Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 26 (Coronation Street)


The Davison era is described, usually by its detractors, as a soap opera. “Soap opera,” it should be noted, is one of the great denigrating terms in science fiction fandom. There is nothing, including the Star Wars Christmas Special, quite as bad in the world as being a soap opera.

To anyone outside of science fiction or soap opera fandom this is completely insane since the two are self-evidently the exact same thing. To someone uninvolved in either there is no difference whatsoever in what die-hard sci-fi fans do and what die-hard soap fans do. Both are equally objects of mockery. One dresses up more, the other sends panicked letters in that don’t quite seem to grasp that the characters are fictional. But other than that they’re exactly the same thing.

Consider a recent example. In 2011 Coronation Street brought back the character of Dennis Tanner, who had not appeared in the show since 1968. The only thing that can possibly be reached for as an analogy would be something like bringing Sarah Jane Smith back to Doctor Who in 2006 when she hadn’t appeared in it since 1983. Or bringing Leonard Nimoy as Spock back in the latest Star Trek movie. More simply, consider this - virtually every long-form serialized text (as opposed to something like, say, Garfield that is serialized but consists of one-off strips instead of continuing storylines) that exists in either the US or UK is either a sci-fi/fantasy story or a soap opera.

And yet it’s difficult to imagine two genres that are more diametrically disdainful of one another. Under the hood much of this comes down to the fact that although their basic narrative structures match almost exactly their subject matter is wildly different. Soap operas are emotionally-based character dramas, science fiction is action-adventure. But understanding the fact that they’re basically the same in terms of structure and audience interaction is key to understanding why, starting in about the 1990s, sci-fi/fantasy shows began working hard to try to cater to a soap audience as well. It’s just good business - if the two work similarly, you may as well try to appeal to both.

The other thing to note is that the perception that soap operas and science fictiona re diametrically opposed is not quite fair. It’s true that the average soap fan and the average science fiction fan are very different audiences. This is the logic behind the other event that would justify a Coronation Street entry, the scheduling of Doctor Who opposite Coronation Street in the Sylvester McCoy years on the grounds, as Michael Grade put it, that nobody in Britain watched both shows. But the logic behind this line was delightfully skewered years later in Russell T. Davies’s Queer as Folk when Vince Tyler reminisces about how irritating it was to have both shows on at once. Of course now that Phil Collinson has moved from Executive Producer of Doctor Who to showrunning Coronation Street the idea of any opposition between the shows becomes almost farcical.

But here we’re scrying events still long off in the future. Let’s return to the dawning of the Davison era. Miles and Wood discuss the way in which the Saturday teatime slot that Doctor Who had occupied from 1963-81 was, by the start of 1982, completely imploded. They give an almost entirely technologically determinist account of why this was, but it’s a compelling one, so let’s go with it. But first, some context.

The thing to realize is that the very existence of a Saturday teatime slot demonstrates a big difference between American and British television. I’m writing this on a Saturday afternoon. Here, then, are the prime time lineups of the networks tonight. CBS is showing repeats. ABC is showing an old Charlie Brown Valentine special followed by repeats. NBC is showing a reairing of their current big music variety show. The CW is devoted entirely to local programming. And Fox is running America’s Most Wanted, which is essentially free to produce.

In other words, nothing important happens on Saturday. The main prime time lineups of US television networks is from Sunday-Thursday, with the big ones running some stuff on Friday - often sci-fi programming on the assumption that its cult audience isn’t going out on a Friday. But nothing airs on Saturday because nobody is home. In contrast, BBC1 and ITV are showing new programming. Mostly reality programming, though BBC1 has a new episode of Casualty up. And, of course, Saturday is when Doctor Who goes out again.

The nature of the Saturday lineup is, in other words, peculiarly British. And it extends from the fact that Britain only has a handful of terrestrial channels. And unlike American TV, there was the BBC, which was notable for not being fragmented into regional variations in the same way that ITV was. In other words, there was a channel that was consistent across the country and was one of only a handful of things that could be watched. So television, in the UK, was a unifying experience. The country sat down to watch. And Doctor Who was a part of one of the biggest lineups in the UK - the Saturday teatime one. For all that we’ve talked about Doctor Who fandom over eighteen seasons here we mustn’t forget the fact that through these eighteen years Doctor Who simply was not a science fiction show in the sense that we usually use the term. It may have had science fiction fans, but it was unambiguously and completely mass entertainment for the entire country.

