Saturday, 21 January 2012

TV Soaps: Garbage in - garbage out?

My revelatory moment came with the words, "Coronation Street's on, they're having a row."

Back came the question, "Who's having a row?" and suddenly I realized: I didn't know who, but there's always someone having a row, or having a go at someone else, or cheating on their partner, or plotting something.

Wherever you go in soapland, there's always sour looks and mean deeds.

Now there's an acronym in the world of computer programming: GIGO, which means 'garbage in, garbage out'.

If you input erroneous data your results won't suddenly become Nobel Prizewinning stuff. If your programme is corrupted, don't expect it to run.

And it is often assumed that the same applies in the world of home entertainment. If someone constantly watches violent horror films, it is hardly likely to have an edifying effect. If they are addicted to violent pornography, not only is there something suspect about their inner workings, but they are likely to be exacerbating, rather than helping, the problem.

So why do we assume TV soaps are any different?

Of course there is the excuse, they're not real life. They just exaggerate the kind of things that go on in real life for entertainment.

True, but there are other things that go on in real life, that don't get exaggerated for entertainment in the soaps. There's heroism, there's self-sacrifice, there's kindness and helpfulness.

According  to a report in the Daily Mail, Pam St Clement, who used to pay Pat Butcher in East Enders, voiced something of the same concern: I'm not too sure that one little area of London has quite so much violence and adultery as ours does," she is quoted as saying, adding, "Maybe in the search to be over [sic] more interesting we are always pinning stories on things that are ever more 'out there', rather than remembering that good stories are about what happens in people's hearts and in their relationships."

But as we know, in their efforts to be 'out there', soap writers have aimed to be opinion shapers on the subjects of death, sexuality and so on, as well as entertainers. Yet if they believe they can shape opinions, would they deny they can shape a 'mood'?

When I was a schoolboy, our deputy head always seemed to end the last assembly of every academic year with a reading from St Paul's letter to the Philippians, ending with these words: "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."

It was meant as a moral exhortation, and by constant repetition it must have got through even my schoolboy skull. And there's a double lesson in itself.

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  1. John,
    The qualities you admire were seen on the night of the Coronation Street tram crash. Recently Eastenders has had someone rushing into a burning building. This week coronation Street has had a sensitive story about disciplining children. Eastenders has raised our awareness of the impact of a mothers breast cancer on her teenage daughters. The dangers of alcohol are often apparent. Not all bad. Is it any worse than the hospital dramas the BBC specialise in or the crime drama which is ITV's staple. It is a bid like LOTR, there was not much to say about the time in Rivendell

  2. As you say, David, every once in a while we see some decent behaviour - then it's back to 'normal'. It might be worth comparing the soap 'intention' with that of the Eagle when established by Marcus Morris.

  3. For twelve years or so I didn’t own a TV – and even now I don’t think I’d miss it terribly if we got rid of it. The only soap I’ve been hooked on is the Archers on Radio 4 (which I’ve listened to from the early 80s) – and it is curious that I stopped listening to it for over a year, after Kathy’s rape. I just don’t want to listen to such things. Similarly, it is not unknown for me to walk out of a cinema or the living room, if there is a violent or overtly sexual scene in a film. I find nudity on stage particularly difficult – and although hats off to Daniel Radcliffe for bearing all in Equus, I would have preferred if he and his stage lover had left some things to the imagination!

    Yet does what we see in the media have bearing on our behaviour? It is a difficult one. Japan is a nation that has a history of violent comic books, computer games and cinema that is avidly consumed by many – yet it has very low rates of violent crime. Fifty percent of Americans go to church every Sunday, hear the Gospel and the nation has a harsh penal system that incarcerates a far greater proportion of its citizens than China and Iran put together, yet has high rates of murder and violent crime (particularly in the Bible Belt – along with a raft of other appalling ‘social indicators’ which are all higher in religiously and politically conservative states). Hence it is difficult to tease out cause and effect – and like it or not we actually live in a far less violent and dysfunctional society than our forebears, when there was no TV to blame (see: for an interesting discussion on this!). (Ecclesiastes 7:10 and all that!)

    The subject matter of soaps tawdry – but I think great care is needed not to set in place a weak syllogism: ‘dysfunctional families on TV results in dysfunctional behaviour in wider society’. At the end of the day, drama is rooted in exaggeration and hyperbole. I went to see ‘The Iron Lady’ on Friday (brilliant film, by the way!) which showed Mrs Thatcher cheerfully waving Airey Neave goodbye as he dove out of the Houses Parliament underground car park – boom – his car was blown up by a bomb planted by the INLA and we see Mrs T running up with exit ramp to the blown up car... In reality Mrs T was elsewhere on the campaigning trail... But for dramatic effect the film took liberties with history... Soaps likewise take liberties with reality to make everyday life more spicy and interesting – after all, if ‘real’ life was as interesting and spicy, why would we need TVs in the first place?