Soaps gloss over life’s true grit

Television, so often criticised for too much gritty realism, is nothing like gritty enough, a doctor writes.

It seems reasonable to assume that the doctor in question, one Simon Taggart, is, true to his profession, inured to the sight of blood, gore, evisceration, dripping noses and all those other darker aspects of the mortal shell from which Middle England turns away its head in disgust. Not for him the squeamish squeal or the averted eye; he wants to see life as it is. Raw, relentless, unforgiving, and wracked with pain. And he wants the rest of us to see it too.

His purpose, of course, is to do us good. That’s a bit rum, you may think, what with all this talk of the desensitising effects of violence on TV. How could exposure to yet more of the Grand Guignol lighten our step and send us merrily whistling on our way through the valley of the shadow of death? The answer is that we would learn from the horror set before our eyes, take ourselves trembling to bed, and rise the next day better, wiser people, resolved thenceforth to lead cleaner, purer lives.

As it is, says Dr Taggart, television is doing us all a huge disservice by implying that debauchery and self-indulgence are without penalty or consequence. He gets this impression by watching lots of soaps. Now it is not for us to criticise a member of the medical profession for the way in which he chooses to relax at the end of what are no doubt arduous days. Were the quotidian lot of you and me to peer down throats, look up bottoms, tap chests, and ask people to cough twice, we, too, could be forgiven for seeking escape and solace amid the soothing waves of televised rubbish.

But, alas, poor Taggart, he cannot allow himself to drift into what dramatists call a suspension of disbelief, that God-given gullibility without which we would see only a paper moon floating over a cardboard sea. When Taggart loosens his stethoscope, puts up his feet, draws deeply from his mug of Horlicks, and tunes in to EastEnders, he is profoundly disturbed by what he sees. And what does he see? Why, healthy people. Worse, people who have no right to be healthy. People, in short, who, if there were any sense of realism in broadcasting, would be turning purple, fighting for breath, and, ideally, dropping dead.

Now he has finally cracked, and can take no more. He has written to all soap scriptwriters demanding realism in portrayals of unhealthy lifestyles. Moreover, he has teamed up with that most miserable of quangos, the Health Education Authority, to disseminate his views in a paper called “Reality in Soaps”.

In particular, he singles out Dot Cotton, the inveterate chain-smoker of EastEnders and Les Battersby, the equally heroic boozer of Coronation Street. Both characters, he says, are unfeasibly healthy. Were the scriptwriters to take their responsibilities seriously, Dot would be carried off the set feet first, and Les would be doubled up with a burst ulcer. As for Fitz, the smoking, drinking, womanising psychologist from Cracker, boy, does he deserve to suffer. “I would like to see him being sick because of his ulcers and having attacks of bronchitis,” says Taggart. Yes, indeed. But what about the womanising? Might it not be cautionary were his virile member to be seen dropping off and falling to the floor?

“We have always felt that on television people who smoke look far too healthy and never go to the doctor,” says Taggart. “In real life the characters would be unhealthy and always at the doctors.”

This betrays a lack of understanding of the requirements of drama. To hold the attention of the masses, it is necessary that the story should zip along, and, like a butterfly in mid-May, alight briefly on one component of the plot before fluttering to the next. It simply would not do for the characters to be forever stopping off at the doctor’s and coughing up sputum samples. It would slow things down dreadfully and loosen the soap’s grip on the viewers.

Elision is one of the skills of scriptwriting. If, for instance, Les Battersby drank as heavily as we are led to believe, he would regularly feel the need to relieve his bladder; but, if we were to follow his progress through this necessary process, our attention would soon wander. That is why urination, despite its undoubted realism, plays little part in popular entertainment.

Dr Taggart gives praise where it is due. He commends the series Hollyoakes for its enlightened treatment of smoking. “Smokers,” he says, “tend to be associated with a negative image, from the criminal underworld, a bad guy.” Here he is arguing for art to prefigure reality. It has long been the secret ambition of the medical profession and the Health Education Authority to criminalise smoking, and Hollyoakes is taking a step in the right direction by depicting tobacco as a mark of criminality.

Dr Taggart is now working on his next paper, which will call for realism in violence. “You never see someone scarred for life because they have had a broken jaw or permanent brain damage,” he explains. He is, if nothing else, the bad actor’s friend. There must be plenty of disillusioned thespians out there who would sell their souls to portray a persistent vegetative state.

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