07 November 2012

Soapy Operatics

The other evening, while digging through recent tweets, I noticed how a fortnight or so back I’d said, “Hmmm. Must make tea before calling home again. Rang during a proposal in Coronation Street, something which is never mentioned on Twitter.”

And that time I paused, because I honestly couldn’t think of a time I’d noticed anybody talking about Coronation Street on Twitter. Or Eastenders, for that matter. Now, granted, I could just have been filtering out tweets on those topics, but it got me thinking about how roughly a quarter of Britain’s population watch soap operas every week, and yet they seem to go unmentioned on Twitter.

It turns out that there are official Twitter accounts for the two main soaps, with Eastenders’ official account having almost 220,000 followers, and Coronation Street’s having almost 180,000. Not Stephen Fry country – indeed, not even in the range of the QI Elves – but still, it’s not too shabby.

But here’s the thing. It seems that of the almost 800 accounts I follow, just two follow the Eastenders account, and two follow the Coronation Street one. And one of those is the NSPCC.

Am I typical in this regard? Or is it simply the case that Twitterati are radically unrepresentative of the British population – and perhaps the Irish and American ones too -- in general? Food for thought there, methinks.

Now there's a condundrum for you...
So, anyway, this got me thinking about the soaps in general. I’m sorry to say that I’ve probably clocked up a few thousand hours of passive soap-watching over the decades. I don’t think I’ve ever deliberately turned one on, but I’ve certainly been in the room innumerable times when others have been watching Eastenders, Neighbours, Glenroe, Home and Away, and most especially Coronation Street. I have a big family, after all. The telly’s hardly mine to hog.

And while the telly’s been on, there have been plenty of occasions when I’ve not averted my eyes, so I’ve picked up a good broad knowledge of soap operas over the years.

Occasionally I’ve pondered a question memorably put by one of my best friends in Dublin: “What do the regulars in the Rovers Return watch on telly at half-seven on Monday nights?”

The dogs that don't bark...
It’s a fair question. One thing that’s conspicuously absent from Coronation Street, as a milieu, is Coronation Street the programme. Indeed, absent too, as far as I can tell, are Eastenders, Neighbours, Emmerdale, the lot. It seems that Weatherfield is almost the only working class or lower middle-class place in England where nobody watches or talks about soap operas.

I saw ‘almost’, because Walford seems to exhibit the same peculiarity. So, I suspect, does Emmerdale.

Another thing that’s strikingly odd in the two shows I’ve seen are football references. I’ve been assured that football gets mentioned now and again in the shows, but I honestly don’t think I’ve ever noticed it happening.

Weatherfield, it would seem, is a suburb of Greater Manchester where nobody talks about Manchester United or Manchester City, and where the pub is singularly devoid of crowds of burly men shouting obscenities at a big screen. And, just as eerily, although Eastenders occasionally features a mention of Walford Town FC, we never see people camping out in front of the Queen Vic’s telly to watch West Ham, that being, I think, the local team.

Spectator sport, it would seem, is unheard of on Coronation Street and Albert Square. I can’t remember whether it was ever mentioned on Brookside Close. Is it tenable that this was the only street in Merseyside where nobody talked of Everton and Liverpool?

Were Merseyside’s two great teams ever mentioned in Grange Hill, for that matter, when the school was inexplicably relocated there from London in 2003, thus rendering nonsensical the teasing Ziggy had received for his Scouse accent back in the 80s?

Sometimes historians have so little to go on...
All of which leads me to think that we’d be in quite the pickle if future historians were left to rely on soap operas and the usual incomplete archaeological remains to figure out what life was like in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century Britain.

What would they conclude? That ordinary English people didn’t watch drama programmes on television – so that the shows that had somehow survived must have been elite entertainments. That they didn’t partake in spectator sports, and rarely engaged in any physical activities. That their social lives revolved around drinking establishments called pubs, which were perennially popular and oblivious to outside social factors. That religion played almost no part in their lives, save sometimes at weddings and funerals. That adultery, abuse, rape, and murder were the small change of their miserable lives.

That those lives were short, with Londoners rarely making it past their mid-forties, and Scousers being lucky to reach their mid-twenties, though lifespans in Manchester were seemingly rather longer than those in London.

And then, just to complicate matters...
And, of course, if they were particularly unlucky they might also have a couple of episodes of Doctor Who, to really confuse them. If they had ‘Army of Ghosts’, for instance, they’d see the Doctor and Rose Tyler sitting in Jackie Tyler’s living room, flicking through the channels to see Eastenders’ own Peggy Mitchell confronting a spectral cyberman in the Queen Vic.

“Listen to me, Den Watts! I don’t care if you ‘ave come back from the grave. Get outta my pub! The only spirits I’m serving in this place are gin, whisky, and vodka. So you ‘eard me – get out!”
The Doctor turns off the programme, and turning to Jackie says,“When did it start?”
“Well, first of all, Peggy heard this noise in the cellar, so she goes down - ”
“No,” he says, “I mean worldwide.”

Might the historians of the future think this is metafiction? Well, you’d hope so, not least because of the improbable suggestion in it that ordinary people obsessively watched soap operas, which they would of course know to be false.*

Of course, if they had more than ‘Army of Ghosts’ to rely on, they’d realise that Doctor Who and Eastenders share a fictional continuity**, with the Doctor having visited Walford in 1993’s Dimensions in Time, where the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh incarnations of the Doctor, not to mention a medley of companions, battled the Rani, caught in timeloops that saw them visiting Albert Square as it was in 1973, 1993, and what appears to be an alternative 2013 where Kathy Beale, Pauline Fowler, Frank Butcher and Pat Evans are all mysteriously still alive.***

This might lead them to think that Eastenders is no more realistic than Doctor Who, or it might lead them to think that this is just a straightforward way of making Doctor Who seem more credible, on the Henry James principle that “a good ghost story ... must be connected at a hundred points with the common objects of life.”

Or it might lead them to think that Doctor Who accurately depicts modern British life too, with Eastenders being a reality TV show within the Doctor Who continuum, which might at least explain why Jackie watches it.

But that’s a whole other topic. Whatever way we look at it, it'd probably lead to some very strange documentaries.

* Especially if they had Twitter to go by.
** Subtly different from Red Dwarf, which though set in the same fictional continuum as Coronation Street is explicitly stated as taking place in a different dimension.
*** Don't even think of saying that as a 'Children in Need' special it doesn't count. Nobody says that about 'Time Crash'.

1 comment:

Alex said...

I conjecture that everyone in Eastenders is far to busy being really miserable to watch TV. And what would they watch. The can't watch X Factor, Corrie or Hollyoaks as they're on the other side, and they couldn't watch Strictly because half the time one of their own is in it. Which could be confusing.