Revolution in the genre

Television - Zoe Williams on a new breed of soap opera

All good television starts with a teenage girl possessed of preternatural sexual awareness - well, Twin Peaks did, and that was good. She is the miracle topos of telly - a profoundly aberrant character that can't be held accountable (due to youth), can't be resisted (due to cuteness) and can't be controlled (due to an eerie Machiavellian streak). She propels all the grown-ups into high drama (fathers act up, mothers slap - even middle-class ones) and sends her peers into the kind of hormonal spin that could actually cover the energy needs of an entire household, if only we could find a way to tap it. She is moral ambiguity made flesh and trussed up in a hanky of Lycra. And that's before she's even taken her top off.

The fact is, however, she has never turned up in a soap - she's always been restricted to top-flight drama, where we expect a few grey areas and some dark nights of the soul. Imagine the shock when there she was, marching along in the first episode of Night and Day. It's a soap! For the teatime brigade! (Although it is repeated post-pub to include rude bits.) Granted, she disappeared again pretty soon, but her impact stands - she has revolutionised the genre.

Everything we were doing wrong before, we've suddenly done right. Here's a short history of the soap: it started with The Archers, which was an agricultural teaching programme for dumb-arsed farmers who somehow couldn't work out how to change the blade on their combine harvester until they heard it done by a horny-handed radio character.

Then came Corrie, 'Stenders, Brookie and the other two that have never become popular enough to warrant their names being shortened. They may not have had a didactic agenda as such, but they still held themselves to be the moral guardians of the nation. There is bad behaviour, but there's never ambiguous bad behaviour - the man who sleeps with his daughter's best friend behind his wife's back is never manipulated, he's an evil no-good skunk. The promiscuous aren't charmers, they're rats. Those who like the odd tipple will be alcoholics in a trice, as surely as anyone with a cough on American TV always has Aids.

Something about the short, sweet, daily fix of the genre has given it a sense of institutional responsibility - the characters have to be either decent or punished, to protect us all from our creeping decrepitude. The same holds for all Australian imports. They may feature more people in bikinis, but they'd like to make it quite clear that this is not because it's permissive; it is because it's hot.

The minute you see Night and Day, you realise it's a different breed. At first, I thought this was due to its staunchly middle-class bent, which is a joy to behold, due to the lovely glass panels on all the front doors and the (spookily predictable) scene with the muesli and the wood-based kitchen interior.

Then I thought it was because everyone was so dazzling in a genuine, human-style sexy way (as opposed to the synthetic, neon Hollyoaks version of sexiness). It occurred to me that maybe it was the soundtrack (purest pop, through many ages), or the whispers of cheeky humour (a mistress called Jenny Taylor, for instance), or perhaps the dialogue. Except it isn't the dialogue - I doubt you have ever heard two 16-year-olds have this exchange: "We're women now . . . I thought I'd feel . . . different." "Be careful what you wish for, Dellaware. You might just get it." In a spank-based porn flick, immediately prior to the appearance of a raunchy headmaster, maybe - but never in the history of actual mankind.

No, this is new because Night and Day has clearly thought hard about the duty of the soap, and decided to ignore it completely in favour of tongue sandwiches and psychic murk. Which isn't to say it's difficult - it's very easy to watch, full of bright colours and super-fast scene switches to stop you getting bored.

Word on the street is that the show has already run out of money, after about nine episodes, and everyone is very cross with it. It certainly looks expensive, on account of all the pretty clothes, which go far beyond a regular wardrobe department's flowery overall allocation.

On the other hand, the rumours are probably sour grapes - this is to the rest of the soap community what Edward VIII was to the royal family. The one who thought: "Sod it, you lot look after the collective conscience, I'm off to get laid."

Zoe Williams is a columnist on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen is on holiday

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And now the trouble really begins