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

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide