Between the Lines: Soap Wars

While the more tedious minds were pointed towards a boat on the seas off Malta where the owl and the pussycat were carving up the future of Europe, your reviewer was waiting eagerly to see whether Rita Fairclough had really been done in down Coronation Street. In the end she had not been brutally murdered, but had simply lost her memory and gone to Blackpool—it is usually memory loss or dire poverty that leads workers to the place. Meanwhile on Britain’s most watched TV programme, Neighbours (an Australian import designed to show that there are even worse things than Rupert Murdoch to be found in the outback), pantomime plots are recycled every few months on the assumption that the viewing audience suffers from collective memory loss.

Neighbours (BBC1. Monday to Friday, twice daily) and Coronation Street (ITV. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays. 7.30pm) are both soap operas, but the difference between them is immense. Coronation Street is one of the best dramas on British TV. Its writers possess a grasp of dialogue and an ability to convey believable situations which is matched by the usually first-class performances of the actors. Pretentious bores may get all excited about the hidden meanings in Dennis Potter’s allegedly intellectual allegory Blackeyes. but as far as this viewer was concerned Potter’s offering was a load of boring, meaningless tripe. Coronation Street, on the contrary, is one of the better reasons to switch on the telly.

Soap operas are good for capitalism They keen the viewers attentive to a world which is not there. Workers watching events of a fictitious street are less likely to bother the established powers than workers who are thinking about the world outside their front doors. Soaps edit reality. Neighbours edits it to the point where life is depicted as a series of silly adventures, believable mainly by children and the childish. In the name of “good clean fun”, the programme makes sure never to expose its viewers to the insoluble miseries of poverty. Neighbours characters are involved in endless fights between good and evil; the latter always looks like it will win, just until the last moment when good prevails.

In Coronation Street there is a more genuine attempt to refer to the problems of working class life. But these are never presented as collective problems. They are not suffered by a class, but by individuals who must struggle along in their own little self-contained story-line. The main characters for showing such struggles against poverty used to be the Ogdens—now it is the Duckworths. Those families which cannot manage are depicted as rather dopey, lazy, unsophisticated and poorly-educated figures of fun. They are broke because they are daft.

Soaps do more to convey values to the working class of the late twentieth century than the Churches . They are morality plays. Alan Bradley, the man who was making life hell for Rita down the Street, finally got what he deserved. In East Enders the immoral Dirty Den was finally shot and dumped in the River Thames; rumours from the BBC are that the whole series might soon be dumped, and it won’t be a day too soon. But soaps are here to stay; TV viewers love them. Granada TV, which makes Coronation Street, is currently working on a new twice-weekly soap called Families. A few lofty folk might be watching The Money Programme to see how the interest rates are doing, but most of us are fixed to our sets in eager anticipation of the moment when Deirdre Barlow catches Ken playing on the away ground with his mistress. They’ve got us where they want us.

My hopes were raised when I heard the commentator say they would be shooting Roy Hattersley talking about the Broadcasting Bill. Honecker under house arrest and Hattersley shot, all in one month, would be more excitement than one could stand. We have been encouraged to regard this newly-won right of being allowed to watch politicians, only from the waist upwards, as some kind of privilege. To be sure, it is better that we can see the swines at their business than being refused permission to watch. But permission has only been granted on their terms. Imagine if a trade union were to tell the BBC that its conference may be televised. but only on the basis of a long list of restrictions determined by the union so as to deny access to any images which would show it in its true light. There would be an outcry that militants are trying to censor the public’s freedom. So, who gave MPs the power to determine what may and may not be witnessed of their proceedings?

In East Germany the workers have a rather different approach to these things. They do not wait to be invited into the sacred institutions of the state; they enter without permission. Did you see those pictures of German workers forcing open the doors of the secret police buildings? Here in “free” Britain it is the secret police who raid the TV studios. (Remember the Special Branch raid on BBC Scotland for daring to make a documentary about Britain’s secret spy technology?). I wonder whether it would be the case that if thousands of workers surrounded Parliament and demanded to have free and unrestricted access to its business the BBC would report that with headlines about “Peoples Power”

There are few better ways to converse than while taking a walk. (Apart from anything, you can look at the scenery while your fellow conversationalist is boring you stiff with interruptions to your desire to hear yourself speak). Muriel Gray’s programme Walkie Talkie (C4. 8.30pm). has included some very worthwhile wandering talkers. Arthur Scargill’s explanation of class could not be faulted. He pointed out that there are only two classes and went on to develop his point in terms which our Declaration of Principles use. When Gray raised the matter of the middle class. Scargill pointed out that it was a mythical entity and that TV presenters like her, dependent upon their salaries in order to live, are in the working class. Two weeks later Muriel was walking with the Duke of Westminister, the richest man in Britain She did not need to ask him which class he was in. She ended the walk by asking if he would give her some of his money. He stopped smiling and walking and stood idle like a Duke. Rumours that he is shortly to move into a terraced house down Coronation Street are to be dismissed; those homes are for us. not them.

Steve Coleman