Street lies

Social Realism - Patrick West argues that <em>Coronation Street</em> represents a reality it has hel

During four years spent living in south Manchester, I was told many a horror tale about Salford. "It's run by gangsters", "ten-year-olds roam the street mugging students", "burglars use Uzis to raid houses" - that kind of thing.

Although such scare stories may have exaggerated the facts somewhat, Salford certainly was desperately run down. And today (as viewers of Newsnight will appreciate), the area stands as a kind of icon of inner-city decay - a desolate, boarded-up, crime-ridden community of strangers. In this respect, Coronation Street, which celebrates its 40th anniversary on 9 December, has since always struck me as a decidedly unrealistic portrayal of life in Salford, where the soap opera is notionally set. The programme seems hopelessly stuck in the Macmillan era, in a time when people spoke to their neighbours, or knew them, or at least had neighbours. In the real world, people care more about fictional television characters than they do about real neighbours. The Salford we see in Coronation Street seems to exist today only in fiction.

It may be argued that one factor in the demise of close-knit inner-city communities has been the growth of the television soap opera itself. That is to say, Coronation Street has not only supplanted the community it is meant to represent, but actually helped to destroy it.

The postwar age of television has seen a gradual retreat from the outside world into a virtual, cocooned one. Often, when traditional industries were collapsed, television offered passive, immersing, undemanding comfort, far easier than the cruel real world, full of difficult people who answered back. In this, television soaps are now our true "imagined communities".

Television's immediate allure chiefly lies in its accessibility and ubiquity. Unlike drama in pre-television days, the entire population can follow soap operas. In the real world, you can gossip about your neighbours only to other neighbours: you can communally mull over Jim McDonald's alcoholism, or Curly Watts's marriage to potentially anybody. What's more, they don't also gossip about you.

Fiction has become the new reality, and it matters dearly. The News of the World recently carried an exclusive report and pictures from the 40th anniversary episode of Coronation Street, announcing: "This is the harrowing moment Corrie's Vera Duckworth hovers on the brink of death in a kidney-swap drama." Viewers behave as if they know and care about these characters. The trials and tribulations of Deirdre Rachid or Frank Butcher are frequently the first port of call for people engaging in conversation, as well as front-page "news" in the red-top tabloids.

More dramatic televisual goings-on in the world of soaps invade reality in more spectacular fashion. Two years ago, the incarceration of the Street's Deirdre Rachid prompted protests outside Granada Studios and messages of support from William Hague and Tony Blair, whose spokesman asserted sternly: "Deirdre Rachid is innocent and should be free". Similarly, the wrongful imprisonment last year of Matthew Rose for the manslaughter of Saskia Duncan in EastEnders spawned the "Free the Walford One" campaign.

Of course, this is all seen as a joke. Some viewers, however, don't get it. During the "Free the Walford One" campaign, Martin Kemp, the actor who plays Steve Owen (who actually murdered Saskia) was accosted by an old lady in a supermarket who called him a bastard; he was also subjected to chants of "guilty" in a Soho restaurant. Similarly, the actor Bill Tarmey, who plays Coronation Street's Jack Duckworth, received dozens of cheques, some even made out to "Jack Duckworth", after appearing on the programme in spectacles held together with a plaster.

We are often told that British soap operas mirror a harsh, gritty reality. Events in soap operas such as car crashes and teenage pregnancies do reflect real occurrences, and generate empathetic and emotional responses. Storylines unfold in a narrative structure similar to our own: the characters age in real time, and there is always another day. Soaps, unlike dramas, have no closure.

Yet the appeal of soaps lies not in their realism, but their escapism. The Daily Mirror may have scoffed in 1960 that Coronation Street, spawned by the contemporary fashion for sink dramas, was "doomed from the start with its dreary signature tune and grim series of terraced houses and smoking chimneys", but we watch it for the opposite reason now: to escape to a world where there is a sense of community; to a hermetically sealed world where no one talks about politics; where chimneys, not satellite dishes, proliferate on the roofs of terraced houses; where television itself does not really exist.

If soap operas were genuinely realistic, they would collapse under the weight of their own contradictions - because in television land, people never watch television. Were the Rovers Return or the Queen Vic authentic pubs, the punters would be gossiping about what's been happening in Coronation Street and EastEnders that evening - leaving the characters helplessly trapped in an impossibly self- referential world. "Deirdre, love, I can't believe what I saw on Coronation Street tonight." "Don't wurry about it, Ken, there's no harm in being a fictional character. I got used to not existing ages ago."

In TV-world, the television does not exist. In the real world, the "real world" portrayed by soaps does not exist, either. Television has helped destroy it. Like Joe E Lewis, who said "I drink to forget I drink", we watch soaps to forget that we have been alienated and atomised by television.

Patrick West is an obituary writer for the Times