SBHD: Steamy love triangles apart, EastEnders has become little more than an extended commercial, probably to distract attention from the acting.
If, like millions, you were glued to your seat by the final chapter in the latest EastEnders love triangle, you will recall forever the poignancy of the moment in which the ill-used cafe operative Natalie takes her final leave of Albert Square.
But as you allowed yourself a brief tear in homage to “Nat” – whose acting ability has given new profundity to such lines as “Ooooo, I love ya, Ricky,” “Course I’m still yer best mate, Bianca” and “Giss the afternoon off, Caffy” – you will also have noticed an extraordinary sight.
For rather than making her emotional getaway via the 37 bus, as is traditional in a series whose turnover of thespians is faster than Bianca and Tiffany on a girls’ night out, the hapless Nat – who clung to the belief that Ricky’s undying love could be bought with doughnuts – took her leave via a bus marked Stagecoach.
Now I don’t know if the Stagecoach company has recently extended its operations into Poplar and Bow, the spiritual heart of this tale of market folk. But even if it does nowadays have a foothold in the East End, the three long and loving close-ups of the Stagecoach name – in a series about centuries-old luvaduck Cockney culture – were about as appropriate as top-hats and tails in the Queen Vic darts team.
It is now traditional in EastEnders that any character going away for any sort of jaunt takes a bus. That’s a proper bus, red, with a number and a destination like “up West” or “up Mum’s” on it.
With the sole exception of the now-departed Sharon, whose astute stewardship of the Vic earned her money for cab-fares, or the Mitchell boys, who go everywhere either by ambulance or Black Maria, transport to and from the Square is always courtesy of London Regional Transport.
Whenever, as in this case, an inappropriately-chosen prop draws more attention to itself than to the dramatic scene that it is supposed to be supporting, you can bet that product placement is to blame. Either that or Natalie is about to return to our screens as the heroine of a Nineties Dick Turpin remake.
There is, I suppose, a case for saying that using real product and company names adds a genuine touch to soap operas – all of whom rate the great god “realism” above all other deities. But where does desirable reality end and cynical plugging begin?
There was a time when the Archers resorted to name-dropping in order to increase the realism quotient – Brian Aldridge getting the name Land Rover into every episode, his wife Jenny regularly going ga-ga over the Aga.
But when it comes to TV, where the plugs are eerily silent – a camera shot of a bread packet here, a close-up of a car marque there – the use of real brand or company names can, strangely enough, be even more obtrusive.
Of course no one wants to return to the days when all brand identities were clumsily covered up by sticky-backed plastic, or when actors were forced to perform contortions with cigarette packs rather than allow the viewer a glimpse of the name.
But leaving aside the merits of TV realism, it must be preferable to shoot, say, a bar-scene with out-of-focus labels, rather than to give the damaging impression to licence-fee payers that the high-and-mighty, anti-advertising BBC is having its cake and eating it.
There is a tradition in TV that factual programmes such as consumer affairs shows must be allowed to highlight genuine products. It’s a policy that generally causes no problems to the anti-pluggers – usually because the tale is a negative one – but it invariably upsets the companies being named.
But what is admissable on Watchdog is by no means acceptable on the Jasper Carrott show, which increasingly relies for laughs on the showing of commercials – often in their entirety – instead of what licence-payers are actually entitled to expect from comedy shows: well-written, funny and at least semi-original scripts.
For the vast majority of manufacturers whose products get “plugged” on the Carrott show, the accompanying humour is admiring and applauding rather than critical – great news for marketers, not so great for viewers.
Clive James and probably others have created BBC shows out of ludicrous commercials, but at least they have had the decency to get their material from overseas, rather than plagiarising from the ITC.
But Carrott the plugger aside, these silent BBC endorsements are starting to crop up in the most extraordinary places.
During the Christmas episode of One Foot In The Grave Victor Meldrew discovered the joys of Peugeot cars while eating a Cadbury’s chocolate bar; a one-off for the festive season, I hoped.
But then in early January, in a scene set in a solicitor’s office, Victor just happened to be clutching a clearly visible Sainsbury’s carrier bag, not for any reason connected to the script.
I’ve no idea whether Sainsbury’s had a hand in this – I strongly suspect it didn’t – but the dramatic purpose in making Meldrew use a recognisable carrier bag, rather than something safely anonymous, totally eluded me.
After all, of all the TV characters to be chosen to act as a walking advertising board, wouldn’t feisty Victor Meldrew be just about the least appropriate?
Back in EastEnders, where the regular sight of Natalie nervously twiddling her hair over the cheese-and-pickle sandwiches will continue to give nightmares to environmental health officers, the plugs so far this year have come thick and fast. From the close-ups of Malibu and Cinzano in Mrs Papandreus’s corner shop – What, no Babycham? – to extended close-ups of a Kona coffee machine in Caffy’s caff.
Of course programme producers have to get their props somewhere, and a realistic shot of a licensed corner-shop must include bottles, just as a cafe scene must use genuine-looking snacks and drinks.
But rather than giving out-and-out plugs to actual names, why not use out-of-focus names, fictional names, or even packs stacked in a way that avoids identification?
I know it sounds like a lot of effort for one soap opera, but a sensible way out of this relentless realism versus plugging maze is now long overdue.
As long as the corporation is allowed to impose a compulsory tax on us viewers in return for the promise of advertising-free viewing, then it must at the very least live up to its side of the bargain.