Suds and duds

The goings-on in a small cul-de-sac in Melbourne’s suburbs have been captivating audiences, more or less, for 20 years. The small country town of Wandin Valley once had the then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, visit. A block of units in Melbourne (again) was subjected to serial killers, rapists, stalkers, peeping toms and a bomb. A smaller country town’s goings-on kept ABC viewers, particularly country ones, entranced for many years. A family’s travails during World War II were melodramatically presented week after week.

Many of those hours we wasted watching Australian soap operas are documented in this valuable social record. I must confess to having watched some of them voluntarily and some of them involuntarily (the little diplomacies we make with those with whom we live). Some of them I denied watching (but had an uncannily accurate ‘guess’ as to what was happening each episode the next day). Most were beneath even my standards.

For better or worse, television was the major medium of the 20th century and retains a strong foothold in the 21st (though as time passes and new technologies come to the fore, we will probably see its decline in popularity). The mix of news, information and entertainment changed home life forever, and the new medium trounced nearly all other entertainment. Vaudeville reappeared on television. Radio lost its vast audience, being a dominant social force for really only one generation. Cinema survived, but not without new approaches to movie-making. Theatre struggles on. Television is the dominant info-entertainment paradigm.

Australian soaps are among the highest export-dollar earners. Since No. 96, Australian soaps have been exported and franchised. And many of Australia’s top stars (Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Kylie Minogue) and most respected local actors and actresses (Charles Tingwell, Michael Caton, Lorraine Bayly) appeared in soaps. Sometimes they were serial soap-performers.

Of course, soaps were and are often ridiculous, inconsistent and exaggerated. That is part of the point. Where once we spoke of the capricious acts of the gods, we now speak of the capricious goings-on of Ramsay Street residents or ‘those flamin’ kids’ of Summer Bay. There has been this tendency for popular, trite entertainment for centuries. Most of it is ephemeral. Some of it turns out to be more than it seemed. I doubt we’ll see Sons and Daughters turning up in literature courses in 150 years, or being published as ‘a classic’, though you never know.

The book is arranged initially by soap. Not all the soaps are here. Always Greener, for example, is mentioned but not dealt with. The pretentious Secret Life of Us gets its own chapter. Minor soaps such as Kings (with Ed Devereaux) and Medical Examiner (with Paul Cronin) are missing (though they were short-lived, anyway). Towards the end, there are thematic chapters. The reality soap Sylvania Waters, with its
controversial matriarch Noeline Donaher, gets examined and contrasted with Big Brother, which executive producer Tim Clucas correctly divined, not as a reality show or a contest, but as a soap opera. There is also a chapter on soap spoofs, from Norman Gunston’s Checkout Chicks, to the sketch show Full Frontal’s ‘Dumb Street’, to the Ray Martin Show’s ‘A Town like Dallas’, to Kath &Kim.

Written with a fond nostalgia, and with just enough tongue in cheek not to disappear in post-modernist theory, this is not a book for those who believe culture is in decay. It is a celebration of low culture, and an interesting chapter at the end attempts to work out what makes one soap successful (for example, A Country Practice) and another die out (The Secret Life of Us). The reader will be reminded, repulsed and then rejoice as old friends and nemeses reappear. I commend this book to those with an interest in popular culture and television. I do not recommend it to uninterested parties. It’s preaching to the choir, and I doubt it will gain any converts, though waverers be warned: you may be pushed into the crevasse.

Whether the soaps phenomenon is malignant, benign or beneficial is a matter for your personal reflection. I imagine they don’t do much harm, and at times they can capture some part of the zeitgeist, as well as documenting how some Australians (sometimes a lot of Australians) were entertained.   

Super Aussie Soaps, Andrew Mercador. Pluto Press, 2004. isbn 1 864 03191 3, rrp $34.95

D. L. Lewis is a historian based in Sydney.



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