elites at the Brexit vote and the Tory landslide might not have been so strong if we saw more ordinary people living ordinary lives in our mainstream culture. It’s hard to imagine a Leave/Tory voting person being portrayed reasonably on TV, and this in an age obsessed with ‘representation’.

One last thing. Elsie Tanner’s son returned to Weatherfield in 2012, when he revealed that Elsie had plummeted to a fiery death when she accidentally drove off a cliff in the Algarve.

Well, of course she did. Nobody in the soaps of today gets a happy, or even an ordinary, ending.

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