All that glistens

The BBC has been on the wrong side of soap opera publicity this month (only one week in), with mass-appeal programmes attracting the wrong kind of focus and commentary. The soap suds were well and truly whipped with perennial gloom half hour Eastenders, with its cot-death storyline curtailed following 6,000 complaints about the additional narrative element involving a ‘baby swap’ and mental instability.

Across on Radio 4, where listeners are often less likely to take to the complaints forms and Basildon Bonds unless it is absolutely necessary, the ‘everyday tales of rural folk’ took a leftfield (see what I did there, geddit, etc) turn with the death of Nigel Pargetter. Former Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer coined the phrase “Shock Armitage to the Core”, inevitably reduced to the Twitter hahstag “sattc”, to describe the storyline which was kept under wraps (unusually for a soap opera) until the moment it happened. When it did happen, all the usual soap opera tropes were there – I listened waiting for someone to say “Please, Nigel, don’t go onto the slippy, icy roof at night in a storm, for you might fall off”, and I wasn’t that disappointed…

Both these examples show the attraction of, and problems with, soap operas as mass-market audience magnets. That Eastenders has felt the need to run with a cot-death storyline for prime-time television is a topic for another debate; that they chose to include a baby-swap element indicates part desperation (like it or not, the Beeb has to participate in the ratings war) and part acknowledgement of the hyper-reality of soap storylines (real life is never as interesting for those who don’t live in a street or square with weekly murders, affairs and morality price-wars).

The Eastenders storyline is now being wound up faster and sooner than originally intended The ‘power of the ‘net’ didn’t quite force the producers hand, though interestingly it was the founder of Mumsnet who led the charge against the BBC with claims of inappropriate sensationalism. How many television programmes have now been subjected to social media users running campaigns and groups for or against specific elements of output? Should producers be concerned by this viewer power revolution? I am reminded of Mark Gatiss’ remark about live-tweeting during television programmes; it’s best not to watch what viewers are saying in real time to broadcast, it’d drive a writer mad.

So is this just ‘Points of View gone feral’? Certainly it seems that way for Radio 4 and The Archers, where the death of Nigel has been called ‘an anti-climax’ after weeks of publicity and heavy hints in newspapers (though Twitter and Facebook did play a part in whipping up suggestions for what exactly would cause Ambridge to shake to its core, running from a gun rampage to a character turning on the radio, hearing the Archers themetune and causing a time-vortex across central Cambridgeshire).

Soaps are very rarely failures for channels with the time and investment to keep them high profile. When Channel 5 launched, they did so with a soap (“Family Affairs”) and when that soap began to falter, killed off the main family for an effective relaunch. ITV capitalised on kitch being cool with relaunched (and dream sequenced) Crossroads. For the BBC, Eastenders and Archers are testament to quality and patience, loyalty and treating audiences with as much respect as possible. Why these recent surges in criticism matter is because the last point has not been upheld, like a contract not being respected.

For the Beeb, shaky confidence in soaps matters. These two incidents should recall, however briefly, the one instance of Auntie getting it completely wrong, the launch and plane-into-mountain collapse of Eldorado in 1993.

This ‘sun, sea and scandal’ soap (opening credits somewhat truncated here bumped Wogan off the schedules and was promoted across the BBC as the best soap launch since Eastenders in 1985. To cut costs (it was filmed entirely on location), producers used untried actors and simplistic filming techniques. The results were disastrous. It would close its doors in 1994, a million or plenty thrown away, leaving the Corporation red-faced through shame rather than sun-tan.

Notable elements of the Eldorado disaster are legendary. The international cast had many who could not speak fluent English, so were given entire scenes (often 3 or 4 minutes long) of dialogue in their native tongue without subtitles. To help viewers in the UK understand what was going on, contrived scenes appeared later on with laden dialogue (“So, Swedish girl, you are having problems with your partner, maybe you should tell me all about it before your next Swedish-language scene with him?”

What is still known as the ‘Eldorado effect’ hampered production. If you want to know what a swimming pool sounds like through a boom mic, watch old episodes, as the lapping water would be louder than the actor’s voice. Filming in bare villas, not studios, meant echoing footsteps and laughter sounded unusually flat, or lifeless.

Ultimately, the programme finished because viewers did not feel engrossed in the lives of the ‘everyday folk’ soaps need for success. Ex-pats living abroad, shacking up with 17-year old girls or having a bemused Spanish speaking waitress as a live-in lover at your exclusive villa, did not give the mid-90s soap audience (generally those suffering from the recession) much attraction to tune-in.

Pre-internet campaign groups, all pro-Eldorado viewers could do was demonstrate outside Television Centre demanding Alan Yentob’s head on a stick. There was little sympathy.

For Eastenders today, the cot-death storyline will bruise the brand but not hoik the show off the screens anytime soon. The BBC has forgotten about the core audience now being joined by a multitude of on-line keyboard warriors ready for action whenever outrage is afoot. Eldorado was badly written, terribly acted and too well-meaning to be saved. But nothing is too big to fail, as we are learning to our costs. It’s only television, granted. If it’s not scaring too many horses (unless it’s supposed to, like the Archers or Emmerdale), just switch off…