It won’t wash, but goes on and on

02 November 2006


Trevor Barnes despairs at the dominance of the TV soaps

"IT was the best of adaptations. It was the worst of adaptations." I wish I’d said that, but I have to admit I didn’t. Instead, credit must go to Hardeep Singh Kohli, of Newsnight’s Late Review, offering his verdict on Andrew Davies’s screen translation of Bleak House, which is now entering its final furlong on BBC1.

The best? Well, yes; and, for my money, by miles. It has been a masterpiece of narrative concision with a freshness of dialogue and a briskness of pace that have put it in the front rank of contemporary Dickens adaptations. But the worst? Well, I have to say yes again — and for largely the same reasons.

From the outset it was conceived of as a soap to end all soaps, deliberately placed after EastEnders to woo those put off by the worthy BBC Dickens of yore. As such it needed to be reduced to plot alone, pared down to a stylish whodunit, shorn of its authorial voice, and presented in fast-moving, bite-sized chunks we could all easily digest. And there was the rub.

Aligning it with that most suspect and all-pervasive of modern dramatic forms — the soap opera — was a dangerous mistake. There are superficial similarities, of course. Bleak House itself originally appeared in serial form and was squeezed in between adverts for cough lozenges and hair lubricants in exactly the same way as, in 1930s America, "soap operas" appeared between radio ads for washing powder. Each episode of The Romance of Helen Trent came with a cliffhanger and left you wanting more — just like Coronation Street or EastEnders or Emmerdale or Neighbours or Home and Away . . .

But the crucial difference is surely that even Dickens’s longest serialisations came to an end, whereas the TV soap just goes on . . . and on and on. Never reaching resolution, it delivers (sometimes thrice nightly and with omnibus editions at weekends) a view of the world that could be construed as a subtle form of propaganda.

Soaps are hugely influential, attracting viewers in their tens of millions, and presenting them with values that are reinforced night after night, year after year. They have now taken it upon themselves to engage with the moral issues of the day — from drug abuse to rape in marriage, from homophobia to Evangelical Christian conversion.

All art, of course, engages with the issues of its time, but I wonder whether I am alone in feeling uneasy at a tacit form of manipulation by a (doubtless well-meaning) committee of script editors and storyline consultants who act as unseen arbiters of what issues will or will not make it to the screen.

All art, it can equally be argued, is a form of manipulation and, yes, propaganda. Indeed, the late Mary Whitehouse thought the late Dennis Potter a pernicious propagandist responsible for corrupting an entire generation with his personal perspective on life and morality. But, in his defence, even the longest of his creations lasted only 13 weeks, whereas the longevity of the TV soaps is comparable to the half-life of uranium and, in different social and political circumstances, just as corrosive.

In the promotional build-up to the magnificent Bleak House, both adapter and director said that, were Dickens still alive, he would have turned his attention to soaps as the equivalent medium for reaching a mass popular audience today. Er . . . up to a point. My guess is that, like many fine writers who have cut their teeth on soaps, he would soon have abandoned them as artistically limiting. Plough through the rambling, soap-like Pickwick Papers and tell me if you don’t long for the resolution of Oliver Twist.

I can think of another man, however, who would have embraced the soaps with enthusiasm: that arch-propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who would have spotted their potential immediately and bent them to his own sinister ends.

No, we do not live in totalitarian times and, no, ITV and BBC producers are not evil manipulators. But if we did and if they were, protracted and nightly access to our televisions would prove very useful indeed.

Trevor Barnes presents Reporting Religion for the BBC World Service.

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