Every year in October I watch an episode of the soap opera Eastenders (BBC 1) and one of Hollyoaks (Channel 4) as part of my teaching for an introductory course on television drama. Eastenders is produced by the BBC has the later time slot (8pm) and is very much aimed at a ‘family’ audience although slightly balanced in favour on older demographic, while Hollyoaks is on Channel 4 at 6.30 pm and all the signs strongly suggest that it is aimed at teenagers (and possibly younger). The specific episodes are chosen more or less at random and the idea is for students to observe how the mix of social realism, (which does not necessarily equate with ‘realistic’) comedy and melodrama that constitutes the aesthetic of British soap as a genre, is interpreted differently from soap to soap and how, if at all, this impacts on any social or political meanings.
This mix can also vary from episode to episode in any given soap. Last year the episode of Hollyoaks we watched was exceptionally melodramatic. Clearly designed as a ‘Halloween special’, the main plot featured a crazed serial killer who in a previous episode had kidnapped a young woman on the morning of her wedding and a short time before she was to give birth. Repeated scenes showed him gloating over her fear and distress as she languished chained in a gloomy cellar, still in her now grubby wedding dress. These were shot using gloomy atmospheric lighting, strangely angled or distorted shots and, rare for British soap, a musical sound track (edited on) consisting of goth style pop songs, which the students recognised and I did not. All of this strongly recalled the semi-ironic aesthetics of contemporary teen horror films, and while far more overstated than in many episodes, evinced the way that in Hollyoaks melodrama is accompanied by a strong dash of self reflexivity in a way that could be deemed ‘postmodern’, if this term had not become so unfashionable.
Aside from one particular performance, strongly supported by a dodgy moustache in Hollyoaks, this year it was Eastenders which won the prize for melodrama and this continued into the next episode, which I found myself sucked into watching (their highly addictive nature being the main reason I mostly avoid soap). These episodes were centred around Syed Masood (Marc Elliott) and Christian Clarke’s (John Partridge) stag night(s) and Civil Partnership ceremony. This ceremony was the first of its kind portrayed on Eastenders but not on British soap, with Emmerdale having led the way back in 2008. As also demonstrated by the storylines in Hollyoaks, over the last twenty odd years numbers of gay characters (and to a lesser extent lesbian and trans ones) have been steadily increasing in British soap. If this reflects a shift in attitudes towards LGBT sexualities in some sections of British society, equally it reflects soap writers who need to constantly generate novel, audience grabbing plots, seizing on this shift for the opportunities it offers of new twists on old tales.
Syed and Christian’s relationship is therefore not distinctive on British soap for the fact that they are making it legal, nor that as a couple they already parenting Syed’s daughter by an earlier marriage (to a woman) but because Syed is an Asian British Muslim (which rather makes the ethnically, Anglo British Christian’s first name seem a tiny bit pointed). Apparently the BBC consulted with an Iman on this storyline and it led to Eastenders extending the geography of the fictional Walford to include a Mosque.
In the context of British TV, Syed’s faith initially provided a novel spin on his realisation of his sexuality and his coming out, which occurred around 2009. By the stag night episode the conflicts this produced with his family appear more or less to be resolved, with his mother Zainab (Nina Wadia) giving tearful speeches of regret and reconciliation both to Syed and Christian, and his Syed’s father Masood (Nitin Ganatra) insisting he just wants his son to ‘be happy’ However, of course, no soap opera wedding can possibly run smoothly. While I could not grasp all the details, the stag night episode indicated that Syed has been flirting on the edge of an affair with someone called Danny (Guy Lucy). To make matters worse he had also given Danny large sums of money drawn on the mortgage from the Masood family business (a restaurant named the Argee Bhajee) to ‘invest’ in some sort of business deal. In the following episode, in a plot twist that could have been drawn directly from nineteenth theatrical century melodrama, moments after the Civil Partnership ceremony held in the Argee Bhajee is completed and before the confetti hits the ground, this leads to the arrival of bailiffs with a possession order for these premises.
Both episodes include a fair amount of welling up and full on weeping from Syed and a number of other characters but most notably from Christian during the civil partnership ceremony, when in an astonishing feat of acting (or glycerine) Partridge manages to have fat, copious tears flowing down his face. However, as the above comment on the plot indicates, the melodrama is not just a matter of the characters overt and excessive displays of emotion. This influence is evident in the plot, or rather the structure of the narrative with its arc of betrayal, forgiveness and retribution and in the heavily weighted dramatic irony created by the viewers awareness of Syed’s ‘guilty secrets’, pushed for maximum painful or poignant affect during stag night in scenes with an ‘innocent’ and ignorant Christian. It is also detectable in the mise en scene, when in the Queen Vic pub, it is not just Danny’s glowering looks but the pointed camera work that clearly mark him as a ‘villain’. Later the confrontation between Syed and Danny in the Argee Bhajee, in which true to the villain in melodramatic tradition, Danny alternately attempts to seduce and threaten in order to have his wicked way with Syed his role as ‘evil tempter’ is emphasised by the use of dense red lighting.
