And now for something completely different, something that readers outside of the UK, Ireland and possibly Australia will probably look at with mild confusion and hurtful disbelief. I watch soaps. I sometimes think I’m ill-advised to jump into soap discussion alongside mature women, but it’s something to talk about, right? The show just always goes on with soaps, and the lure of watching the mundane on television seems to be incredibly strong for humans – see Big Brother, Jersey Shore and its derivatives for other depressing examples.
Actually, is there really that much mundane about soap operas these days? Shown well before the watershed, you can expect to see arson with murderous intent, rape, adultery, prostitution, drug abuse and addiction, rampant alcoholism and at least an evens chance of a raucous pub fight. As for some of the stuff Brookside used to throw up… well actually, all I’ve got to say there is that bombs going off in nightclubs and house raids by gun-toting mad Scousers was pretty amazing viewing back then, just as it would be now.
Yes, it’s usually all happening in soaps. And since episodes of these programmes have to be cranked out for at least four slots a week, there’s an awful lot of economical direction and acting involved, giving rise to those odd little moments that you only ever see in soaps. Here are some of the most common cliches of my guiltiest pleasure that you’ll find cropping up time and time again in multiple soaps.
Obviously my attacks on soap quality below are light-hearted, because I eat them up like a mommy’s-teat-sucking ponce. Christ though, it does read pretty sexist and misogynistic at times. Sorry to all wimmen.
First and foremost: when it comes to plot development, one place rules the roost: the local pub. There will be only one pub in the entire area, with the only possible thing resembling competition being a “nightclub” run by the local spiv/suited ladies man.
A Good Day’s Work
Nine to five jobs? Not in the world of the soap – daytime drinking is prominent, and the pub is almost always teeming with people from noon onwards. The pub might be empty early doors, if there’s some plot to be advanced (e.g. by the landlady rushing off to jump down the neck of her cheating boyfriend). But other than that, it is THE prime location for allegations or revelations of cheating, fighting and other scathing comments after 20 minutes of employment that day – all prompted by eviction from the pub in no uncertain terms.
Karl Marx Was Wrong
No character is ever really poor, even if they proclaim to be penniless. They will always have plenty of money for the pub, and a bit more after that to spend in the café (pron: caff) on food. They will rarely wear the same clothes twice.
Kids These Days (Or ‘Rosie Webster Sure Has Changed’)
There are always a number of years missing from a child’s development. You will see them being born, if they’re even lucky enough to make it that far. You will see a baby, then a two or three-year old child. Very soon, the kid will be 7 or 8, and the actor has been visibly changed. A few more months down the line and suddenly the kid is 13, and it’s time again for a new actor. It’s only when the kid’s potential plot use (teenage pregnancy, struggle with sexuality, falling into wrong crowd, truancy from school or college) is called for that the actor remains the same, and even this is no guarantee.
A State of Mind
Primary school children tend to be seen in uniforms, or being brought to and from school, which is fair enough. Kids of secondary school age are seen in uniform far less often, even inexplicably staying at home during normal school hours. Third level education usually never happens, unless a plotline requiring them to drop out of college and cause consternation among their family is called for, in which case they will last approximately 4 months in their educational institution of choice. But children leaving for college can always be a way of explaining the absence of the newest Future Nuts Babe as they leave for more lucrative pastures.
You Can Stop Acting Now
When a younger child’s purpose is exhausted in a scene (typically to innocently say something that inadvertently hangs a parent), they are immediately sent to their rooms. They usually carry out this order with none of the typical traits of a scorned child: no tantrums, no banging objects, no loud protestations, the most they will do is stomp on each step loudly, prompting a pained sigh from the embarrassed parent.
The Sigh Exit
It’s well for soap directors to keep as few people in a room as possible, so that one-to-one arguments can be had. Towards that end, and in keeping with the constant tension between soap characters, many indoor scenes will end with a character sighing loudly and storming off.
If a troubled new mother and father look like they’re finally going to start talking, the one thing that can easily stop interpersonal turmoil more than anything else, their child will immediately start crying. This prompts the mother to tut and hurriedly rush to her baby’s aid, while the camera pans on the father as he adopts a stern, mutinous look, fed up with his lot.
Crying Cut-off Note
Every single baby has the exact same cry.
They Must Be Celebrities
The only people allowed to talk are the appointed named characters. Unnamed shopkeepers and taxi drivers are never allowed to say anything, to say nothing of the mute pub punters who are pushed aside so that the named characters can get a pint or 5. The reason, of course, is because extras with a speaking line must be paid a fiver more, potentially devastating to a soap’s budget. The only exceptions here are the police, firefighters and hospital workers, a necessary evil in the more grandiose story arcs.
