On receiving our homework assignment (to review a soap opera) I immediately made the decision to view an episode of an old decommissioned soap, rather than one that’s still in production, because of my reluctance to get sucked into the discipline of watching something contemporary, with the accompanying need to constantly keep up to date. I just don’t have that much time to spare and soaps are definitely potential thieves of the little time I have.
So, I selected to watch episode 1 of the Merseyside soap opera, Brookside, which aired on the 21st of June 1989. The episode begins with its electronic theme music, complete with Eastenders-like dramatic drums, a premonition of the tension to come. The music, written by two local lads, Steve Wright and Dave Roylance, has more than a few resonances with the Jean-Michel Jarre piece Equinoxe Part V, and I half expected Jarre’s usual fireworks and laser display to accompany it. But no. Accompanying the theme music were shots of Liverpool, which ground the soap opera in a place and a time, gradually decreasing its circles till, as the theme music reaches its end, we move to images of Brookside Close itself. This small closeted cul-de-sac of new homes has every appearance of epitomising boring respectability, but we’ve all watched enough soap episodes to disregard appearances and assume it will be a hotbed of this that and the other. Lots of the other of course, because, after all, it is a soap opera set in the gritty North West of England.
So, how does the soap begin? In short, gently… The first characters we meet are a cheeky chirpy cab driver (with curly red hair and dodgy looking moustache) and his pregnant partner (resplendent in hot pink polka dots and crowned with 1980s, big, blonde bouffant hair). Next we meet the obligatory grumpy old bloke, and another set of neighbours – a middle class Chinese doctor and his young daughter who live with… wait… who is this attractive woman? It only comes out part way through the second half of the episode that the woman is neither the girl’s mum or the doctor’s partner, but the doctor’s sister. Ooh, that’s an interesting twist, we think as we watch. Why is he living with his sister? Where is the girl’s mum? And what great tragedy is the sister alluding to when she mentions all the doctor has “been through”? How like a soap opera to tease us this way!
In pilots and first episodes the primary aim must be all about establishing the stereotypical traits of characters (know-it-all kid, gentle workaholic doctor, kind sacrificial sister, grumpy old git, rough-round-the-edges family), and establishing plot beginnings compelling enough to keep us watching not just for that half hour but for us as viewers to consider it an essential part of our not-to-be-missed weekly and daily routines. Plot ideas such as bullying at football practices, unrequited love between rough diamond Sinbad and the doctor’s sister, potential dodgy business ideas, and inept present choices (manure delivered to a driveway), mash together with the local colour and the clothing and styles of the 1980s. And what do we end up with? A collective, argumentative, dramatic lifestyle that would kill most of us from stress if we had to live within it, but which is just what keeps the world of soaps going – and attracts the viewers.
Anyway, back to the show. It’s episode 1, and the programme’s producers are giving the viewers a solid grounding in the soap’s setting as well as its characters. At Brookside Close’s purpose-built sets, on the suburban outskirts of a big city, when the scene calls for an outdoor shot the soundtrack twinkles replete with added birdsong rather than the clanks and hums of cars, motorways, factories and docksides. It makes me giggle each time I hear it.
Soaps are specific, yet universal. Ongoing dramatic storylines incorporating dodgy jewellery making, unrequited love, bullying, and the defending of family honour, are not specific to the time and place of this episode and can be understood by pretty much all of us. Possibly this is something that soaps carry within their very essence, and how they ensure viewer loyalty. This, and other reasons too. Some watchers enjoy the thrill-a-minute drama, whereas others watch for the psychology or the sociology or the humanity of the characters, embroiled in intricate plots.
Perhaps we watch because we’re comforted that our lives may be humdrum but we at least don’t have to deal with such drama as the soap characters do, or perhaps it gives us strength to see them enduring the same challenges we do, albeit in a dramatised fashion. We can learn through their mistakes.
Would we even tune into a drama about stable families (and would it even be drama?)? Well, yes, I think many of us would, but perhaps this would work best as the basis for a sitcom where the action orbits a boring little base (think The Royle Family), rather than at the centre of a soap.
I have to admit that I didn’t particularly enjoy watching this episode, and for a while I quite regretted the choice I’d made. However, once I got to thinking about and writing about it afterwards, I realised the value of this exercise. I’d been wondering what kept the viewers interested after that first taster and what encouraged them, at that time still free of brand loyalty, to keep tuning in. In the end I had to concede that soaps become family, and include elements that are simultaneously rough, posh, safe, dangerous, quirky, edgy and fascinating. And the mismatch of characters residing within soap land are all forced, on a daily basis, to live in close proximity to each other, and to experience (for the viewers’ pleasure) all the misunderstandings, raised voices and other extreme emotional reactions etc etc that occur as a result. Basically, soap as a microcosm of everyday life.