Melodrama is again evident in the delays to the action and ratcheting up of tension in the next episode when the wedding guests are waiting for Syed and its seems increasingly likely that he will not turn up. Even more striking is the fact that when Syed does eventually arrive, the action shifts into ‘dumb show’ in a manner that again seems to derive directly from nineteenth century theatre. As he pauses in the doorway and walks slowly forwards to join Christian to the strains of a sentimental ballad played on a CD player, key friends and family are each given a moment to react to his progress without speaking but using ‘speaking’ gestures and looks.
Interestingly, while recent adverts for Eastenders deploy melodrama with a high level of postmodern/camp self-reflexivity similar to that evident in Hollyoaks, this does not extend to these two episodes. Instead, they appear to cling to some claim to ‘realism’ and seek to involve the viewer in the emotion in a manner that also implicates them in the moral structure of the narrative. I do not for a moment believe this makes Hollyoaks more ‘progressive’ than Eastenders on any level, not least that in this soap the only female characters who are not young, or ‘youthful’ looking, size eight (six in USA) and conventionally ‘pretty’, are written as comic relief. I would also guess that any Eastenders episodes dealing with ‘big occasions’ such as weddings and funerals, would employ the same aesthetic as these two. Nevertheless, in this case of I feel some anxiety regarding how this might be read because they were both so strongly focused around the soap’s (working class) gay, Asian and also its Black, British characters.
Traditionally melodrama has been regarded as an ‘inferior’ form, and in the early nineteenth century theatre this was due to its association with the working class, who were assumed to mistake its overstated fictions for ‘reality’. This related to the construction of this group as over emotional, irrational and ‘childlike’, thereby justifying the imposition of middle class discipline and control. On the same basis, in the twentieth century it became associated with women or rather ‘the feminine’ and by extension other groups perceived as ‘feminised’ (whether due to their sexuality, ethnicity or class), and in danger of being ‘out of control’. In the latter part of the century this form was ‘reclaimed’ and revalued’ by feminism and by LGBT activists and theorists, as part of political challenge and resistance to the mainstream status quo. Arguably, there was a similar move by second and third wave immigrants from India and Pakistan, in the shape of works that drew on and ‘revalued’ a (distinctly melodramatic) ‘Bollywood aesthetic’. However, this ‘revaluing’ usually depended on rejecting any claims to realism and filtering melodrama through self-reflectivity, parody and pastiche, creating ‘ironic distance’ from the representation for both performers and audiences. While it is likely that many viewers may interpret these episodes of Eastenders in these terms, taking pleasure in the melodrama but in a ‘distanced’ ironic fashion, there is also a possibility that for some this may affirm a ‘natural’ association between the emotional excesses of this aesthetic with its simplistic moral structures and the identity categories represented, in an fashion that supports stereotypes and notions of these groups as ‘out of control’, personally and socially.
I am only posing this as a possibility since meaning (political or otherwise) is never simply a matter of style or form. However, it came to my mind because watching these episodes of Eastenders made me aware of just how much copious weeping I’d seen on television recently, especially from men. There have been plenty of discussions about the British becoming more inclined to over emotional display and I wonder how far these representations/images (not just, I a want to underline of restrained welling up but of full on sobbing), might signal a shift in ideas about ‘proper’ masculinity, or reinforce ideas of certain categories of men as ‘feminised’ in a pejorative sense?
My perception of the amount of male weeping on TV may be skewed by catching bits of The X Factor, a programme with a distinctly melodramatic structure which pulls out tearful performances from all concerned, (judges as well as contestants) regardless of gender. Nevertheless, closely followed by Christopher Maloney, the weeper to beat all weepers this year was Rylan Clark, who when told he was ‘through to the live shows’ spent several long TV minutes wailing and throwing himself about. Rylan’s ‘performance’ on and off stage plays on both his class status as an ‘Essex boy’ and his homosexuality and can be seen as a ‘career strategy’ that seeks to capitalise on the popular success of the dramatised ‘reality’ show The Only Way Is Essex. As with this show itself, the question arises of how far Rylan’s performance of himself can be perceived as camp self –reflexivity, or how far he is simply confirming stereotypes of class and sexuality for the entertainment of a heterosexual audience.
Somehow, in my head Rylan’s performance of himself has became connected to the portrayal of ex-chauffeur’s Tom Branson in Downtown Abbey, particularly in regard to his response to his wife’s (Lady Sybil) death. Throughout this series, Irish Fenian Tom has often been framed as ‘inappropriately’ emotional and in need of careful ‘management’ by the posh folk. Just prior to Sybil’s death he had to be rescued from the consequences of his rash political actions by Lord Grantham, who was shocked and outraged that, in what does seem rather cowardly fashion, in order to avoid arrest Tom had abandoned the heavily pregnant Sybil in Dublin to fend for herself. Tom’s whiney tone before her death and his response to it, is in contrast with the stiff upper lip of the other characters and could be seen as the drama justifying their class based snobbery towards him.
Obviously a full and proper analysis of the rising number of weeping men on TV is beyond the remit of this blog. However on the TV course we move from soap to sitcom and spending time studying British examples of this genre is a salutary lesson as to how far our culture is still obsessed by making distinctions in terms of sexuality, gender and ethnicity but above in terms of class.