Alan Dent continues his series on culture and capitalism by arguing that soap operas, game and talent shows validate capitalism
Fans of Hancock’s Half-Hour, The Liver Birds or Steptoe and Son enjoyed good quality entertainment. After a hard day’s work, what’s wrong with turning on the radio or the television to ease up and have a laugh? Joe Orton said he was no cultural snob and enjoyed I Love Lucy, yet he also defaced books from Islington Library in protest at the debased content of the shelves – and that at a time when libraries weren’t forced to ditch editions more than ten years old.
Orton was recognising that entertainment has its place, but not at the cost of elbowing art aside. Huw Weldon, in a famous speech in the 1960s, claimed the distinction between entertainment and art lay in the difference between giving pleasure and seeking truth. There is truth in Hancock, of course and in The Liver Birds, and King Lear is pleasurable in spite of the gouging out of eyes. Perhaps a better distinction lies in this: a work of art is successful whether or not it attains an audience. A soap opera watched by 100,000 would be an abject failure; a theatre play seen by 10,000 might be a huge success, artistically. Entertainment has to make money, even for a public service broadcaster, in the sense people won’t pay the licence fee for what they aren’t willing to watch. The success of a work of art is extraneous to questions of popularity. Emily Dickinson’s poems were artistically successful while still in her drawer. Accomplished art tends to attract an audience, but often not easily. Entertainment is impatient. No one writes a soap opera anticipating it may get due recognition in two centuries.
So entertainment must be given its due. As an introduction to dramatic writing and especially to good acting, much TV entertainment has done good work. Also, few people can tolerate a diet of only the most exacting art. Young people especially need to be eased towards appreciation of demanding art; but entertainment is much more amenable to manipulation than art. When advertisers are paying TV companies millions to buy their audiences, the last thing they want is content which subverts their view of the world.
The era (1964-1984) that provided The Wednesday Play and Play for Today perhaps bridged the gap. Several hundred plays, some written by dramatists of exceptional talent, attracted good audiences. They weren’t all masterpieces, but they were attempts at real drama presented on a popular if naturalistic medium. The dates are to be noted: 1964 saw Wilson’s first electoral victory, 1984 was the year after Thatcher’s second. Sixties cultural openness declined into eighties philistinism. The BBC offered Ken Loach and others the brief to produce drama which challenged orthodoxy and addressed contemporary social realities. After Thatcher, that was unthinkable.
High art for the few and bland culture for the many
Trevor Griffiths remarked that he couldn’t understand why radical writers didn’t cleave to television. Like him, Thatcher recognised that a mass medium broadcasting material which questioned the status quo was potentially revolutionary. A division had to be made between high art, confined to a few, and bland mass culture. Forms like folk music (revived at around the same time The Wednesday Play began, largely thanks to Ewan McColl) which blended serious radicalism with popular melodies and lyrics, had to be sidelined by the pop charts, dominated largely by saccharine love songs. Entertainment had to confirm that what is must be, and art had to learn to pay its way. This remains the general tenor of British culture.
All entertainment, because of its need for commercial success, is debased art. It’s a simple truism: without Bach, there would be no pop music, no western music. Bach worked out Equal Temperament and he or his assistants or both tuned a keyboard so it could play in all keys. Prior to which, instruments were limited in range or had to be retuned for key changes (the musicology of this is explained clearly in Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs). Before Equal Temperament, harmony was limited. Bach was a musical revolutionary. Without Aeschylus there would be no Eastenders. Without Henry Fielding, there would be no Val McDermid. The same is not true in reverse: Mark Anthony Turnage has no need of Kylie Minogue, Caryl Churchill doesn’t need Coronation St. Entertainment is a debased form by definition, yet it can be responsibly employed.
What matters is who produces it and why. Entertainment in our culture is in general produced by the rich, and its purpose is to uphold the system which makes them wealthy. Our culture blurs the boundaries of art and entertainment for the purpose of elevating the latter and diminishing the former: pos-modernism, the intellectual handmaiden of this process, is nothing more than the refusal of a hierarchy of values. Its primary strategy is to assert there are no objective criteria by which culture can be judged. Who can say Ibsen is better drama than Coronation St? Putatively democratic, this is simply a capitulation to commercialism: what sells is good. Thus, Fifty Shades of Grey is better than The Trial (sales of the latter globally are enormous but in contemporary Britain relatively modest).
The problem art poses for capitalism is that it obviously isn’t aimed at a market. Who, wanting to sell, would write Krapp’s Last Tape or Heart of Darkness? As art is motivated by something other than pursuit of maximum sales, it’s a suspicious activity. Just what it might be about, the ideologues of capitalism may not be able to discern, but their attitude is well summed up by the remark Thatcher made to Birtwistle when he attended a reception for the music “industry” (idiotic designation) in Downing St: “We know what you’re up to.”
