Thursday, January 14, 2010


Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island managed, in my opinion, to temper a crotchety, Yank-skewed (though considerably Anglicized after 20 years’ exposure) view of Britain with genuine humor and affection. I’m going to try to emulate his style to the point of focusing on the small details as they seem to bring out the most authenticity and humor, but with the attempt to detail the things I wish I’d know when I came to this country, and the stuff I’d tell you before coming here that wouldn’t be in the guide book. I will try, anyway.
The first time I saw Coronation Street, I was in Spain. BBC World Service was one of the few stations we could get from the time share. My friend and I—two Americans living in France, on holiday in Spain—were in Torremolinos, swamped by English ex-pats (though that’s not what this vignette is about; we’ll come back to that). The point is, I, an experienced Anglophile, had never before heard that sad, old-fashioned tune, had never seen that old road sign that welcomed you to “Coronation Street.” I had heard of the programme, of course, knew of its longevity (heavens, it was older than Doctor Who!), and knew it was beloved.

I believe this was a “classic” episode of Coronation Street; it was most certainly not contemporaneous to the year of 2005. It was bizarre to be watching a winter story with pints and fights and tears and angry northern accents in southern Spain where, even in February, it was almost warm enough for t-shirts. I concluded with a sense of bewilderment, as the credits ran silently (which meant, I knew that much, that a character had died), that it was Not Actually Very Good.

One of the first things I had to learn when coming to Britain was the difference in status between soaps in Britain and soap operas in America. In America, as far as I could tell, soaps were on in the daytime, to be watched by old people and stay-at-home moms. They had bad acting and tortured storylines. I had never followed any and didn’t know anyone who did.

In Britain, soaps are almost considered serious television. They are shown at prime time, make an appearance several times a week, and are followed voraciously by people of all ages and all walks of life. They don’t have “seasons” and “reruns” as we do in America. They go on and on and on, providing steady work for actors and writers for years. At certain times you find omnibus editions of your favorite soap to catch up on what you’ve missed. (Sundays in 2006 I used to spend watching the English-language omnibus of Welsh-language soap Pobol y Cwm.) The Christmas specials of the big soaps are unmissable events.

The big soaps, of course, are the aforementioned Coronation Street, East Enders (identified by the bewilderingly ‘80s THUM-THUM-THUM-THUM of its theme tune), and Emmerdale. The first takes place around Albert Square in a northern town, the second in the East End of London, and the third in a farm somewhere. You notice, of course, that they all share a focal point of a location—similar, I think, to American soaps and many TV shows in general. From these big ones you go onto lesser tiers, until you get into stuff like Hollyoaks, universally derided and watched by a certain segment of the population. I admit, because my housemate in university was addicted to Hollyoaks, I watched it too. What was I thinking?!

I’ve never been quite up on what separates lower-tier soaps from police procedural dramas or hospital dramas. My boyfriend never quite explained to me how one of his favorite shows, The Bill, devolved from a serious police show to a soap in its strange current timeslot of post-watershed. Are Holby City or Doctors soaps? Perhaps it’s all in how involved and contrived the storylines are: I would walk up in the middle of East Enders or Emmerdale and ask what was going on. I would hear a stream of names and who had tried to kill who, who had succeeded, who was actually someone’s brother and they would be about to commit incest, but it never quite sunk in.

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