SOAP OPERA WEEKLY, 15 May & 22 May 1990
American soaps are all the rage these days in France, Italy and Germany. So why haven't they caught on in England? Even the most sensationally successful of the Yankee soaps has yet to make a major splash on the other side of the Big Pond. It seems there are several issues contributing to this pooh-poohing of American suds on the isle.
Part of the answer lies in the American penchant for ice princesses, forays back into time, an abundance of stalking slashers and stranglers, not to mention our frequent resurrections and never-ending love affairs with beauty and wealth. Reality, or rather, the lack of it on U.S. soaps, is seen as a major TV turnoff in England.
"The BBC is not at all fantastical," explains one of EastEnders' leading ladies, Wendy Richard (Pauline Fowler). "Our storylines really reflect life."
Well, we too have our fill of uh-ohs! and whoopsies! in the afternoon. The last time we looked, there was a fair sprinkling of surprise bundles, phobias and obsessions. U.S. soaps, however, are sometimes long on opera, frequently turning to the quick fix-up in the form of a few simple words from that wise matriarch, or, at most, a time-warped treatment program or hospital stay. Years of creative credibility have rendered us Yanks not only more pliant, but more fanciful in defining the outer limits of fair soap.
Not so in Great Britain, where the linchpin of the popular soap is true grit. No quick fixes with mascara intact here. Richard says: "We don't pull our punches when we approach issues like teenage pregnancy, unmarried mothers and drugs. We often show racial tensions, problems with unemployment and with the social services on our show.
"The BBC also has very definite ideas about our family histories, so relative don't suddenly pop up without a lot of thought," Richard says. "When a new sibling does come on, a big deal is made of it."
Richard, a five-year veteran of the show and the only actress who came to the soap already a star, cannot only explain the problem from her inside view, but is unwittingly the very personification of the differences between "us" and "them." This forty-something actress, who dresses down for role as the poor, salt-of-the-earth Pauline Fowler, wife to the perennially unemployed Arthur, is about as unpretentious and regular as her alter ego.
Meeting for tea, she barely notices the discrete stares from well-behaved matrons who, while sipping their Earl Grey and munching scones bathed in clotted cream and jam, put heads together excitedly, whispering about our famous guest. Without a thought, Richard reaches confidently for the teapot, sensing the interviewer is likely to "muck it up," and pours for all. Like Pauline, life in the pub is important to Richard who offers to take us later to meet her fiancée, Paul Glorney, at her favorite local.
Once there, we meet her mates. These are old friends. The kind of mates who knew you before and will keep knowing you after. One is an art dealer, another a janitor. For, like the working classes she portrays and plays to, Richard (who, incidentally, is decidedly middle-class by way of background) is not in the least impressed with the accoutrements of looks, station, money or rank.
"Me mum used to hate the way I speak. Ooh! She used to cringe when I opened me mouth -- bein' in boardin' school and all that. But I said to her, 'Mum, someday I'm going to make me a fortune with the way I speak!' " Well, while a fortune it isn't compared to her American counterparts, as the BBC works like the civil service -- there is a pay scale based on time in, ("Me? I get 150 pounds, or 250 dollars, when I'm not used for the week. Caviar money!" she quips.) Richard has nevertheless become a star on the order of a youngish, poorish Miss Ellie.
But stardom is the farthest thing from her off-camera lifestyle as she hoists some brown ale with her buddies and talks of spending this Sunday, as always, with the same group in front of the telly.
This is a community -- one of many in London whose town hall, personal post office and human telegraph center is the local, the pub, which serves as the pulse of the area. A newcomer says, "Hey!" to the star and asks for an autograph. "That'll cost you," Richard shouts back. "Put a bit in here," she says, nodding toward the charity box for cystic fibrosis. He complies and so does she.
Turning back to the introductions, "Me mate, here," says Richard, pointing to the short, dark woman across the noisy table, "trades in art. She's French, you know. She wouldn't tell you this herself," she whispers conspiratorially, "but she was in Princess Grace's wedding party. And years ago, she stood by me when I didn't have a quid," Richard adds.
