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Realism Is a Set of Conventions That We as Viewers Understand, in a Given Historical Moment, to Be a Representation That Corresponds to Reality. Through the Close Analysis of Soap Opera – and with Reference to at Least

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Realism is a set of conventions that we as viewers understand, in a given historical moment, to be a representation that corresponds to reality. Through the close analysis of soap opera – and with reference to at least three academic sources, outline the conventions of realism and explain how they are used effectively in British soaps.

Realism has been universally recorded as the quality of representing a person or situation in an accurate way. Ever since the conversion from radio to television, British soap operas have used realism effectively to attract and sustain audiences. Coronation Street (1960- ), the British soap opera set in a fictional town in Manchester and Eastenders (1985- ), the British soap opera set in a fictional London Borough are currently the two main soap operas in Britain where realism is used effectively to draw audiences. The original producer of Eastenders once commented, “We don’t make life, we reflect it” (Geraghty, 1991:32). This shows that representing reality has always been the main aim in this genre. This also shows that they are not trying to create their own town, with their own conventions, but rather reflect what they see in everyday life into the soap opera.

One main way in which realism is conveyed is by the sense of place and/or community. A sense of place can easily be established by the title sequence alone. For example, Eastenders’ title sequence consists of a map of London’s east end (Allen 1995: 67). This sets up the sense of place, before the show has even started. Many British soap opera has some sort of community for example, Eastenders community is Albert Square. This community consists of a public house, houses, apartments, shops and café’s. Coronation Street’s community is called Weatherfield and consists of similar sets as Eastenders. “For the British soaps – the extension of familiar relationships into the community is very important, enabling a group to be brought together which might otherwise be split by the conflicting interests of age, gender and class.” (Geraghty, 1991:84). In regards to this, the pub is the main set where different people from the community are brought together. Here, Geraghty is claiming that a strong community is important to British soap opera because at the time of when British soap operas emerged, community was important to society. Therefore, creating realism.

The stability of the community is essential, as audiences for soap operas tend to engage with the show as a whole (the community and the characters) rather than individuals. This is why it is imperative that soaps get this area of production right.

However, although the community is a convention of realism, individuals have questioned if how the community gather does represent realism. Many have argued that many communities do not gather at the same pub every night, like what occasionally happens in Eastenders and Coronation Street.

Another convention of realism in British soap opera is the regional accents and characteristics the characters evoke. The accents and characteristics of the characters in soap operas are crucial, as they give a sense of place. (Geraghty, 1991:35) commented “regional authority gives the soaps a sense of specificity crucial to realism and the ability to work with regional characteristics”. Geraghty is claiming that representing a particular region in soap operas effectively evokes originality. It provides “an ‘authentic’ regional experience” (Geraghty, 1991:35). This convention is used effectively in all of the current British soap operas. For example, characters from Eastenders will use jargon specific to London, while characters from Coronation Street will use jargon specific to Manchester. This enhances realism as it shows cultural differences, which is in line with real life. Also, it wouldn’t be realistic if someone from Manchester played a character on Eastenders because their accent wouldn’t be consistent with the accents spoken in the east end of London.

One typical convention that British soap operas use to convey realism is by the issues and problems, also known as themes that the characters encounter. This convention is used effectively to create realism as it showcases characters that seem to be more relatable to the audience. “Some themes are of such significance that they achieve recognition and resonance – and unite or excite or trouble the nation as issues are revealed and explored” (Hobson, 2003: 141). Soap operas not only explore these themes for entertainment purposes but also to create awareness to the public, while also giving examples with how to deal with the issues. British soap operas have used this technique many times. For example Eastenders has addressed the issue of Bipolar disorder, marital violence and cancer. Coronation Street has addressed issues including rape and immigration. Brookside has also addressed real, everyday issues including poverty and industrial disputes.

