Thursday, October 28, 2010

Are my soaps really better than yours? Shakespeare gets a brief look-in as do Lady Polly Toynbee and Lord Andrew Marr

First there was The Sopranos, then Mad Men, then The Wire, at least in the sequence I came across them. In fact, Mad Men wasn’t premiered until after The Wire had concluded, if you’re a stickler for detail, but then if you’re a stickler for detail, it’s pretty unlikely that you take any interest in these ramblings and aren’t even reading this. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be some Guardian or Independent show-off piece involving loads of vague sociology and intense chat about the impact of demotic art on a post-modern, post-literate society (or something - you can probably tell I haven’t bothered reading such a piece for a while).

I made a point of watching all three and subsequently bought a DVD box set of The Sopranos. All three were - and are, because Mad Men is still about halfway through its life - excellent. By way of contrast let me mention EastEnders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale, Britain’s best-known and most popular soap operas. I will, and must, concede that each is extremely well-made to the highest standards and, in its own way, also quite excellent. But unfortunately, I am the original snooty-pants about ‘soaps’. I think they are awful, I have a silent contempt for those who watch them night in night out, and I would not put them in the same category as The Sopranos, Mad Men or The Wire.

I was sitting with my stepmother tonight, who since her stroke is, in many ways, a different character and has taken to watching TV all day. She is hooked on EastEnders, and I sit and watch it with her when I am there. (It is always ludicrously downbeat. Everything goes wrong for everyone. Why its popular I really don’t know except that because the characters have such a miserable time, fans feel that their lot isn’t so bad after all.) And here is my dilemma: if I am honest, these three are also essentially soap operas, yet I profess that I can’t abide soap operas. So what gives?

I know quite well how easy it is to get hooked on a soap opera. When I got married and first moved to Cornwall and was slowly finding my way around domesticity, I got hooked on Emmerdale, although my addiction didn’t last very long because I found it just too banal for words. In the past there has been a lot of loose talk along the lines of ‘if Shakespeare were alive today, he would be writing scripts for EastEnders. The odd thing is that, given that Shakespeare was a jobbing
writer and, by definition, turned his hand to whatever would earn him a groat or three, he might well have written scripts for the soaps. (In a similar vein, trendy clergymen who attempt to make religion more ‘relevant to today’ are apt to claim that ‘Jesus would have been a bit of a lad, you know, he would have liked a pint or two and watch a bit of footy on the telly. Oh, yes’.) But making that claim and admitting that Shakespeare would not have been above accepting work when it was offered is a long, long way off being able to equate EastEnders with Hamlet, which is its tacit intention.

Many writers have, especially in their early years when they were set on establishing themselves, turned their hand and talents to the shallower end of the market, but that has no bearing on the worth or otherwise of their other work.

So is that it? Are The Sopranos, Mad Men and The Wire admittedly soaps, but in some way more ‘acceptable’ because they are not banal? That might well be true. But then who’s to say what is and what is not banal? Who has the authority to arbitrate? Wouldn’t that line of argument be in danger pretty fast of straying into snobbery? Yes, I rather think it would.
But despite that I am quite prepared to argue that, taken in the round, my three soaps are ‘better’ than the three conventional soaps I abhor, but I would not relish being asked to justify my bias.

Mad Men, especially, is superb in its understatement, in how silence and pauses can be as eloquent as the dialogue. Everything is given time to breath, the performances, the storylines, the direction and the production. Thus it allows itself to recall and examine a specific time, the Sixties, in far greater depth and with far more subtlety than a straightforward analysis could probably achieve. But how does that make Mad Men ‘better’ than EastEnders (which I really do think is the pits)? Well, friends - and here this entry will fall horribly flat - I really don’t know. Answers, please, on the usual postcard.

PS. If you're really bored and have nothing better to do, consider farting. And if even that doesn't quite do it for you, you can read a reasonably comprehensive list of soap operas from around the world here. I say, 'reasonably' because it doesn't include Pobol Y Cwm on S4C (S4C is Wales's Welsh language channel).

. . .

Spending a few days in bed getting over an irritating sore throat, cough and cold. I’m due at work tomorrow and I can’t afford to go sick (I’m not paid if I don’t work), so I am on a crash course of ‘getting better’. The four-hour drive to London won’t exactly help, but at least it will be a single shift, and I can be back in bed by 7pm. Also I can log onto the system here and read the pages and do quite a bit before I get to work. I trust I have all your best wishes to ‘get well soon’. No? Oh, all right then. Just a thought.

. . .

Courtesy of the 'stats' feature provided by Google, I know that at some point today, someone came across this blog by googling the keyword 'polly toynbee', 'andrew marr' and 'cousin'. I also know that among today's visitors were someone from Morocco, someone from Israel and someone from Slovenia (and a welcome to all three. I hope to see you back here at some time).

What I find so curious is - not that a Moroccan, and Israeli and a Slovenian or people living in those countries - should visit, but what might prompted someone to google her Graciousness, the Lady Toynbee and Lord Andrew Marr. They don't yet have those titles, but patience, please. Given that at some point within the next 15 years Labour will form the new government it is pretty much a racing certainty Pol and Andy will come up with some intellecutal ruse to swallow their socialist principles and graciously accept Her Majesty's ermine honour. Plenty of other lefties have managed it, including John 'Man of the People' Prescott and, which is a little more nauseating as he was something of a left-wing poseur, Neil 'I could have been a contender' Kinnock.

In 15 years, both Pol and Andy will be elder statesman - which means we are obliged to listen to their waffle without interrupting - and Labour does like to look after its own. It is unusual for hacks (i.e. journalists) to be given the keys to the loos in the House of Lords, but you must remember these two are special.

What has the keyword 'cousin' to do with la Toynbee and Marr. I can't even begin to guess. I hope whoever it was stayed and admired my superb piccies of just down the road from here. Probably not, though.


  1. Patrick, thanks for the witty article on Soaps. I go through Soap withdrawal when I leave Cornwall. I too admit I got hooked on Coronation Street, as I was sitting with a 93 old lovely woman who was watching TV, 24-7 and could not be interupted from it. At 7.00 each evening (or maybe not each evening) when we were to go down to the pub after dinner, I begged to please wait til after Coronation Street, (no DVR's there) dont get me wrong I love to go to the pubs but I need my Soap!!
    I did watch EastEnders a few times, but did decide that it was to "low end" for me!!! Ha, ha, a bit each his own.
    When I came back to the US, i was able to get a Netflix of Coronation Street but to my disappointment, it was a 25th or some Anniversary Show, not really an episode...:(
    So as the months go on and now yrs with all withdrawals, they become easiler and you readjust to your life (without Coronation Street)

  2. P.S. I do love The Sopranos, but love most "Mob" related movies and shows. Also hope your better Patrick!!

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