Realism in British Soap Opera

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Realism in British Soap Opera

Using a media text as a key example, evaluate selected techniques of fictional production which contribute to a sense of realism consistent with genre or format used.

Many have defined the term realism but these definitions by Watt and Williams can be easily applied to my choice of media text, which is the British soap opera.

Fiske writes that Watt and Williams “….tend to define it by its content. Watt traces its origins to the rise of the novel in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” And Williams “…whose historical perspective covers the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, lists three main characteristics of realism in drama: he finds that it has a contemporary setting, that it concerns itself with secular action … and that it is “socially extended”.

( Television Culture, John Fiske, Routledge, 1997, P.21 – 22)

To expand on Williams’ three characteristics, the contemporary setting means that the drama should be set in the present day or at least modern times that the present audience are likely to have lived in. When the drama “concerns itself with secular action” this means that the events that take place within the drama are about people and described in human terms. The term “socially extended” means that the events in the drama revolve around the lives of ordinary people and not kings or social leaders. Williams definition can be seen to relate to the working class and their experience of subordination in industrial society.

These are three of the generic characteristics found in the British soap opera. Coronation Street is one of Britain’s most successful soap operas where all of these characteristics can be seen clearly. The contemporary setting can be seen through the iconography used such as the modern cars, the clothes and issues that are discussed in the programme such as general elections. In soap opera this contemporary setting goes further than just modern day, they like to appear as if to be on the same day as the audience watching. This is achieved by covering the general elections as mentioned and characters making reference to the weekend in a Friday episode.

The “Secular Action” in Coronation Street is clear as the narrative is character driven and the events are always seen from the characters point of view. “Secular Action“ is particularly prevalent in Corona...

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... record 29 million people watched an episode of Coronation Street in which Alan Bradley – who had been beating his wife Rita – was run over by a tram. After he had been “killed off” Mark Eden, who played Alan, was hit over the head with an umbrella in a shop. Viewers have also been known to send wreaths to television companies after characters have “died.””( Alex Duval Smith, Guardian, Education, Nov1 1994)

In conclusion, the techniques used to contribute to sense of realism in the British soap opera include the three characteristics that Williams outlines. These are the use of a contemporary setting, the soap must concern itself with secular action and the soap should be socially extended.

Other techniques that soap opera makers employ are the use of naturalism in the sets and characters, the time paralleling real time, the coverage of everyday issues as well as the big issues which actually happen very rarely but are very real.

However the programme makers occasionally fail in their attempts to portray the real with the omission of gay characters and the closeness of all the residents of their particular area, which in real life is virtually non-existent.

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