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Tales from Tawa: Suds And Tears

…Like the operas from which their name is derived, a true soap opera must always maintain the essential ingredients of pathos, romance and fantasy….

Eve-Marie Wilson considers the essential ingredients in the TV programmes which command the biggest audiences world-wide.

For more of Eve-Marie’s entertaining columns please click on Tales From Tawa in the menu on this page.

Are you one of those television viewers who confuse soap operas with dramas?

After watching soap operas for more than 30 years, I’m incensed at the way programmes such as Coronation Street, Eastenders, Neighbours and Shortland Street are included in this category.

As popular as these programmes are, they do not meet the criteria of a classical soap opera and therefore must be regarded as dramas.

We must look to the United States of America, which produces such classics as The Young and The Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful, and The Days of our Lives, to see a real soap opera. Producers of the so-called “soaps” outside of America always seem to make the fatal mistake of allowing reality to creep in.

Like the operas from which their name is derived, a true soap opera must always maintain the essential ingredients of pathos, romance and fantasy.

For instance, in a recent episode of Coronation Street, Les Battersby was banned from the house because of his smelly feet. This is enough to make a purist cringe. Soap opera characters do not have smelly feet. In fact they do not clean their teeth, scrape their fingernails or use the toilet. A bathroom is simply a place from where the hero can emerge to answer the phone, clad only in a towel; water trickling titillating over his pectorals and down the firm flat line of his rectus abdominus.

It is of no consequence that when these chaps are not in the shower, the phone is always answered by a devoted maid or a loyal man servant.

Without exception and despite their age, soap opera men are handsome, strong, suave, sophisticated and very, very sexy. There is absolutely no room for a Fred Elliot, a Diggery Compton or a Roy Cropper in these productions.

Take Victor of the Young and the Restless fame, for example. He wouldn’t be a day under 70 (despite the name of the programme) and yet he is still capable of swooping the buxom Nicki up in his arms, and taking the stairs to the bedroom two at a time!

Much younger men I know would find it difficult enough to stagger up the stairs with a wench in their arms much less still being able to perform when they reached their destination.

Soap opera men are extremely fickle. However, the woman of the moment is loved intensely, fervently and passionately. She is romanced in a very grand manner; no expense spared. She is constantly showered with gifts – flowers, jewelry, fur coats, cars and music boxes are popular. I somehow expect this latter gift is a cost cutting ploy on the part of the producers of these programmes. A few notes from one of these boxes and the heroine will immediately become quite glassy eyed and start daydreaming of past tender moments with the hero, thus allowing several minutes of old film to be re-run.

Soap opera heroes always have difficulty in deciding just which woman they want. There is always a ‘love of their life’ (inevitably decades younger than themselves) whom over time they marry and remarry, after being tempted away by some scheming femme fatale. Of course each of these weddings is always held in exotic locations, no expense spared.

Male soap opera characters are either filthy rich or earn a living as a lawyer, surgeon, psychiatrist or company executive. Occasionally when the story-line calls for it, a character is allowed to serve as a police officer or a private detective, or be the proprietor of a restaurant or nightclub. After that has served its purpose, the character will decide he needs a career change and generally enrolls in law school. Within the matter of months he is admitted to the bar and immediately becomes a top notch lawyer handling high profile cases. This must be of great economic relief to those who were once restaurant proprietors as soap opera characters don’t eat. They are permitted to accept dinner dates, enter restaurants and even order food, but you can be assured fate will always step in and call them away before a morsel of food has reached their mouths.

The women in soap operas are always beautiful, shapely, glamorous and very feminine. No matter the time of day they look as if they have just stepped out of a fashion magazine. Women like Coro Street’s Janice Battersby and Cilla Brown or Eastenders’ Kat Slater and Pauline Fowler wouldn’t make the cut.

The older heroines don’t age gracefully. They often find it difficult to smile; the skin around their necks and jaw lines having been so firmly stretched.

Soap opera women usually fall into one of three categories; sweet and demure and easily seduced, sophisticated, but still capable of being hurt, or just absolute bitches.

Nevertheless, they all possess many super human qualities. One I particularly envy is the ability to wake from a nights sleep with their hair and make up still in tact.

Like their male counterparts, soap opera heroines have difficult in deciding which man they want. They flit between men like butterflies across a garden of flowers. They often have great difficulty in deciding between father and son. Throughout a series they will become involved with and often marry both many times!

Soap opera women are also employed in the top professions of law, medicine and business, although modeling and interior designer are also ranked highly. Newsagents, fast food outlets and pubs would not be permissible, even if they were their own businesses.

It is also essential that at least one female in each episode is a chantress, capable of singing meaningful songs at poignant moments, as this also allows the re-run of several metres of old film.

The pace at which the story-lines of soap operas develop also distinguishes them from popular long running dramas. Whereas the story line of a drama is designed to unfold at a rate that makes it desirable viewers watch each episode, soap operas are scripted to squeeze as much mileage as possible out of every incident. It is therefore possible for viewers to take a break of several weeks, and then recommence watching without it affecting their comprehension of the story (This makes them great entertainment for temporary workers as any progress in the story usually fits nicely between jobs.)

For example, on Coronation Street recently, Emily Bishop was having a crisis of conscience, could she or couldn’t she forgive Ed, the man who had killed her husband all those years ago. After two or three episodes the matter was resolved. Had that incident occurred on a soap opera she’d still be undecided six months later!

I suspect the very limited range of plots soap opera scriptwriters seem prepared to use may inhibit them to the point of having to take such action. Apart from the inimitable eternal triangle; amnesia, mental breakdowns, comas and any incurable, always unnamed, illness are popular, followed closely by rapes and miscarriages. The occasional involvement in a South American revolution is also highly ranked. Long time viewers of soap operas can be forgiven a few moment of deja vue, until they zero in on the fact that what they are watching is simply a variation on a theme.

Soap operas are definitely an art form in their own right. There is no comparison between them and a drama. They are as distinct from one another as reality is from fantasy.

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