Advertising with knobs on
It is Thatcher’s paranoid philistinism which drives the entertainment industry (an apposite designation). An article in The Sun by Lucy Murgatroyd on 24th June 2020 tells us that Jacqueline Jossa is worth some £1.2m, Michelle Keegan £2.7m, Alan Halsall up to £4m, Danny Dyer £3.9m, Adam Woodyatt up to £4m, Steve McFadden £2.7m, Jack P. Shepherd up to £4m, Derek Thompson £6m, Amanda Mealing up to £4m. The article revels in the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy stars: they like to show off their expensive cars, they luxuriate in their wealth. That this is morally obscene in a society where millions depend on foodbanks, hundreds of thousands are homeless, ought not to need saying. Our culture not only normalises greed and its ostentatious display, it proposes it as morally worthy, a proof of status and value.
The first soap opera is thought to have been Painted Dreams, which aired on WGN radio Chicago on 20th October 1930. The title is appropriate. The form was elaborated to catch the attention of housewives. At its core, therefore, is reaction. It embraced no desire to examine the concept “housewife”. It took the category and all it implied (which included no small measure of despair and mental torment for women trapped in a limited, stultifying role) for granted. Housewives were a market. If, in their boredom, they could be hooked by redundant, sentimental, melodramatic broadcasts, they could be sold soap powder, or whatever else was deemed appropriate to their downgraded status. In its conception, soap opera was barely entertainment: it was advertising with knobs on. In a sense that is what it remains: an advert for capitalism.
According to the Mailonline of 3rd August 2017, Hugh Quarshie was demanding a pay rise for his role in Holby City, as he’d discovered that his fellow actor Derek Thompson was earning £399,000 a year. If nurses demand a pay rise, they are usually castigated by the right-wing media for “holding the country to ransom” or a lack of professionalism or neglecting their patients or some other confected failing; but for an actor to demand a salary some ten times the national average is not only acceptable, it reveals all is well with the world. The talented must be richly rewarded. Hard work must bring great wealth. These are rules inscribed in the heavens – immutable, irresistible, eternal.
That there is no necessary connection between talent and wealth or hard work and wealth is obvious. Poets of talent have, for hundreds of years, earned nothing or virtually nothing. Musicians of talent play in orchestras for modest salaries or jazz gigs for less than a plumber charges per hour. Teachers, nurses, care workers, kitchen porters, waiters work hard and get by. The indefeasible connection is between wealth and greed. All the wealthy are greedy. No one is trapped in wealth like they are trapped in poverty. It’s always possible to divest yourself of wealth, to employ it to help those who need help. What keeps the rich rich is not the operation of an abstract market, but greed.
Soap operas, which continue to hook audiences through the tired formulas of melodrama (Orton pointed up the similarity between melodrama and madness) are principally transparent vehicles for the empty proposition that society can’t function without the rich: you love your soap opera; you identify with the characters; you follow the plots; their lives seem more real than your own (the boredom of capitalism makes sure of that); they are a major source of conversation; and the stars earn £400,000 a year or are worth millions. Thus, your pleasures depend on inequality. What is also at work, though, is the debased nature of the form.
Soap opera is excessively naturalistic. It defeats Ibsen’s maxim: The illusion I seek is the illusion of reality. In its place it puts: The reality I propose is the reality of illusion. The economics of soap opera production necessitates overlong scenes and expanded conversations. Soap operas are divided into bits which lack conciseness; what can be said in ten words will never be said in less than a hundred; an emotion that can be expressed in the most minute gesture requires histrionics. None of this is accidental. It’s not unusual for those addicted to soap opera to communicate with characters as if they are real: Dear Ken, I feel I must let you know your wife is having an affair.. or With deepest sympathy appended to flowers for someone’s funeral.
This naïve appreciation of the framework is part of the ploy: the form engenders the naivety it requires. In spite of an expensive education system, people in their millions set aside suspension of disbelief and see no illusion. No one has ever written to an actor playing Hamlet in the theatre: Dear Hamlet, Sorry to hear about your dad….The debilitating naturalism of soap opera destroys the ability to simultaneously watch drama as if it’s real while knowing it’s factitious. In soap opera, there is no “as if”. This is as culturally backward as the simple folk of Dorset who, when first read the stories of Hardy took them for truth and when told Mr Hardy had invented them, said: “Why would he do that?”