But at the start of 1982 the conditions that allowed that to be possible were changing. Miles and Wood track social conditions - the downfall of the very notion of community that Thatcherism heralded with its declaration that society didn’t exist - but their more compelling reasoning is simply that televisions had gotten cheap enough that everyone in the family could have their own and were remote controlled, which meant that changing the channel was trivial. And they heated up and started displaying images almost immediately, which meant that you didn’t have to turn your television on in advance of what you wanted to watch. Both of these cut against the always-on lineup based model of television that Doctor Who had been a part of.

Nathan-Turner was not a stupid man. A tasteless one, perhaps, but not a stupid one. With the Saturday slot dying he oversaw the program shifting timeslots to where it would air twice weekly on Mondays and Tuesdays. This was actually a big deal, making the front page of the Sun when it was announced. First, it changed the nature of what the show was. Doctor Who still only made 26 episodes a year, meaning that from Season 19 on it was only around for a quarter of the year. This is another massive change from the “always on” model of the first six seasons and the “around for half the year” model of the next twelve. Doctor Who was no longer a continual part of the fabric of television.

Second, Doctor Who was now a show that had to draw its own set of fans. On Saturday Doctor Who could draw from the whole country as long as it wasn’t appreciably worse than whatever ITV was showing - and even then it would do OK if the rest of the Saturday lineup was strong. But on Mondays and Tuesdays Doctor Who has to get people to turn on the television in the first place. This, in other words, is the real impetus for Nathan-Turner switching to trying to appeal to Doctor Who fans first and foremost. Having lost access to the family audience that had defined Doctor Who for eighteen years he made the obvious switch to trying to win a sci-fi cult audience. For all that his continuity fetishism is knocked, one has to remember that there was a sensible motive behind it. What Doctor Who was had to change.

But in the accusation that the Davison era is a soap there’s an interesting secondary narrative going on. The usual story is that Nathan-Turner changed to a model of continuity fetishism. And he did, yes. Absolutely. But the idea that he did this entirely to appeal to a cult science fiction audience is not quite fair. Had Doctor Who simply moved to a weekday slot and aired one episode a week it would look like any other cult science fiction show. But it didn’t. It aired twice weekly. And that suggests something entirely different.

The twice weekly timeslot was due to the BBC conducting early experiments for what would eventually become EastEnders - which, of course, we’ll pop between realities for in 1993. But the schedule picked for EastEnders was just the schedule used for ITV soaps like Coronation Street and Emmerdale Farm (then starring Frazer Hines as Joe Sugden). In other words, the “Davison soap” description of Doctor Who is apropos not just because of the bickering companions and unusually large main cast (it’s the first time Doctor Who has had a cast of four that appeared in every episode since the UNIT days, and the first time it’s combined that with travel in time and space since The Chase), but because it is actually airing in a soap opera timeslot. And the bickering crew isn’t the only soaplike element of it. Nathan-Turner nicked the silent credits at the end of Earthshock from Coronation Street as well. Plus, it’s worth remembering at this point that Doctor Who was, in fact, a broadly popular show and not just a show for adolescent male sci-fi fans. When you combine all of this the hypothesis begins to look clear - Nathan-Turner was overtly trying to cobble together a broad audience for Doctor Who by merging the obviously similar genres of soaps and science fiction. He’s attempting the transition that happened over the course of the late 90s and early 00s about fifteen years early. He fails spectacularly, of course, but it’s hard to avoid the sense that this is what’s supposed to be happening here. (Even the casting of Davison, already appearing in All Creatures Great and Small and Sink or Swim, suggests an effort to go for a broadly appealing and known television personality)

And so, in order to better serve you, my readers, I watched a month’s worth of period Coronation Street. Unfortunately, the accessibility of vintage Coronation Street is limited. The closest I could get to the time in question and get consecutive episodes (instead of a “best of” set that wouldn’t capture the feel of watching the show) was December of 1979. And so I watched all nine episodes from December of 1979. For you. My readers. You bastards.

Actually, I shouldn’t be that hard on the show. The appeal of it is relatively straightforward and no more trashy than Daleks. By the end of the ninth episode I could more or less understand why someone would watch the show. Which is not a huge surprise given that I’ve followed my fair share of American primetime soaps in my day. (Both Grey’s Anatomy and The OC have, on occasion, been quite good.)

The way that a soap opera works is fairly straightforward. You build a large ensemble cast of characters up and then you serialize plotlines for small subsets of them over several episodes while avoiding ever starting or finishing more than one plot per episode. Contrary to the stereotype that soaps feature decades-simmering plotlines that are impossible to jump in on, this rapid churn of plots actually makes jumping on fairly easy. The first episode or two is rough, but after that there’s usually a solid majority of any given episode that you can follow because it’s either introducing new plotlines or continuing things you’ve seen a lot of, and by the end of one month’s worth of viewing there were only a few characters I didn’t have the gist of.

