“Just remember this one golden rule,” he said. “It’s all soap opera. They may say its a classic serial, they may call it a cutting-edge drama, they may bill it as cops, they may set it in deep space, but actually it’s all just soap, soap, soap.”
Mark Ravenhill’s lament over the sudsing up of contemporary television drama is, to my sorrow, very right. He offers the words of a bored scriptwriter annoyed that “what they really want is a little half-hour or 50-minute morality play”.
Ravenhill even offers a few of the commandments of the new soap morality: “Be true to yourself”; “talk about your feelings”; “learn to forgive and move on”; “accept difference”; and “you’re still family even after the murder/arson/substance abuse”. He’s right, though he might add that emotional displays are more virtuous than stoicism.
What I find interesting is that Ravenhill, a playwright himself, identifies these values as a perniciously homogenous liberal orthodoxy. The worst thing here, by far, is that lack of variety, the lack of dissent, the lack of angry engagement with a world. This is a morality of withdrawal from the larger world, a focus instead on the self-aggrandising individualism of the post-sixties middle classes.
And yet, what I see here is not in fact an echo chamber for the incorrigibly empty self-interested, the reverberating clamour of which drowns out legitimate, different voices. No, what leaps out at me is that this ultra-liberal porridge is a perfect fit for the requirements of soap, of any kind of regular drama.
Let’s look at those commandments again.
“Be true to yourself”: drama not only needs strong and readily identifiable (even caricatured) characters, it needs characters who will pursue their beliefs beyond the point of reasonable disagreement, necessarily causing conflict.
“Talk about your feelings”: Television drama is based on talk, no two ways about it. Inarticulate, reticent or inexpressive characters need not apply. I remember well leaving Mike Leigh’s (excellent, emotionally articulate, Palme d’Or winning, and very soapy) film “Secrets & Lies” thinking that all it lacked was Bob Hoskins popping up at the end telling us, on behalf of BT, that “it’s good to talk”. Leigh, a proper artist, managed to do this with a story essentially about characters who were variously bad at talking. Soaps and TV dramas cannot afford such subtlety with the basic mechanisms of the genre. The least of the cast must be gabbier than the most annoying person you ever sat next to on the train.
“Learn to forgive and move on”: You can’t, as you would in real life, endlessly rehash the same problems and complaints in minutely differentiated forms over the course of weeks, months, years. You have half an hour or 50 minutes at most to state, develop and resolve the problem. Next week we need to be onto the forgiveness and the next problem, so you’d better forgive him/her/them/it now and scrub the slate clean in order to be disappointed and angered afresh next week.
“Accept difference”: Ah, the greatest liberal nostrum of all. A Good Thing, particularly if you’re a drama writer seeking to set up odd couples, cultural conflicts, and misunderstandings galore.
“You’re still family”: Blood and marriage are the two clearest ways to keep warring characters in close proximity.
The warmly liberal values produced by this orrthodoxy, are, I think, more to do with the shapes required by regularised drama, and less to do with an political or sociological intent.