Skin Deep (or ‘Max Branning’s Fortune’)
It doesn’t matter if you are hopelessly fat, devoid of personality and humour, or have a face like an Ogham stone – you will get a shag eventually. Indeed, some of the uggos of the soap area are somehow seen as sex objects, leaving viewers to wonder just how they do it. These characters must just see to it that they don’t wind up regretting it all later (see ‘Little Bundle of Misery’).
Despite the near constant and cataclysmic conflict that permeates every part of a soap’s environment, grudges are seldom permanent. The upheaval and tangles of the most recent pub fire/lust murder/paternity controversy of six months ago tend to be completely forgotten about or ignored eventually.
No Grudges Corollary
The above does not apply when the revelation is made that a baby does not belong to the newly-wed Meek Girl Next Door but is actually the Queen Bitch of the day’s spawn. Expect a prolonged bitchfest between the two, which will result in the exit/demise of at least one of them.
Not Our Fault The Sets Are Too Small
If two prying busybodies are discussing the travails or potential rogue motives of someone else present in the room, that third party will never hear these bitchy tos-and-fros – no matter how loud the other two are being.
Hard drug addictions can be beaten within 6-8 weeks. This does not apply to alcoholic characters, who will constantly suffer relapses whenever their character is beginning to return to two-dimensionality.
Always Someone There
Despite the limited number of named characters in the cast, there will always be the case of two young singletons unhappy with their relationship status being brought together. A relationship follows, where the two are visibly and overly enamoured with each other – for a devastatingly short space of time. Then, like night follows day, the dysfunction and contrived plotlines begin.
No wedding ceremony will ever go well. The time-honoured method of spoiling the couple’s big day is the classic bursting through the door of the church and protesting loudly after the “Speak now or forever hold your peace” bit, that line that just invites trouble. In most other works, this is done by the worthy suitor to stop his belle from marrying a rotten rival, but this order is usually reversed for soaps. The bride, of course, almost instantly changes her mind, and now the unlucky groom has a problem. Immediately after yet another wedding descends into farce, the other older characters inexplicably express their surprise at how something like this could happen.
Risky Matrimony #2
Quicker, simple, and far more effective: after a tense build-up, with one of the couple having gone missing, it is eventually revealed that they have fled. Grooms will usually escape through toilet windows and slink back home a broken man, whereas brides will be found at a sister or confidant’s house, in tears.
On those rare occasions that a wedding does go well, and the bride has been kissed, you needn’t expect that to be the end of it. As the congregation clap the new couple, the soap episode will usually end focused on the glaring eyes of a former lover of the groom, plotting her revenge.
Even in death, you carry the risk of controversy being sparked at your funeral. Funerals and family feuds, usually the reserve of travelling folk and gypsies, are a depressingly common occurrence – at about a 50% chance.
If a character moves away from the small confines of the soap’s environment, even on those rare occasions where they’re not forced to leave behind a travesty of a home/family situation, then they will never be heard of until their return. Until that day, they might just as well be dead. Even family members won’t mention them.
No Fun Allowed
Do not have any form of party or celebration. At best, you can hope for a punch-up and heavy screaming. At worst, you can expect the venue to be destroyed in a blazing fire, resulting in at least one death and at least two more in a serious condition in hospital. Either way, all attempts to have some merriment are mercilessly cut short. A gathering in the pub? Forget it. About the best you can hope for is some down on his luck drunkard making a scene but being escorted/thrown out before the fists really start flying.
Tea Breaks All Round
When the latest disaster occurs, it’ll take an eternity for the emergency services to arrive. That the soap area appears to be an absolute magnet for loss of life and destruction of buildings doesn’t seem to make a difference to the fire brigades and ambulances – at this rate, having a few permanently parked around the corner would seem far wiser.
Borne From Death & Destruction
There will be at least one pregnant woman in distress while this prolonged post-disaster wait is happening. Chances are they’ll go into labour as the one doctor in the whole region arrives, forcing an impossible choice between whose aid to tend to. Who will be saved? The new baby that 3 or 4 plotlines can sprout from, or the actor or actress who glossy mags already tell us are leaving?
The Public Doesn’t Care Anymore
Doctors, ambulances, fire brigades, police and sometimes even police helicopters and mountain rescue will turn up to the burning pub eventually. But the mass media never will.
Even if just about everyone in a soap is backstabbing someone else at any given time, there is still a significant, almost heart-warming level of trust among folk. This is evidenced by people asking near-strangers to temporarily mind their car/house/children/caff/murder weapon while they go off and chase their bête noire of the month.
The police are never seen until they have to bring one of the area’s many criminals in for questioning. This diminished police presence possibly explains why robberies, arson and murders tend to be extremely high in the local environs. What’s left unexplained is why this rampant spate of crimes never warrants a heightened police presence.