But equally important is the fact that long-time viewers are rewarded. This comes in two real forms. The first is relatively familiar to a sci-fi fan, and that’s the continuity reference. Old characters make returns, for instance, or a long-ago plotline comes to the fore. For instance, in one of the episodes I watched Elsie Tanner, a character who had been absent for a month or so’s episodes, returns and has a fight with another character with whom she clearly shared a long-running plotline. The major purpose of this scene is obviously to tie up those long-running plotlines. But what’s interesting is that the scene pulls double duty. The nature of their relationship is reiterated in their dialogue, and the scene equally serves as a good introduction to Elsie’s character.

This sort of back-referencing, at least if Wikipedia articles are to be believed, continues today - hardly a departed character on the show doesn’t have some mention of an episode years after they left in which their final fate (usually death) is announced. And, of course, it’s implicit in doing something like bringing a character back over forty years after their last appearance.

But there’s a second type of reward for long-time viewers, and that comes in the form of character consistency. Long-running characters in soaps typically get plotlines or moments where what is significant is not a specific reference to their history but rather the fact that they act in a manner consistent with their character type. The most charming moment along these lines in the month I watched was when Annie Walker, the landlady at the Rovers Return (the requisite and iconic pub) chats up the obligatory punk rocker character and gets along with him well - a moment that is fun primarily because Annie Walker has been on the show since the first episode and it reconfirms her defining character traits of being gracious and discerning. What’s significant about this that, even though it is not a moment that depends on any long-term knowledge of the show, it’s still one that rewards it. It’s significant primarily if you have a built-up appreciation of Annie Walker. A similar moment appears in the first episode of December, in which Hilda Ogden, a character defined in no small part by her ability to irritate everybody else in the show, is shut out from a wedding reception. Annie gives her an opportunity to pick up a shift working at the inn, giving her a tacit invitation - another small character moment that is endearing because of the existence of prior investment in the characters as opposed to because of its own intrinsic dramatic tension.

In this, then, we can already see the seeds of where Nathan-Turner’s efforts to soapify Doctor Who fails. The ability to build these character moments is based on the long-term consistency of characters - on the fact that Annie and Hilda are behaving in line with over a decade of previous stories. But Nathan-Turner never really pays the sort of attention to long-term character needed to do things like this. The lack of any reaction among Nyssa, Tegan, and the Master after what happens in Logopolis badly undermines the soap tendencies of Doctor Who, because a soap savvy audience recognizes those moments as the very definition of ones in which the history of characters is supposed to pay off.

It’s also worth discussing the biggest difference between Doctor Who and Coronation Street. It is, perhaps surprisingly, not the existence of aliens and time travel. Rather it is that Doctor Who is thoroughly middle class and Coronation Street is thoroughly working class. This is particularly clear when you look at the cast making up the ostensible Davison soap: a noblewoman, a boy computer genius, a cricketeer, and an Australian stewardess. Tegan is the closest thing the series has to working class, and her foreignness and exotic job mitigate strongly against that.

Compare to Coronation Street, where the show is almost entirely dominated by working class people who often struggle to make ends meet. It’s a sharp difference, and it’s one that Doctor Who suffers from. The last working class regular it had was Sergeant Benton. The last working class character who filled the traditional companion role was Ben. And although it makes a stuttering effort at it with Ace in 1987 it’s not really until Russell T. Davies goes with a Mancunian Doctor and working class companion in 2005 that this can really be said to be addressed at all substantially.

But this is not to say that Coronation Street doesn’t have its own problems. First of all, it’s downright appalling that a working class show in 1979 would have an all white cast. Coronation Street doesn’t get its first black major character until 1983, two years after Toxteth. While some defense can be mounted on the grounds that Coronation Street is set in a fictional Salford, which is not a very racially diverse part of Greater Manchester, the fact of the matter is that a depiction of working class Britain consisting entirely of white people is... troubling. And yes, the same criticism can be made of Doctor Who in this time period, but for Doctor Who that’s just a reiteration of the complaint that it’s entirely middle and upper class. For Coronation Street, it’s something else.

Actually, much of Coronation Street’s portrayal of the working class is troubling. In particular, Hilda Ogden is...