The lack of the appropriate frame kills the sense that the writer (soap operas, of course, are written by committees) has invented to a purpose. There being no purpose to the illusion, it must be reality. What could be more dismal than millions of benighted adherents taking spatchcock, thoughtless melodrama for reality? Capitalism is routinely attacked for its injustice, but seldom for its unconscionable tedium, the source of the pitiful need to identify with plastic TV characters.
It’s sometimes argued that soap operas deal with pressing social realities, as if this justifies them and makes them half-way radical; but the form defeats whatever plotlines it may embrace. There is no catharsis where there is no appreciation of drama as illusion. There has never been a riot outside a TV studio in response to a soap opera, as people rioted over O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars in 1926 (it was also said that his inclusion of a prostitute in one of his plays was a disgrace because there were no prostitutes in Dublin). Whatever ostensibly contentious issue is included in a soap opera, its potential subversive effect will be annulled by its utter conformism, which confirms our culture in all its injustice, boredom and stasis.
Soap opera characters are just like us, so the form proposes; but ironically, given the audience’s willingness not to suspend disbelief, they are played by stars who are anything but. Ken Barlow is a very rich man, and a Tory, though in the series he isn’t either. If the Ken the viewers can identify with as someone like us, a bloke who might live next door blends with the William Roache who definitely doesn’t (unless you’re very well off), the job is done: actors require huge financial rewards. Thus is real drama shredded and capitalism justified.
Tony Warren’s notion was reactionary from the beginning: a typical northern street with a pub at one end and a corner shop at the other; characters who would be as typical as their environment. The essence is stasis, a synchronic perspective, a slice through rather than of life. At the heart of the idea was the rejection of change, as if Coronation Street was born with time and would endure with it. Where drama often depicts characters trapped by circumstance and therefore implicitly available for transformation by escaping them, Warren’s little universe was to be self-enclosed and therefore entropic. Entropy spreads out energy until nothing can happen. The same dispersal is intrinsic to soap opera’s form. Nothing can happen in the sense that no fundamental change can come about because if it did, the very conception would wither. Characters may leave Coronation St, they may die, but the street itself remains, eternal and therefore dead. Until heat-death, the universe is in constant flux. Whatever is unchanging can exist only after heat-death, though, of course, it can’t, as everything that exists must be subject to change.
What is typical of characters in real drama, is energy. Even Vladimir and Estragon are defined by their inability to go; they have to wait for Godot so their energy is trapped. Lear employs his waning energy to assert his kingly power and Regan and Goneril theirs for the evil of lust for that power. Othello’s energy is misdirected into jealousy by the manipulative energy of Iago. Willy Loman’s energy, denied by his culture, fuels the fantasy which kills him. The characters in Coronation Street are held is aspic. Their energy is flattened out. They are puppets. There is no real drama because their can be no real possibility of change. The form defies it. Hamlet tells us things could have been different if corruption hadn’t seized the court of Denmark. What The Butler Saw tells us that disaster ensues when we try to hide the truth. A Doll’s House shows us people can be diminished by institutions but can rebel. Soap opera tells us nothing can happen and therefore there can be only the non-events of melodrama, an expression of the phoney emotions of the emotionally dead.
The just-like-us nature of soap opera is carried over into game shows and talent shows where people you might sit next to on the bus put themselves through humiliation in pursuit of money and fame. The formula is as simple as it is cynical: you have no shame; you will undergo any embarrassment to be lifted out of your current situation, even if by no more than few thousand quid. Both game and talent shows are based on greed for money and fame.
The false promise of capitalism
The key to game shows is that contestants prove themselves idiots and to talent shows that they reveal themselves as talentless. Of course, some people defeat the formula and win or turn out able to perform. Yet the essence is the message that you’re willing to compromise your dignity for money or fame (which implies money). Central also is the notion of overnight success: one day you’re a teacher, next day you win Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. One day you’re a hairdresser, next day you have a recording contract. This keeps alive the false and essentially neurotic promise of capitalism: that while the wheel is spinning you may have the chance of remarkable fortune. Of course, a tiny minority are lucky, but that’s the point: the tiny minority who are exorbitantly wealthy deserve their wealth, and the rest deserve what’s left.
This also militates against the idea of long apprenticeship or of a commitment which is worthwhile though not lucrative. It takes a long time and much hard work, for example, to master an instrument well enough to play in an orchestra. Hence this being an art form reserved for a minority. There is no ban, of course, on the masses taking to serious music, just a prevailing sense that “it isn’t done”, as Orwell put it. Aimed at the masses, soap opera, game shows, talent shows proclaim: this is your culture; it’s vulgar, it’s loud, it’s raucous; Shakespeare is not for you; Beethoven is too serious; this is your stuff and you love it.