If this place and these people are the lifeblood of Richard, so it is for the millions of Brits who tune in to her show, and the other British and Australian soaps that deal not just in any old reality, but reality rooted in the working classes. No Llanview estates, Lewis oil barons or Mendorran princes here in Marylebone W1. After all, this is England, and the biggest soap of all is playing right down the road as the masses look on from both offices and unemployment lines -- and the pub stands between, a mirror to all and therefore the centerpiece of soap.
The English pride themselves on the gritty reality of their soaps. To make this reality work, according to EastEnders leading lady Wendy Richard, pains are taken in every phase of the production to insure authenticity, from makeup and wardrobe to the casting of different ages and ethnicities. These characters never leave "real" time.
"They put my TV child in my arms at 10 days old, and now he's 5 and still with us," she states. And it is unlikely he will be trading his nappies for Nikes any time soon. A memorable scene was the birth of her daughter's baby. Says Richard, who has no children of her own, "When my TV 'daughter' Michelle had her baby, it was so realistic. We used a baby who was just a few minutes old. There was a midwife present on the set. It was all so real and moving, even the cameramen were weeping."
Adding to the realism is the decided dressing down the actors live with to stay in character. As Pauline, a woman who Richard says "has never had it easy. Her family is all. The main thing is to serve a good meal first before buying a new dress." The actress regularly puts aside her own style to make the character work. Of American soap portrayals, she feels, "They all look too glamorous, too stereotyped. All the gray-haired men seem to have a blue rinse."
In addition to the look, American soap megabucks skew perspective, according to Richard. "On Dynasty, Joan Collins is too pretty. Even her smudges looked good!" she quips. "And on Dallas, they all seem like talking heads yakking about billions of dollars. What a distorted view of life!" she chides, noting that the distortion also colors the British sense of what Americans are really like. As for daytime? "Perhaps I shouldn't say this because I don't want to offend Americans, I saw a couple of episodes of Santa Barbara, and it seemed a bit hammy -- just loaded with cliffhangers. You could see the wheels going round. It was all too pointed, unsubtle. Also, the direction . . Once, there were these two chaps having quite an important chat and suddenly an extra came in and walked in front of them. He just came and diverted the scene and they let it go on like that."
(There follows additional discussion about the generally better production values imparted to British drama works.)
One area, however, where the nitty is less gritty in England is sexual explicitness. In general, British taste is quite polarized: bawdy vs. haughty. Victorian values, however, keep British soaps on a regimen of cold showers rather than the steam so popular stateside. "You will never see anyone in bed on our show," explains Richard. "We use innuendo." In general, the Brits tend to be more preachy, as well as prudish. "When people are naughty, they get caught, which is the lesson," she adds -- another contrast to the American villain who often lives to see yet another dastardly day.
It is ironic, however, that while these shows remain sleaze-free on the telly, their stars are often the butts of some of the most sensationalistic tabloid journalism in the world. Due to England's large and varied national press, soap stars receive much wider general exposure and their recognition factor is higher than U.S. soap stars. Features and gossip, depending up on the publication, can be quite brutal.
"Ninety-eight percent of this stuff is crap," says Richard, who was particularly burned when her fiancé's brother, no less, sold some raunch about the couple's "first night together" to one of the tabloids. On the flip side, however, the less purple press will evaluate soaps and even critique storylines more seriously than the general press in the U.S."
And, as in America, fans are still fans. Soap lovers are no less vociferous on Berkely Square than Biloxi or Brooklyn, and there are numerous fan clubs. But perhaps EastEnders' most illustrious fan is that fantasy princess Diana, who, upon visiting the set one day, educated the cast on the merits of a brandy-dipped pacifier to quiet down the infant who plays Richard's granddaughter.
(The articles continues and then closes with some strategies that Sky TV may try to make the US soaps more palatable to the British taste in daytime drama.)