OK, I’m at least going to flag explicitly that I’m wandering miles outside of my comfort area in terms of speaking authoritatively. I’m as thoroughly middle class as they come in upbringing, I’m frankly overeducated, and on top of that I’m American. Working class British politics from several years before I was born as portrayed in soap operas, a genre I don’t really watch is... not my area of expertise by a mile. And so I am open to being told I am miles off base here. That said...

Hilda Ogden is an absolute travesty of a character. The fact that she was voted the greatest soap opera character ever in a Radio Times poll 17 years after her last appearance, was voted in 1982 the fourth most recognizable woman in Britain - topping Thatcher - and is generally one of Coronation Street’s most beloved characters is deeply, deeply upsetting.

One of the things that is most difficult in discussing class issues when on, if not the winning side of class warfare, at least appreciably far from the losing side, is how to balance the obvious need to not just respect the working class but substantively honor and depict working class narratives with the fact that the vicissitudes of class conflict in the modern world have systematically deprived much of the working class of the education and breadth of experience necessary to avoid a wealth of bigotries. In the United States this is an aggressively pressing problem. Simply put, much of the Republican base are the people most hurt by Republican policies, but the Republican policies that hurt them make it harder to effectively communicate this problem to them. And nobody likes the rich liberal who tries to “explain things” to the working class, and understandably so because that’s horrifically egotistical.

The result of all of this is that it’s very easy to create images of the working class that valorize closed-minded, bigoted, and destructive attitudes as part of working class culture. And that is exactly what Hilda ends up doing. She is designed to be a nasty and unpleasant woman who is cruel to those around her, suspicious and contemptuous of those from different backgrounds to her, and who, in the entire month of episodes I watched, basically never did a single nice thing for any other character at all. She is a horrible, horrible person with no redeeming character traits whatsoever.

But she is also intensely working class and is vividly depicted. She is, in other words, other than being a horrible person exactly what one wants when one says that the working class is underrepresented on television. She is well-acted with a wealth of carefully chosen traits that bring authenticity to the role. Her storylines frequently have her struggle with money troubles and the miseries and degradations that come with being in the working poor.

The result is that she is beloved despite the fact that she exemplifies the worst traits of the working class. And no matter how complex that love is - the show is very much aware of her cruelty and the rest of the characters show little respect for her - the fact of the matter is that she normatizes the idea that ignorance and bigotry are traits to be proud of in the working class. Indeed, the fact that she’s beloved by the audience and frequently hated by the other characters only adds a perversity to her negative traits. Given that she is beloved because of her continual perseverance through adversity the fact that she is derided for her ignorance, nosiness, and cruelty by other characters only becomes another source of adversity.

She is, in other words, the very image of the sort of Murdochian class consciousness that renders the working class proud of their own self-destruction. And this, if I may turn back to Doctor Who, illustrates a key point about it even as it continues to amble through a wealth of racial, sexual, and economic blindnesses that are genuinely and deeply problematic. Merely representing the working class or various minorities (both statistical minorities and large but underrepresented groups) is not a panacea. The most class-blind moments of the Graham Williams era - and virtually the entire Graham Williams era was completely class blind, as is the bulk of the Nathan-Turner era - are preferable to Hilda Ogden.


Tony B 8 years, 11 months ago

"it’s the first time Doctor Who has had a cast of four that appeared in every episode since the UNIT days, and the first time it’s combined that with travel in time and space since The Chase"

Is that since The Faceless Ones?

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Grant, the Hipster Dad 8 years, 11 months ago

If we're popping between realities in 1981, then Saturday programming in the US was still very important to the networks. Ratings didn't begin tailing off for Saturdays until 1984, and the networks didn't begin their move away from the night until 1994.

As recently as 1973, the most-watched night of TV was actually Saturdays, when CBS programmed a three-hour block of All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett, most of which stayed on this night throughout their run. When All in the Family moved, it was its spinoff The Jeffersons that took its place on Saturday.

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Spacewarp 8 years, 11 months ago

Phil, another marvellous post. If they have Blog awards I would seriously consider nominating you. To be honest I read your blog now for your attempts at insight into the nature of Television history and the Atlantic Divide more than for the Doctor Who content.

Your perspective on the UK is fantastic, because you're far enough removed, but have an inherent interest and knowledge that means you both miss the point at times and yet shine a light on aspects of our own culture that we Brits are too immersed in to notice. In fact, that you miss the point sometimes IS the point, and more often than not highlights the fact that there ISN'T a point (or least that it's not as important as we like to think it is). If you see what I mean!

