Wednesday, 29 October 2008


Soap opera is not drama. It is melodrama.

At a BBC Drama Group launch, some years ago, Script Doc sat at the back and watched as clips from the forthcoming drama season were screened for assorted hacks. Amongst the single-strand dramas (films, in other words), series and serials came a few excerpts from the BBC's soap, 'Eastenders', which takes place in a mythical land somewhere near the Thames. And Script Doc wondered, 'What is a soap opera doing here in the midst of all this drama?'

The fine points of why soap and drama are two different things can be explored elsewhere. The point is that Script Doc was right to feel a bit of concern, somewhere deep inside, about the classification of soap as drama.

Not so long after the Drama Group launch in question, the Doc came across an interview with one of British TV's up-and-coming young producers. 'We like working with soap writers,' said the Bright Young Thing. 'They always deliver.'

This statement intrigued the Doc. Was Ms Producer suggesting that drama writers who don't specialise in soap actually don't deliver? Or was she saying something else?

I think the latter. Soap writers have no ownership of their characters. They are accustomed to rewriting a script because somebody, somewhere, has changed their minds about something. A drama writer has an emotional investment in the script. Too many rewrites, too much second-guessing, inflict untold damage on a real drama script. Soap scripts can be rewritten indefinitely. Soap writers simply do as they're told.

Soap has become the behemoth of British TV. Even shows which struggled to define themselves as something other than soap have adopted soapy elements. Emotionally manipulative, socially meaningless, dramatically contrived, soap has come to dominate British TV drama over recent years.

So what, you might well ask. Well, as writers have lost control over their own scripts, the BBC has fallen into the trap of believing in celebrities. This is the classic Hollywood producer's mistake.

We're currently seeing a startling number of complaints made to the BBC about two massively overpaid comedians whose questionable prank calls made to an elderly actor have offended many people. Nobody queried whether the prank calls were a good idea at the time. They were made by two of the BBC's highest-paid celebrities, so how could they possibly have been a bad idea?

Let's compare the level of editorial control exercised over Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand with that wielded by drama producers during the script stage. In the first instance, no editorial control whatsoever. Those two are celebs and therefore they can do no wrong. In the latter instance, all writers must be soap writers so that they will accept excessive, even abusive and exploitative levels of editorial control without the reservations that a real drama writer would have.

Power has shifted in the industry. This has taken about twenty years to achieve, prompted initially by the right-wing governments of the 1980s (Margaret Thatcher's husband was a particularly vocal, and unelected, critic of the BBC). What has happened during that period can be compared with the banking sector. A small, hugely privileged elite has been allowed to accrue enormous amounts of power - without responsibility - and has been rewarded with grossly inflated pay.

In the meantime, the majority of creatives have been forced to toe the line, on short-term contracts, and have been subject to the whims of over-promoted suits.

All writers have become soap writers. Hacks. Carefully screened and trained up to believe that creating the soapy drivel that passes for drama these days is some kind of achievement.

Today, there is one rule for the celebs and another for the drones. The former get showered with money and told to do whatever they want. The latter are kept on a tight leash and face oblivion if they dare to question the wisdom of their gobbledegook-spouting 'superiors'.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is a system in decline. It is a slave economy engineered to benefit a tiny minority. By treating writers as slaves while allowing celebrity loudmouths to demand ever higher fees, the BBC management has shown the contempt it feels both for the vast majority of its staff and - even more tellingly - for the consumer (that's you and me, folks).

But there is good news. As noted in a previous blog, the BBC's grandly-titled Head of Fiction is leaving White City imminently, and the removal of her dead hand can do the BBC's drama output no harm. But the real issue is a bigger political one.

Governments around the world have, in recent weeks, woken up to the devastating effects of a certain mindset being allowed to dictate its own terms. The partial nationalisation of certain banks represents a huge political upheaval - the final realisation that a system based on greed and the imagined impeccable status of a lucky few will inevitably create its own demise.

Where the banking sector is concerned, we have all lost money. Where the BBC is concerned, we have all been short-changed. Senior management has been too busy enjoying its perks and congratulating itself to tackle the real problems that are now endemic within the Beeb. Staff morale is at an all-time low. The viewer is fobbed off with no end of junk. The creative voice has been silenced in order to allow the inane, self-centred babble of a few so-called celebrities to be heard. Standards have declined, opportunities have dried up, some people have become fabulously wealthy.

Is this what we want?

Let's hope that a fresh wind is about to blow. We've lived in a world of lies for years now. The consequences of doing so are now coming home to us. And, if history has taught us anything, it's that revolutions happen when too many people are browbeaten into harming their own interests for the sake of a pampered minority.

Don't be a soap writer. Don't be a slave.

Stand up for real drama. For the right to write, and the right to be heard.

The voice of the writer matters more than the right of a couple of overpaid celebrities to make prank calls.


Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

god, I hate Russell Brand. MTV wants him to play frank N furter for the stupid remake of Rocky Horror (NO!!!!) and I hate celebrities in general who call all the shots for films.

Ed Norton, for instance, has a reputation for being a real cunt on set and for trying to change and re-write the script. Douche-bag.

I just CANNOT bring myself to be a soap writer. I can't rewrite stories and not invest my emotions in something so bland.

I can't, I just can't. I refuse to be a hack.

script doc said...

GOOD FOR YOU! And celebrities - real ones and few and far between.

Actors fall into two categories - those that respect the script and those that don't. The latter lot are a bunch of semi-literate A-holes with a very inflated self of sense which they use to plug the gaping holes in their talent. But the first bunch can be nice.

Good to hear from you!

ted stratford said...

God I hope you're right

Chip Smith said...

Just thought I'd check in to say that I'm thoroughly enjoying the blog so far - it's a relief to read someone who actually has an opinion on something!

script doc said...

Hi there, Chip! Many thanks for your encouraging remarks.