It was comradely of the BBC to screen a drama, The Road to Coronation Street, to mark the 50th anniversary of television's longest-running soap opera (the pride of rival ITV). And while the story-line was at times confusing for those of us not altogether familiar with the cast, what cannot be denied is the role played by soaps, from Corrie to EastEnders, in holding up a mirror to our national life. Nor is there any sign that the genre is on the wane. Channel 4 is about to pioneer a real-life soap, starring real people, set in the real London suburb of Notting Hill.
Whether or not Britain can claim authorship of the original television soap opera, however, the distilled vicissitudes of daily life have followed the spread of television around the world - with possibly unheralded effects. In the early summer of 1992, I reported briefly from Kishinev (now Chisinau), capital of newly independent Moldova. The region of Transnistria was trying to break away - it still is, but no longer violently. Shelling resounded from the hills; armed fighters were a common sight in city streets.
To sit in the reception of the main hotel in the early evening, however, was to witness a peculiar sight. The space gradually filled with young men in fatigues; they sought out somewhere to sit, casually laid down their weapons, and fell progressively silent as the appointed hour approached. For an hour or so they sat riveted to the latest episode of a Mexican soap opera. The Rich Also Cry, a Dallas-style romp about life, love and catastrophe, was broadcast across the vast territory of what had been the Soviet Union. That night's episode over, the shelling resumed and the fighters returned to their task.
You could argue that, as the Soviet Union collapsed into its various parts, The Rich Also Cry was a big factor, perhaps the decisive factor, in preventing all-out civil war. As a distraction, it was second to none. It kept Russian-speaking audiences anaesthetised from Kaliningrad in the west, where the naval base was disintegrating, to Vladivostok, where I and other Sakhalin-bound passengers were grounded for days by fog. The airport lounge was crammed when it came on, and if by chance you missed an episode, anyone could fill you in.
Russians now have their own, home-grown, TV soaps. But the racy imported kind are now playing big in, among other places, Iran, where they are dubbed into Farsi and shown on a half-heartedly banned satellite channel partly owned by Rupert Murdoch. Elsewhere in the Muslim world, television soap operas and sitcoms can be credited with keeping the public temperature down in Ramadan, through the long daylight hours of fasting.
Which might bring us back home with a bump. If the Government wants to draw the sting of threatened street protests this winter, it might encourage the broadcasters to make their soap operas extra- compulsive viewing as the dark and the cold set in. …