I can see you struggling a little to comprehend the point behind Hilda Ogden, but I think it's difficult to understand why she's there, and why she's so successful if you're not British. She is a classic British Grotesque. A larger than life sterotypical comic character who has somehow been shoe-horned into an ostensibly serious drama. Analogues of her exist all over British (and Australian) soaps, and one thing you will notice about them is because they are comedy characters, they only seem to interact with other characters in comedy situations. It would be rare for example to find Hilda Ogden consoling a character who has just been the victim of a particularly realistic and savage rape for example. This is not to say it doesn't happen, but it takes a damn good actor and writer to pull it off, without permanently breaking the comedy persona.

Having said that Hilda is a comedy stereotype, you do actually meet people like her from time to time, but the weird thing is that although these people appear to have been the basis for a character like Hilda, they also to a certain extent base their OWN behaviour on characters like her. The Del Boy character in Only Fools And Horses is another example of this - to this day London is full of Del Boys...but it's harder to know which came first, the character or the prototype.

Lovely Jubbley!

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Janjy Giggins 8 years, 11 months ago

As someone growing up in a deprived ex-milltown (ex-mills and ex-town: Thatcher abolished us as a town in our own right) on the outskirts of Manchester in the 1980s and with a foot in both middle- and working-class camps, I always hated Coronation Street for its depiction of my part of the world. It seemed so utterly unlike my everyday life - an outsider's stereotyped vision of a comedy 'North' that didn't seem to really exist (this despite the fact a few of my school contemporaries actually ended up acting on the show). I'm sure that's probably not entirely fair - we didn't watch it after I was very young so my opinion was based on early memories and bits I caught at friends' and relatives' houses - but whenever I did see a bit, it really annoyed me.

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Dan 8 years, 11 months ago

On the face of it it seems a strange exercise to compare these two shows, but you make a good argument around the attempt to make soapify Who.

You must be aware of the roots of Coronation Street in the kitchen sink theatre and films of the late fifties on; Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey, This Sporting Life (with Bill Hartnell) etc etc. Before that the working class were never properly depicted in theatre or films. The pub section of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land is a good example of the syndrome. By the time you reach 1979, the setting starts to be a bit dated though, as Janjy avers to. (A lot of people knew this - working class people anyway. It offered a nostalgia for community as communities declined.) But it's coming out of a Golden Age as far as working class people in the arts is concerned.

And I think you do need to understand Hilda in the context suggested by Spacewarp - the worry about her seems a little too sentitive, and there are other characters in the show. Really, if someone's going to take Hilda as a role model, they were going to be not far off that to start with, and much better to admire Elsie Tanner.

And it's nothing compared to some of what we have now, the working or underclass (often mixed up) now demonised as "chavs" (not a very good word) and approximately 75% of the population self-identifying as middle class - but they can't all be on middle class wages. I imagine the situation you describe with the Republican support base is a lot more extreme than anything reflected by Coronation Street around that time, as is the demonisation of the underclass in the UK.

You're analysis explains a bit why Dr Who was in such an awful timeslot. It wasn't nearly as fun watching Dr Who on a school night, and the show felt devalued, and it clashed with shows other people wanted to watch, and worst of all it clashed with The Tube on Channel 4. (This is probably what caused us finally to get a video recorder. Most families didn't have more than one TV in the house yet.)

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elvwood 8 years, 11 months ago

Phil, your description of the essence of soap made me realise that their plot structure comes from fantasy anyway - the overlapping stories, making sure all the plots never end at once is right out of Scheherazade. And, of course, you've got the voyeuristic aspect too (at least once Richard Burton gets his hands on it).

My family were avid Coronation Street watchers in the 60s and 70s, as well as Who fans. We were also firmly Middle Class (albeit at the poorer end) and not particularly politically aware, but even I enjoyed getting to know the characters. And I second Spacewarp's description of Hilda Ogden as a Grotesque - I certainly didn't take her as an exemplar of the Working Class!

Anyway, yet another good post, with plenty to ponder...

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elvwood 8 years, 11 months ago

Nah, it's since Warriors' Gate... </tongue-in-cheek>

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Spacewarp 8 years, 11 months ago

As an aside I do so want to photoshop the TARDIS onto the end of your Coronation Street picture.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 8 years, 11 months ago

I can see the grotesque argument. Though it's certainly not the one she's been historicized as being. I mean, I didn't dive into sociological studies of the impact of Coronation Street or archival binges of tabloid clippings on the show, but the bulk of comments I can find on Hilda focused largely on her dignity and capturing of the working class spirit, not on her being particularly funny. How much this is actually in line with her reception at the time is, of course, up in the air, and as you point out, the causation in such things is always wibbly.