Billy Mitchell >>> John Keynes
All kinds of political, economical and social problems hit the characters hard, usually turning the whole area into one big societal disaster zone. However, one thing that rarely affects the characters, even in real life times of economic downturn, is unemployment. No matter how unskilled or hapless a character is, and now matter how many times they’ve been sacked by a former employer, jobs are always available for those who want them. Better still, if you don’t actively look for a job, one will be given to you by the sole entrepreneur in the area. Social welfare seems not to exist, and loss of one’s job is usually very temporary as a result. After all, money must be earned for daily trips to the pub.
Soapish Jobs for Soapish People
Knicker factories, dry cleaners, hairdressers, caffs and the pub tend to constitute the main employers in the area. Shabby nightclubs are seen as the pinnacle of employment. A fine thing that there are jobs available, although they tend to be quite unskilled. Office jobs, beyond admin for the aforementioned businesses, do not exist. Medical practitioners, solicitors and barristers and accountants never live nearby and none seem to be employed in the area – once again, they only exist when the plot demands them to.
None of the characters seem to have a car. If they do, it’s never parked outside their house until it’s summoned there for plot reasons. Getting into a car for this reason tends to be rather dangerous (see ‘Dangerous Roads’). Characters never leave the area for good in these cars – this work is always reserved for taxis.
Notwithstanding a few weather-beaten individuals, all of the denizens of a soap’s area tend to be very good looking. Not many horror shows, and certainly not many fat people at all. Even farms can easily give rise to Nuts Mag Babes.
Your cheating will always be found out about. The most common way for this to happen is by an adulterous man getting the female pregnant and promptly being turfed out of his home after this revelation is made. If not that, then the Queen Bitch will eventually delight in telling the cheated female that her hubby is a love rat.
They Get Around
That old phrase “don’t shit on your own doorstep” most certainly does not apply to soap characters of both genders – multiple sex partners from the area are common, and everyone gets a shag (see ‘Skin Deep’). Coupled with the already incestuous nature of the soap area’s limited number families, this usually leads to problems later.
Nobody will swear, not even the vaguely gangster East End thug, or the Northern villain of the month. “Fucking hell” becomes “Flamin’ ‘eck” or “Flippin’ ‘ell” at a push. “What are you playing at?” is quite clearly “What the fuck are you thinking of?”
The characters would be ill-advised to get into the passenger seat of a car – the car will summarily end up in the water, careening off a cliff, on fire, or merely out of petrol in the middle of nowhere. This already high risk of death, injury or anguish is doubled when the car is being driven by a demented ex or disgruntled family member or love rival.
Laws of Technology
PCs, laptops, tablets and games consoles are almost never used, despite their prevalence in real life. Characters are never allowed to watch television in peace – they are always summoned by their partner to talk about their hopeless family situation or to do some seemingly mundane task that lands them in trouble. Mobile phones are only used when the audience must be shown a damning text message or when calling a partner who is suspected of a misdemeanour. In the latter situation, the phone is never answered.
Better Off Indoors
The soap character should never answer their door. Doing so tends to invite all sorts of trouble and skeletons from their closet, such as estranged spouses or ex-wives, the police, ex-convict siblings or someone spoiling for a fight. It ought to be noted that doors in soaps are answered almost immediately, in stark contrast to real life. The already short time taken here is halved when the camera focuses on the outdoor character.
Little Bundle of Misery (Or ‘Who Let Steve McDonald Have Kids?’)
It is usually unwise of soap characters to have children together. Even that situation of two loving adults in a comfortable relationship deciding to have a child is lofty and boring. Usually a pregnancy plot is founded on: an already broken family; a couple with an abusive partner; a teen pregnancy; an unattractive older mother and a far too young father who must step up and shoulder responsibility; a whodunnit; even following a rape. Of course, the four families living in the area have to have their name prolonged and carried through the generations somehow. Either way, the poor baby, whether it makes it or not, will cause problems for at least three different people.
Little Bundle of Misery Corollary
If none of the above conditions are present in a potential pregnancy plot, then the father will be infertile or the mother unable to have children, enabling the writers to crowbar in a surrogate mother plot. The surrogate mother becomes attached to the child, of course, and all sorts of problems begin. If this baby is indeed conceived, and problems seem plentiful, then don’t expect the writers to hold back from that awful ending of miscarriage.
All Bad Things
If a character was almost universally disliked, they will be killed off in an almost humiliating fashion, probably by the least likely character – the Sassy Kid Come of Age, or perhaps the otherwise Devout Churchgoer. If this death occurs in April, you needn’t expect the identity of the true murderer to be revealed until Christmas Day.
All Bad Things Corollary
Getting killed off in a soap is never permanent.
All Good Things
If you had a good run in a soap, however, then you are at least guaranteed a warm send-off, in a similar vein to a testimonial match for a beloved old pro. There is usually the parting shot of the character walking away or being ferried away in a taxi or coach. As they begin their journey, they will take one last wistful look back – usually at the pub. But as one beloved character is bid a fond farewell, you can be sure that another one will be rocking right back up, just the way we remember them.