Thursday, 8 March 2018

What Happened To Our Soaps?

Oh dear! Has Darby been in spraying 'Whispering Glen' again?

Back in the 1980s, I loved the soaps. There were two types: British and American. The British ones, including the English Crossroads and Emmerdale Farm, the Scottish Take The High Road and the short-lived Welsh soap Taff Acre, were rooted far more in the everyday than the American ones. But Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest and the like were great escapist stuff, glitzy and fun and silly. My favourite of the U.S. soaps was actually Falcon Crest - which had a sprinkling of delicious tongue-in-cheek humour.

And the contrasting styles worked well.

Of course, the English soaps Brookside (1982) and EastEnders (1985) moved us into grittier territory as the 1980s progressed (although Crossroads had already had a riot and given us the socialist Carole Sands in 1981 and 1982). But in the world of The Square and The Close left-wing wine bar frequenting writers and producers went all out to tell us how awful old Ma Thatcher was. That simply made the gaudy American soaps even more of an enjoyable contrast.

Dallas, of course, had begun as a mini-series in 1978, but it wasn't until the arrival of Joan Collins in Dynasty that the glitziness went '80s overboard. The Dynasty dress budget went sky high after Joanie's arrival and we moved into the era of massive shoulder pads, and in the words of one actress on a competing U.S. soap, they 'screamed and howled' for the same budget and pads.

The English enjoyed the American soaps in a different way to the home-grown ones. We took the UK soaps quite seriously, the American cousins were great fun - and a bit of a pantomime.

So, by the end of the 1980s, you had the English sauce-bottle-on-the-dining-table style soaps, and the glitzy hugely shoulder-padded American variety. Crossroads had, of course, ended in 1988, by that time a witty, gentle soap.

The '90s, of course, stepped up the action. If the 1980s had seen more grit and controversy in English soaps, the 1990s saw the type of plots we'd happily suspended our disbelief to watch in the '80s American soaps become the norm over here. But with added grit and gore.

In the 1980s, so separate were the two styles, I never believed they could merge.

A plane crash in Beckindale was probably the major turning point at Christmas 1993... then explosions, murders, misandry a-go-go and on-tap serial killers slowly became the norm.

It started to seem to me that soap viewers were baying for blood and chaos.

And it wasn't glitzy and pantomime stuff, either, well, most of it (give or take a Kim Tate or two). The '90s soaps were scary and bloody.

Now, I'm no hypocrite. Let's trot back to the revered 1970s (dunno why they are) and take a look at my attitudes then...

We'll pick on Coronation Street... a gun hold-up at Minnie Caldwell's? Oooh! Annie Walker threatened by hooligans in her bedroom? WOW! Yobs walloping down the Street, breaking windows? Cor! A woman murdered in Len Fairclough's back room? Eeek! The warehouse burning down and Edna Gee trapped behind a door and burnt alive? I couldn't miss THAT! Albert Tatlock roughed up by a hooligan in his backroom? Crikey! Cancel the youth club, I'm stopping in to watch! Ernie Bishop shot by raiders at the factory? Bliss! A lorry crashes into the Rovers? WONDERFUL!

Oh yes, back in the old days we loved a bit of nastiness in our soaps.

But the dramas, which, if condensed down into a decade's worth seem ridiculous, were actually few and far between in the viewing.

The majority of the time we were engrossed in a bit of a gossip at Maggie Clegg's, or Annie Walker's latest efforts at gracious living, or Hilda having a 'muriel' on her wall.

Switch to the 1980s, and the picture was much the same. Where was Percy's budgie? Why had Fred Gee had a Space Invaders game installed at the Rovers? What would Hilda say when hairdresser Audrey Roberts turned her hair orange? The big dramas were well spaced. The majority was chit-chat and Mavis's budgie.

Brookside, EastEnders and Neighbours, which began in the UK in October 1986, had their impact beyond the Brookie and 'Enders grit. Teenagers were suddenly the order of the day in soaps. Crossroads, of course, gave us my beloved Beverley and Jason Grice, as the serial coasted home. To my mind, the very best representation.

The gritty goings-on in Brookside and EastEnders contained an increasing number of pot boilers. Who was the father of Michelle's baby? Who raped Sheila Grant? (serious issue, with pot boiling elements in the plot) Who was the father of Cindy's baby? And so on. But they were all believable. And mixed into other believable happenings (aside from the scriptwriters' 'Thatcher is killing us all' and misandry brief).

What happened in the 1990s left me gob-smacked.

Why did it happen? Could the roots be traced back to the start of Sky Television in 1989 - the brave new world of multi-channel competition as the '90s got underway? Were people simply more sensation seeking? I truly don't know.

But by the end of the 1990s, I'd got rid of my TV services.

And now I wouldn't watch a soap if you paid me.

Thank heavens so many episodes of Crossroads still exist... Funnily enough, the late 1980s episodes seem closer to real life as I was living it than any other UK soap...

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