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Dougie 8 years, 11 months ago

You mean you've never seen the scene where Hilda gets Stan's glasses after his death? If you have tears, etc. etc....

Not only is the Kitchen Sink drama a huge signifier for Corrie, you've also got "Hobson's Choice", its grandparent. But if you want to witness what would happen if Who and Corrie collided, I'd suggest Paul Magrs' novel "The Blue Angel".

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Alan 8 years, 11 months ago

I have little to say as my knowledge of "Coronation Street" comes almost entirely from jokes made about it on "Are You Being Served." The most interesting thing about this post is the suggestion that JNT was actively trying to apply soap opera aesthetics to DW. If so, he understood soap operas even less than he did sci-fi/fantasy. There's a lot more to good soap operas than people standing around and shouting at one another which is nearly all I remember about Davison's first season. The show resolutely refused to address any of the characters' emotions except for Tegan's bizarre obsession with getting back to her job as a flight attendant (neither the death of Auntie Vanessa nor the practical concern of how to explain away Auntie Vanessa's death when she was last seen in Tegan's company are ever addressed again). Oh, and Adric's fairly aggressive misogyny, which is never explained or used for any dramatic purpose except to make the audience dislike him.

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William Whyte 8 years, 11 months ago

As others have said, this is another great post, full of fresh and surprising insights.

On the question of why Doctor Who didn't work as soap, you say the following, which is true as far as it goes: The ability to build these character moments is based on the long-term consistency of characters - on the fact that Annie and Hilda are behaving in line with over a decade of previous stories. But Nathan-Turner never really pays the sort of attention to long-term character needed to do things like this. The lack of any reaction among Nyssa, Tegan, and the Master after what happens in Logopolis badly undermines the soap tendencies of Doctor Who, because a soap savvy audience recognizes those moments as the very definition of ones in which the history of characters is supposed to pay off.

But I'd put a different emphasis on it. It's not so much long-term character as the relationship between character and plot, or between character and situation. In soap, the setting is fixed and the plot drivers come from either new characters arriving (there's a new family in the Square!) or existing characters thinking of new things they want to do. In Doctor Who, the change of setting is the point and the long-running characters are mainly acted on by the setting rather than initiating the action within it.

To put it another way, consistency of character is greatly enhanced by consistency of setting. Nyssa never really follows up with the Master about Traken because by the time she sees him again we're somewhere else and we have something else to think about. The Master's series of insane plans are, to an extent, only able to be as insane as they are because he can pop in his TARDIS and run away. If he had to stick around in the Square, or take his regular seat at the Rovers, after a plan had fallen through, he'd take more care to come up with a plan that was more defensible (and probably less pants) in the first place. And the TARDIS crew's failure to act as evolving characters is also in part because they can just run away; yes, Tegan cracks in Resurrection of the Daleks, but without warning, and that's because when you can run away there's no point making a small complaint about the situation, it's either all or nothing.

You see aspects of this in other shows too: BSG is a fundamentally soapy setting, with subplots prompted by individual characters' motivations, while Blakes' 7 (post series 2) tends to showcase the setting-of-the-week and so is less about character (although it's still an interesting midpoint between Doctor Who and proper SF-as-soap).

This isn't a unique failing of JNT, obviously. Up until Season 24, Doctor Who is a series of set-pieces, usually visual ones, along with familiar faces to ease the transition from one to another. JNT was just using the DNA of the show he got, and if it's a DNA that even Robert Holmes and Douglas Adams weren't really interested in changing, it's hard to put unique responsibility on JNT for failing to change it too. But it's interesting how easily Andrew Cartmel was able to start pushing the show in a more properly character-driven direction, while still preserving the old virtues, when he decided to put his mind to it.

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BerserkRL 8 years, 11 months ago

it’s difficult to imagine two genres that are more diametrically disdainful of one another

And yet many soap operas have incorporated sf themes -- in America at least.

the downfall of the very notion of community that Thatcherism heralded with its declaration that society didn’t exist

And yet anarcho-communist Emma Goldman said exactly the same thing.

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tantalus1970 8 years, 11 months ago

I'd agree with Spacewarp about Hilda Ogden. My mum is from Salford and most working class people I knew regarded Hilda as a Grotesque to be laughed at (but it's not a term they would have used, which is one of the reasons she's not often described as one; the other reason is that describing a working-class character as a Grotesque will still get you into trouble in some parts of the UK media, even when it's true!)

