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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Why we're awash with sorry soaps

By Norman Lebrecht / April 4, 2001

Life's too much of a soap opera.

A SMALL town in Germany finds itself in the news again - not for any gruesome murder or rail disaster, but for the latest twist in the tortuous affairs of its leading family. It's a familiar tale. Octogenarian patriarch won't yield power. Estranged daughter of his first marriage raises a political army to oust him. Nieces and neighbours take sides. But the incumbent digs in, clinging on until his beloved last-born is ready to take over.

We have witnessed this scenario in a dozen cliched soaps - from primetime Dynasty to daytime dross - and that, it seems, is what is now drawing the world's eyes to Bayreuth. The festival itself is of esoteric interest, an ossified shrine to a long-dead composer. But the 81-year-old Wolfgang Wagner's bid to hand his grandfather's grail to his 22-year-old daughter Katharina, bypassing her senior siblings, is a classic watch-me serial: more soap than Wagnerian opera.

True, there is a political issue. The Bavarian government, which gave Wolfgang a contract for life and 4 million Deutschmarks (£1.1 million) a year in subsidies, has just switched allegiances to his elder daughter, Eva. The federal government has also told Wolfgang to hand over to the wild-haired Eva, 55, who is described in the German press somewhat flatteringly as "a former head of London's Royal Opera", where her achievements were invisible. Wolfgang, for his part, maintained last week that his contract is inviolate and he will resist all political pressures to retire.

The next episode is now shooting. In fetid Wahnfried, the Wagner headquarters, rumours abound of an alliance, perhaps a romance, between the nationalist conductor Christian Thielemann and the fair Katharina. You couldn't make it up? That's the beauty of soap.

It has reached the point where art and media have become reliant on soap values to capture our flickering attention. Millions in Germany and around the world who will never visit Bayreuth or watch a Wagner opera, start to finish, now follow the family feud as avidly as they watched Big Brother. At least two spin-off books are in preparation, maybe a movie.

Art, once the summit of human endeavour, has lost its pride of place. Tomorrow night, an expected 20 million people - a third of the British nation - will stay at home to find out who shot Phil in the BBC's EastEnders. Never mind that the story lacks the faintest semblance of originality, being a pallid replay of "Who Shot JR?" in the unforgotten Dallas. Never mind, too, that no one - apart from his screen mother, the newly rewigged Barbara Windsor - could care two hoots who fired the shot. Phil, like JR, arouses no more emotion than a Punch and Judy puppet. He is there to be gawped at, not cared about.

Dr Mallory Wober, a former deputy head of research for Independent Television, reported that audience appreciation for soaps usually ran several points lower than for current affairs and classical music. But the ratings were much higher, and soap loyalty often bred channel loyalty. So ITV slashed news and banned serious music, sacrificing fact and art on the altar of soap.

Those losses continue. Many who planned, tomorrow night, to go to the cinema, theatre, opera, concert, dance-hall or evening class will be derouted by a half-hour of television that cannot possibly enhance their existence. They will swap art or fun for soap, because - in the BBC slogan - "everybody's talking about it". To miss the episode risks damage to their social and working lives, being left out of dinner-table and water-cooler huddles.

Soap increasingly lords it over art. West End plays stand or fall by billing a former soap idol in a leading role. The Arts Council dispenses grants for "creative" writing courses in soap opera.

Covent Garden invites soap stars to an ill-attended premiere in the vain hope that their glamour might attract an audience. Lord Bragg, from his late-night mousehole on commercial TV, proclaims that television has become "our real national theatre".

While art suffers, soap diversifies into ever-cleverer blurrings of fantasy and reality. Big Brother, Survivor, Chained and countless docu-soaps on wig-makers and lapdancers have devised a voyeuristic drama with which traditional stage and curtain cannot hope to compete. Lord Bragg lauds soap opera as "the People's Art Form". When he was growing up, the People reached high for art. Now they stare into the living-room corner and watch seedy reflections of themselves.

Bishops have bewailed the triumph of soap over faith. Dr Wober, in his new book, Media and Monarchy, suggests that the Royal Family has become a mirror of the mundanity manifested in soaps. He gives soap some value as short-term historical record, but what, one wonders, will future generations make of us if they view our age through the shooting of Phil?

  • A new series of '' begins on Radio 3 at 6.45 tonight with a discussion of soap opera culture. To join in the debate you can call on 08700 100 444 from 6pm, or email

    4 January 2001: What should be done about Bayreuth?

    Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




  • (c) La Scena Musicale 1999