The most recent and controversial issue is when Ronnie Mitchell’s child died of cot death on New Years Eve. This is an example of when a theme has troubled the nation. This storyline saw over 23,000 viewers complain to the BBC, while Ofcom received over 1,000 complaints (Hooper, 2011). Although Eastenders addressed a real issue that has affected many women around the world, viewers complained about how Ronnie reacted to the death of her child. As a result of Ronnie losing her child, she swapped her baby for Kat’s baby. Viewers that complained expressed their feelings that this was not a correct representation of how women who have suffered cot death would react. They believed that the show was representing them as ‘baby snatchers’.

This is a critical example of Eastenders using real issues and problems experienced in everyday life to create a sense of realism effectively, while also taking the issue too far to make the issue seem less real. However, it could be argued, like many British soap operas, it was simply heightening everyday life for entertainment purposes.

Another convention of realism is the authenticity of class representation. “One of the myths about soap operas is that they are watched by the working classes and that they are about their lives” (Hobson, 2003:119). In the historical context this would be true. For example, it has been widely established that when Coronation Street was first written in the 1960’s, it was intended to represent the northern working class community. British soap operas still centre the show around working class characters, however, as times have changed recently and more working class individuals have shifted class to lower middle class and even middle class. This is also known as the embourgeoisment thesis. This theory argues that, “the specific character of the working class – was gradually eroded so that we were all becoming middle class in our attitudes, values and ways of life.” (Dyer, 1981:3). Soap operas had to include representations of middle classes in the show to maintain realism. For instance, Coronation Street has characters representing all three of those classes: Ken Barlow, in recent years representing the middle class, Tina McIntyre representing lower middle class and Janice Battersby representing the working class. Coronation Street as well as many other leading British soaps like Eastenders and Emmerdale use class representation effectively. By having different levels of classes living and working together, it enhances the feeling of a community, which then enhances a sense of realism.

An accurate representation of class is vital for realism as many classes watch soap operas (mainly working class, lower middle class and middle class) and if they feel like they are not being represented efficiently they may question the realism of the show and begin take offence and stop watching.

An additional convention of realism in British soap opera is the use of temporality. Every episode and storyline is told linearly. A Soap opera episode will never start in the middle or the end. It will always start at the beginning followed by the middle and finally the end, or day going through until the night similar to real life. This may be a simple convention of realism but it is an important one. It helps the characters everyday struggles more relatable to the audience and therefore, real life.

However, one criticism that British soap operas receive is the omission of everyday duties, for example work. (Dyer, 1981:4) in regards to soap operas commented, “work is seldom shown and, when it is, is treated in terms of styles of personal interaction”. Dyer claims that we rarely see characters actually work and when we do, it usually initiates a personal conversation. Work is used to drive the narratives. For example, in Eastenders the work mostly shown involves serving someone: Patrick serving at the Minute Mart, Alfie serving in the Queen Vic or Shirley serving in the Café. Other aspects of real life is also omitted for example, main events: when East London was affected by the riots in the summer, none of the characters mentioned it or were affected by it. This is an example of where soap operas fail to covey realism effectively.

In conclusion, many sources have provided evidence of how realism is used effectively in British soap operas by the sense of place, regional characteristics, class representation, issues and problems and by the concept of temporality. However issues have been raised combating the use of realism in soap operas with the main issue being the omission of the everyday news and duties. Overall, every British soap opera use the same conventions, as it has proved a strong formula to create realism effectively.

References:

GERAGHTY, C., 1991. Women and Soap Opera, A Study of Prime Time Soaps. Cambridge: Polity Press & Blackwell Publishers.

HOBSON, D., 2003. Soap Opera. Cambridge: Polity Press & Blackwell Publishers.

ALLEN, R.C., 1995. To be continued – soaps around the world [eBook]. Oxon: Routledge. Taylor & Francis e-Library [Accessed 6th December 2011]

DYER, R., 1981. Introduction from Dyer, Richard; Geraghty, Christine; Jordan, Marion; Lovell, Terry; Paterson, Richard & Stewart, John, Coronation Street. London: British Film Institute.

HOOPER, C., 2011. Eastenders cleared by Ofcom over baby swap plot [online]. The Metro Newspaper. Available at http://www.metro.co.uk/tv/871037-eastenders-cleared-by-ofcom-over-baby-swap-plot [Accessed 4th December 2011]

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