Bear in mind British soaps were expected to be funny (laugh-out-loud funny as opposed to witty) in a way that US soaps I've seen aren't. Basil Fawlty, and later Victor Meldrew, wouldn't be out of place in a soap. One of the things Eastenders was heavily criticised for was not buying into that idea.

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Dan 8 years, 11 months ago

Some characters went through cycles of being more or less comic characters, e.g. Jack Duckworth.

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Andrew Hickey 8 years, 11 months ago

I think any honest Who fan would have to accept that the show has had soap-operatic tendencies from the beginning, and certainly from the Pertwee era. Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke met while they were both working on Crossroads, after all. And Barry Letts, of course, went on to work on Eastenders, including directing its single most ambitious episode.

It's not true that SF/F and soap are the only long-form serialised texts, at least not in the UK. The most notable would be sitcom - Last Of The Summer Wine ran for nearly forty years, and Only Fools And Horses for around twenty (and of course both Who and Coronation Street borrow a lot from sitcom). There are also drama shows that are sort of borderline cases, like The Bill or Casualty.

Finally, in defence of the lack of black people in Coronation Street in the 70s - unfortunately that is just accurate. And that's because Coronation Street is set in North Manchester, rather than South Manchester.

In South Manchester, in say Rusholme or Levenshulme or Fallowfield or Longsight, you get truly integrated areas. White working class people whose families have lived in Manchester forever will live on the same street as elderly Jamaicans who came over on the Windrush, third-generation British Muslims whose grandparents come from Pakistan, Irish pub landlords and middle-class students slumming it. They won't all necessarily get on, but they live on the same streets, shop in the same shops and so on.

In North Manchester, on the other hand, in Crumpsall or Blackley or Harpurhey, say, you get very strictly defined ethnic areas with no crossover between them. There is the Muslim area, the Jewish area and so on. Very few black people (as in African-Carribean, as opposed to the wider definition of black to include all people who have darker skin than me - it's difficult here because this is a USian blog and I'm British and the acceptable language is different) live in North Manchester compared to South Manchester - in the three years I lived in Blackley I don't think I saw *any* in the area (not that I keep a note or anything, but YKWIM). There's a *lot* of racism in the area, too - the Bastard Nazi Party and before them the NF have had a lot of support there.

I don't know Salford as well as I know other bits of North Manchester, but even now its population is only 1.5% black or mixed-race, while in Hulme in South Manchester it's 22%. These areas are walking distance from each other, but they're worlds apart as far as ethnic mix goes. And those are figures from the last decade. In the late 70s you could probably count the individual black people living in the whole of North Manchester by yourself.

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Carey 8 years, 11 months ago

The mistake you're making with Hilda Ogden is thinking she represents a tv soap opera character. She doesn't. As Spacewarp says above, she's a grotesque, and her literary origins are in Charles Dickens. And for all her grotesquery, she was designed primarily, along with her husband Stan and their lodger Eddie Yates, as comic grotesques in the Dickensian milieu, and that troika is responsible for her popularity: Stan, in particular, was a prototype Homer Simpson in his workshyness, and the source of much of Hilda's bitterness toward the world. Yet she could still evoke incredible sympathy, especially after the death (bought about by the actors real life demise) of Stan: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXhp1J0Usng

Had she been the only working class character in Coronation Street, then your critique of her would have been apt, but considering she is surrounded by other (admittedly equally) stereotyped representations of the northern working class, then she merely a representation of one aspect of her class.

Of course, the other thing Coronation Street does that generally goes unremarked upon, is exploit something only episodic television does well, and Doctor Who in theory tries to do, which is tell the story of one character in real time. But were Coronation Street wins is that one actor has dedicated his life to playing the same character since its very first episode. William Roache appeared as Ken Barlow in the very first episode in December 1960, and fifty-two years later is still essaying the same role. If you ever wanted a sequel to Doctor Who being a continuing narrative, then Ken Barlow would be a great subject, starting out as a radical university educated working class man returning home to the scorn of those who feel he left them behind and now looks down upon them; to a married man who can never quite escape from the street he was born; to a conservative pensioner, witness to the changes in society around him. While it’s possible to write something along these lines in other mediums (JK Rowling’s Harry Potter charts the course of a boy’s school life from entering secondary school to leaving it), only William Roach (and his script writers) has done so in real time. Indeed, many believe that Coronation Street should end when he leaves, feeling the narrative of the street and the character are too intertwined for the soap to continue.

