Wednesday 17 January 2018

why the soapy classics are cleaning up

So, it's all over then. The feast of food has been cleared, the daily requirement of a glass of wine and some chocolate has been nipped in the bud, and the long leisurely lie-ins have been replaced with a return to industry.

Gone too is the binge of Christmas television programming which made this festive season such an indulgent one. The Dr Who Christmas special was a treat, and there was barely time to catch our breath before the feature-length episode of Downton Abbey tied up all the loose plot ends left over from the rushed ending of series two.

The BBC's adaptation of Dickens' Great Expectations was a pacey affair, which ripped through Pip's story in a record three hours, while the second series of Sherlock, the wildly popular update on Sir Conan Doyle's detective story, has just two episodes left (the second episode airs tomorrow at 8pm on BBC One).

The popularity of these series and the fanfare surrounding them suggests a revival of television that is verging on a golden age of television but, more than this, the formulae upon which these dramas are built hints at a return to the popularity of the lowly soap opera (which could also signal a decline into a televisual dark age, depending on your perspective).

There is no denying these programmes adhere to many of the rules of the soap. Let's take an episode of Downton Abbey where our hero, cousin Matthew, played by Dan Stevens, has returned from war, paralysed after having incurred spinal injuries. When he gets a tingling sensation in his legs it is just a matter of moments before he is standing upright. If that's not Days Of Our Lives levels of improbability, I don't know what is.

Relationships are key in soaps and, while the Sherlock Holmes stories have been popular since they were first published, it is interesting that the current BBC adaptation, set in contemporary London, chooses to focus on the relationships between Sherlock and Watson ahead of the actual solving of crimes.

Soaps wouldn't be soaps without an ensemble cast and nowhere is this as well portrayed as in Downton Abbey, from the evil lady-in-waiting O'Brien and her despicable sidekick Thomas, to the Lady Mary and her aristocratic family's moral dilemmas.

Likewise, the ensemble cast of Great Expectations belied the way in which Dickens published many of his novels in serial format in weekly magazines. The sheer number of characters facilitated an intricate and multi-faceted storyline that kept readers gripped.

As with soaps, the viewer gets the impression that this latest slew of TV drama series could run and run forever -- indeed, one can only hope. The sheer enjoyment quotient is enough to make you wonder why soap operas get such a bad rap? They are tightly paced, have a wide story arc, a gripping plot and a large cast of characters.

Even Philip Pullman, the master storyteller of His Dark Materials, has admitted to his love of the Australian soap Neighbours, saying in interviews over the years: "I'm very interested in the form of the soap opera, which is unlike any other literary form in that it doesn't end. Stories overlap with one another. There's no winding up, things fade away as they do in life, and probably in any soap opera you can see echoes of the great traditional fairytales -- Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast and The Princess and the Frog stories.

"I justify it intellectually by saying that in a soap opera like that you can see a lot of ancient or mythical or fairytale story patterns coming up again and again."

He makes the soap sound positively enlightening. Perhaps 2012 will be the year this humble genre saves commercial television from multi-channel fragmentation.

And if the third series of Downton Abbey is its last? Well, there's always Coronation Street.

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