The concept of realism could be considered arbitrary, a set of rules which are accepted by the audience when reading a text. For example in a historical documentary about life in Tudor England, it is acceptable that the characters speak recognisable English, even though at the time they would speak old English which most of us would find impossible to understand. But if one of the characters was using a mobile phone, it would not look right, and the realism of the programme would be lost.
The mobile phone breaks the rules of historical detail, but the dialogue translation is an acceptable realist convention. ‘Realism is something that we have learned to decode. ‘ (London: 1996) Much of Soap operas realism comes from the mise-en-scene and the fiction is generally created by over exaggerated characters and narrative. The narrative of soaps tend to be concerned with social issues, and the institutions making the soaps have a responsibility to the audience to present an ‘ideologically correct’ outcome to certain story-lines.
Colin McCabe argues that when viewing a realist text the audience is positioned according to the camera’s ideological version of events. ‘If the form of realism acted to seduce the viewer, the relationship realism encouraged between viewer and the media message was perhaps even more worrying. Audiences are ‘positioned’ by the realist text and as a consequence they become stranded into accepting the ideological version offered to them by the text. ‘ (Oxford: 1999) Many of the conventions of a soap opera are there to provide realism, and therefore bring the danger highlighted by McCabe.
Soaps are often criticised for sending out the wrong messages which will be picked up by an impressionable audience, such as glamorising drug talking as discussed later. If the audience have never experienced life in the East End of London for example, how do they know if what is being represented is realistic in Eastenders? Much of this comes from their cultural competence, but also from how other areas of the media portray certain areas. Documentaries such as ‘Paddington Green’ highlight issues in areas of London, such as prostitution and ‘wheeler-dealer’ businessmen. London is always in the spotlight in the news.
For example recent reports in the news about increased drug taking and violent crimes make it more realistic that there is a drug addict living on the square and that two rival businessmen are constantly fighting for power over the people who live there. But because we rarely hear about what goes on in Australian neighbourhoods we have to rely on our cultural competence to assess how realistic it is to have two ex-cons fighting over Steph Scully. The two soaps I am studying each have different aims in what they hope to achieve which explains the differences between them.
British soaps tend to be willing to engage in social issues much more then Australian or American soaps. Recently Eastenders has tackled issues of HIV, rape, drug abuse and teenage pregnancy. This is an issue which is a big problem in Britain, as we have one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the modern world, and this is reflected in soap world with Coronation street, Brookside and Eastenders all including it in a storyline, each with a different outcome. A feature of British soaps is that they act as a forum for raising important issues about ‘actual’ social problems, which explains why so many soaps run teenage pregnancy stories.
When Tracey Barlow got pregnant in Coronation Street, this Morning ran a phone in about teenage pregnancy. In the episode I have analysed we see the start of a storyline where Janine is addicted to cocaine. When tackling sensitive issues such as drug taking, soaps can come under fire from the press for glamorising drug taking and using ‘sordid sensationalism’ in a bid for ratings. (Article from Daily Mail included in appendix) What is interesting is that on the other side of this article there are reports of incidents in the UK with the collective heading ‘Wild West UK’ illustrating the true extent of crime and drug abuse in Britain.
So, is Eastenders actually being criticised because it is too close to the truth and the events it is portraying are supposed to be fictional? People tend to watch Coronation Street because of its ‘rose-tinted’ view of real life. Susi Hush, producer of the soap in the early 70’s, was removed after two years because her policy of dealing with social issues such as drugs resulted in a large drop of viewing figures. Bill Podmore, a later producer of the soap is very critical of Eastenders. ‘Eastenders took up the cudgels for just about every controversial issue, from homosexuality and AIDS to drug addiction.
The series seems to plunge from one depression to the next’. (London: 1998) But it is the ‘approach of gritty, ‘realistic’ portrayals of social problems’ (London:1998) tried out by Susi Hush in Coronation Street that have contributed to the success of Eastenders. Tony McHale, a writer and director of Eastenders gives the other side to the opinion of Bill Podmore. ‘People can relate to stories of abortion, adultery and rape. What they can’t relate to is sensationalist elements. It becomes a different programme when there’s an armed siege in the Queen Vic. It should be about page ten news, not page one.
‘ (London: 1998) Neighbours has been criticised on the other hand for not being realistic. Performances such as Steph’s at the beginning of sequence 1 (See appendix) where she is stunned to see Woody at the door, can be seen as ‘ham acting’ because of her drawn out expression of shock, emphasised by close-up shots. But the nature of the soap lends itself to such scenes. Neighbours seeks to deal with the ‘the reality of inner emotional life, as opposed to the realities of everyday existence. ‘ (London: 1995) Reg Watson, head of TV drama at Grundy decided to introduce a new soap in the 1984 season.
He said of Neighbours: ‘I wanted to show three families living in a small street in a Melbourne suburb, who are friends. Humour was to play a big part in it and the important thing was to show young people communicating with older people. The characters will make mistakes. Quite often people do silly things and make stupid mistakes in their lives. ‘ (London: 1995) These things are still evident in Neighbours. All the residents of Ramsey Street are friends, something which is not very realistic in British society anymore, humour is still a major part as shown in sequence 10 when Ellie arrives at the Kennedy house.
This scene is also a good example of how the young communicate with the old. Neighbours tends to steer clear of controversial issues unlike Eastenders. In recent episodes it has dealt with the issue of custody battles with the Lou and Louise storyline and Libby’s troubled pregnancy but it very rarely touches on more serious issues. Whether Neighbours offers its British audience an insight into Australian life is debatable. In the episode I have analysed half of it takes place at the ‘Oakey Rodeo’. I chose this episode because it is hard for me to say whether it is a realistic representation of a Rodeo because I have never experienced one.
The scene where Chooka introduces himself to Drew caused quite a stir in Australia, attracting some of the show’s highest ever ratings, but to a British audience there doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. The reason for the big interest is that Blair McDonough who plays him was in the Australian version of Big Brother. Because of the realism soaps hope to achieve by having characters we can relate to, if Nasty Nick were to play a part in Eastenders it would be hard for us to accept him into the Albert Square community. Because we have no prior experience of Blair McDonough it is acceptable.