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Wm Keith 8 years, 11 months ago

I think you were perhaps a little unfortunate with your choice of December 1979 for your soap-watch. Late 1970s soaps were a television backwater. "Coronation Street" had started off as a modern kitchen-sink drama. By 1979 it was, though immensely popular, ten years out of date in terms both of production techniques, scripting, and its anachronistic setting. This wasn't a problem for "Coronation Street" alone, though "Emmerdale Farm" at least had the benefit of not being set in a bustling modern city.

Within a couple of years, the landscape had changed. Channel 4 launched "Brookside" in 1982, designed to be everything that "Coronation Street" was not - filmed in real houses on a 1980s middle-class housing estate, the storylines and characters were intended to be realistic, modern, and deliberately controversial. Even before the BBC's launch of "Coronation Street" and "Neighbours" in the mid-1980s, "Coronation Street" had made significant changes. In contrast, "Crossroads" did not adapt, and it died.

One parallel that you have missed, though, is the nostalgia factor which seemed to bind "Coronation Street" and "Doctor Who" together through the 1980s - one or the other of them always seemed to be celebrating a 20th or 25th anniversary.

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Wm Keith 8 years, 11 months ago

That's the BBC's launch of "EastEnders"...

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elvwood 8 years, 11 months ago

I can't believe I forgot to mention this! Punk band Splodgenessabounds has a song called "Anarchy Chaos Stanley Ogden" on their eponymous 1981 album, which is all about Coronation Street. It's not quite as informative as your essay, but at least it hits the timeframe you're looking at...

(Personally I prefer The Malcolm Opera, which is all about a TV commercial from the period; but the whole album's worth a listen, if you like that sort of thing)

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Anton B 8 years, 11 months ago

Also Coronation Street has the honour of presenting what must be a contender for the first post-modern reference in soap. Punk-pop one-hit wonder 'Jilted John' aka drama student Graham Fellowes appeared in The Street in the late seventies as a walk-on at a bus stop bemoaning his'jilted' status to Gail Potter mere months after charting with his record 'Jilted John'. Also Louise (Leela) Jameson revived her TV career in Eastenders playing the Italian matriarch of the De Marco family. Coronation Street also gave the world Davy Jones of the Monkees (he played Ena Sharples nephew in the sixties)and boasts a long line of serious thespians desperate to cameo on the cobbles including Laurence Olivier |(who sadly never achieved his wish) Ian (Gandalf/Magneto)McKellan and currently Robert(Man from Uncle)Vaughn.

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Alan 8 years, 11 months ago

There was also a long line of serious thespians desperate to play super-villains in the "Batman" TV show. I'm just sayin'.:)

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elvwood 8 years, 11 months ago

Coronation Street also [...] boasts a long line of serious thespians desperate to cameo on the cobbles including Laurence Olivier |(who sadly never achieved his wish) Ian (Gandalf/Magneto)McKellan and currently Robert(Man from Uncle)Vaughn.

And Derek Jacobi, who said it was his remaining ambition after appearing in Doctor Who in 2007...

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Billy Smart 8 years, 11 months ago

Does anyone know anything about Patrick Troughton's stint on Coronation Street in 1974? None of his character's - George Barton - episodes are on the Network Coronation Street DVDs.

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Wm Keith 8 years, 11 months ago

What is "serious thespian" supposed to mean in this context?

It often means "actor who has achieved fame through Shakespearian stage roles", but that's clearly not the case here, with Napoleon Solo on the list.

"Actor who has achieved fame by appearing in a form of drama which is not soap opera?"

David Tennant would almost certainly count as a "serious thespian". But is his career more "serious" than that of, say, William Hartnell or Jon Pertwee?

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Kat42 8 years, 6 months ago

Interesting that you would say that Eastenders wasn't meant to be as funny. I know it got dark, but it seemed to me that this happened on other u.k. soaps too. I am not very familiar with Coronation Street, but what I am seeing of the description of this character is reminding me of Dot Cotton. She was absolutely awful in her earlier years and was laughed at, but was so beloved that she ended up softening quite a bit. Then again I guess she had some pretty heart wrenching scenes with Nick too, so maybe she didn't always quite work as the funny character.

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GarrettCRW 8 years, 6 months ago

And, by this argument, it can be added that at least one network, ABC, had an almost all-day network lineup on Saturdays in 1981, as all three networks had Saturday morning cartoons, and ABC had Wide World of Sports, which was in all seriousness the dominant year-round sports program in the US until the regional sports networks started popping up in the '90s. (Additionally, NBC had the Game of the Week during baseball season and CBS had coverage of college football during the fall to act as a bridge between their Saturday morning cartoons and the prime time schedules.)

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David Gerard 7 years, 1 month ago


Cricketer! Cricketer!

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