The deliberate appeal to the lowest common denominator keeps the masses in their place: when the common folk start taking an interest in “high” culture, there’s trouble on the way. The barriers to them doing so are high and forbidding. A guileless, innocent interest in Mozart or Jane Austen is mocked by the cognoscenti. The common folk are made to feel embarrassed and pretentious if they show a liking for what is above their station. The mass media force their attention onto the culture which is concocted for them. The argument goes that the masses have willingly chosen this stuff and to criticise it is cultural snobbery. The truth is the culture has deliberately pursued downgraded forms to keep the common folk from what might make them think.
In this regard, it is interesting to look at the relationship between these forms and the education system. That schools run shows in imitation of Britain’s Got Talent indicates how the get-rich-quick, celebrity mentality has permeated. The last place you would expect such values to prevail is an educational setting where commitment to the cumulative mastery of knowledge and skills and a belief in learning for its own sake ought to be taken for granted. Schools have long been exam factories, but there used to be a hinterland of commitment to disinterested learning. By imposing a culture of measurement which proposes that what can’t be reduced to a number is worthless, government has erased any resistance within the system to the superficial, short-term values of the culture at large. OFSTED enforces minute conformism, which assists capitulation to whatever looms large.
Children were once taught traditional folk song in school but the Lincolnshire Poacher (sung by many primary school children in the 1950s) has been replaced by Taylor Swift. The subversive delight in poaching, the wish (in some versions) for bad luck to every magistrate would be unlikely to make it past OFSTED’s censors. The song is said to date from the eighteenth century. Today’s young are taught to attend to whatever is “trending”. Training in not thinking begins early and is well rewarded.
Class struggle in Lincolnshire
Capitalism makes two fundamental requirements of the common folk: that they should be dutiful employees and committed consumers. They hand over their labour to an employer for the latter’s enrichment and the wages they receive they hand over to commercial interests for the same purpose. Democracy barely gets a look in. For most, it is a trip to the polling booth every few years; but however they vote, the essentials don’t change: they must be diligent employees and good consumers.
By and large, the Left conspires in this by making higher wages and therefore greater consumerism the principal plank of its platform. The argument is hardly ever heard that the relation of employer-employee needs to be reformed out of existence. Higher wages, state provision of health, education, social care – such is the limit of socialism’s reach. Hence the core of socialism is removed, as only when people transcend the limits of their definition of employee can they begin to realise the potential which lies beyond it.
Popular culture is like fast food
Soap operas, in their entrenched conformism, their stasis, their replacement of the transformative energy of drama by the dissipated entropy of melodrama confirm people in their current definitions. Joe Orton, in The Good and Faithful Servant, attacked employment. He is virtually alone among modern UK writers in going to the heart of the matter. The play was written for television, but no one will get to see it. Instead we have Strictly, Bake Off, X-Factor, anything which stops people questioning. Very popular programmes, of course: people have to find some relief from the deadly boredom of capitalism.
The popularity of mass culture is akin to that of fast food: it is designed to appeal to the most easily stimulated and satisfied appetites. Fast food relies on fat, sugar and salt, a combination that is hard to find in nature and so one to which we have an excessive response. Our biological ancestors never ate anything like a doughnut. Natural selection ensured that when we get a hit of fat and sugar combined, our taste buds light up, because that’s a rare source of energy – but not in our supermarkets. The same is true of soap opera – it’s a sickly, sentimental confection which sparks up a set of responses remote from reality, unlike drama whose illusion penetrates to the deeper responses a true orientation to reality requires.
Similarly with game and talent shows: they permit the narrowest range of responses, all in keeping with capitalism’s illusions: being rich is liberation, being famous is the way out of daily tedium. Incidentally, such programmes are universally popular. Globalisation has done its work. Romantic fantasies are particularly liked in China – hardly surprising when the reality is state capitalist tyranny. Russians appear to have more of a taste for crime dramas. This might occasion the argument that criticising these forms is pushing water uphill, that their universal appeal reveals their ability to key into fundamental features of the human mind which transcend cultural differences. This returns us to our initial proposition: these forms are debased art. Just as an advertising jingle can find a musical resonance across the globe, so soap opera has enough residual dramatic vibration to strike a chord. As for game and talent shows, they touch a nerve which associates performance and reward – a good spearthrower gets a good dinner.
It isn’t because they appeal to unchanging features of our nature that these forms are popular, but because they correspond to the dominant culture which itself is passed off as nature. They represent a misuse of mass media to inculcate a sensibility which upholds the system which creates it. They are brilliantly successful and will continue to be until an alternative and mocking culture arises, but that requires a willingness to forgo the rewards they provide. Writing or acting for fringe theatre is far less lucrative than doing so for television. Talent can be bought off – principle resists.
Alan Dent is the founder and editor of The Penniless Press and its successor MQB.