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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

28 Comments

  1. Tony B
    February 20, 2012 @ 12:29 am

    "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?

    Reply

  2. Grant, the Hipster Dad
    February 20, 2012 @ 12:51 am

    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, MAS*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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  3. Spacewarp
    February 20, 2012 @ 3:31 am

    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!

    Reply

  4. Janjy Giggins
    February 20, 2012 @ 3:43 am

    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.

    Reply

  5. Dan
    February 20, 2012 @ 5:29 am

    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.)

    Reply

  6. elvwood
    February 20, 2012 @ 6:33 am

    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…

    Reply

  7. elvwood
    February 20, 2012 @ 6:36 am

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

    Reply

  8. Spacewarp
    February 20, 2012 @ 6:41 am

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

    Reply

  9. Elizabeth Sandifer
    February 20, 2012 @ 6:43 am

    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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  10. Dougie
    February 20, 2012 @ 9:18 am

    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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  11. Alan
    February 20, 2012 @ 9:38 am

    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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  12. William Whyte
    February 20, 2012 @ 9:45 am

    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.

    Reply

  13. BerserkRL
    February 20, 2012 @ 9:55 am

    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.

    Reply

  14. tantalus1970
    February 20, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    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.

    Reply

  15. Dan
    February 20, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

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

    Reply

  16. Andrew Hickey
    February 20, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

    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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  17. Carey
    February 20, 2012 @ 11:21 pm

    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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  18. Wm Keith
    February 21, 2012 @ 12:38 am

    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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  19. Wm Keith
    February 21, 2012 @ 12:39 am

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

    Reply

  20. elvwood
    February 21, 2012 @ 1:27 am

    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)

    Reply

  21. Anton B
    February 21, 2012 @ 6:21 am

    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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  22. Alan
    February 21, 2012 @ 10:01 am

    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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  23. elvwood
    February 21, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

    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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  24. Billy Smart
    February 21, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

    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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  25. Wm Keith
    February 22, 2012 @ 12:27 am

    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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  26. Kat42
    July 14, 2012 @ 5:21 am

    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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  27. GarrettCRW
    July 14, 2012 @ 7:10 pm

    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.)

    Reply

  28. David Gerard
    December 1, 2013 @ 2:34 am

    "cricketeer"

    Cricketer! Cricketer!

    Reply

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