It has been widely commented that the long-running radio drama, The Archers, has recently become like a sound-version of Eastenders. And no wonder, since the current producer is late of that depressing TV series:
Many of us long-time listeners have stopped tuning in; in fact my early evenings are quite different now. Whereas they used to begin at six with the news, continue at 6.30 with the comedy slot (and don’t get me started on that) and centre on the Archers before continuing with Front Row; now we usually turn it off and watch something instead.
But the soapy phenomenon is not confined to radio. Some of my favourite crime series, such as ‘Silent Witness’ and ‘WPC 56’ seem to be going the same way:
So what is the difference between a drama and a soap?
I think it’s primarily the predominance of the personal in the plot. Whereas a crime series focusses on solving crimes, and ‘an everyday story of country folk’ centres on farming, a soap centres on its characters and their relationships. Of course dramas have characters and those characters have relationships, but their private lives are secondary and create a tension because they have the ability to disrupt work. In a soap, the emphasis is on the personal and work takes a back seat. This results in a lack of urgency; a sense that work can wait while people sort out their love-lives. Casualty, though in many ways the most soap-ish of dramas, does at least retain an atmosphere of crisis; even though in its preposterous plot-lines staff regularly desert a shift to sort out the lives of their patients, there is still a sense that work is urgent; work comes first, and that staff never have enough time for their own lives.
And this is as it should be. I don’t mean that in a moral sense; I mean in a dramatic sense. Crime and medical – and probably farming – dramas run on the staple that personal life is always on the back-burner. It will flare up and disrupt daily life, but that’s part of the ongoing drama. There’s a pleasurable sense of anxiety as you worry about x’s marriage or y’s child while the character is in a car-chase or helping a cow give birth. When I used to listen to the Archers I would always worry primarily about how they ever managed to get enough sleep. But now? Without that tension it’s just a soap where more and ever-more sensational problems are needed to maintain the interest.
Or lose it. I’ve said quite enough in previous posts about why I no longer listen to the Archers, so enough of that. I still quite like Silent Witness, though there’s less and less about forensics. WPC 56, however, seems to have more or less dispensed with the central tension which fuelled it – that of a woman struggling in a man’s role – and now the officers’ personal relationships loom as large as the crimes they are meant to be solving. There’s a balance issue here. It doesn’t.
Is everything a soap now? I think we should be told.