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Thursday, 5 April, 2001, 10:09 GMT 11:09 UK
In a lather over soaps

Soap operas have long had a loyal following. But with all the kerfuffle surrounding the shooting of EastEnders' Phil Mitchell, has our national obsession got out of hand, asks Ryan Dilley.

An imminent general election, foot-and-mouth ravaging the countryside, Sino-American relations on a knife-edge. What's preying on your mind?

Who shot Phil Mitchell, of course.

A national debate has raged about the true identity of the gravel-voiced EastEnder's would-be assassin for five weeks.

A special 40-minute edition of the popular BBC One soap opera will put viewers out of their misery by unmasking the marksman, but not until Mitchell's shooting has been pored over more thoroughly than JFK's.

Phil Mitchell from EastEnders
All right, bruv?
BBC One enrolled the help of a former deputy chief constable, John Stalker, and the celebrity gangster Dave Courtney for its Who Shot Phil Mitchell? programme on Saturday.

Mr Stalker even made use of a scale model of the soap's Albert Square set to illustrate his hunch that newlywed Steve Owen had not just the motive but also the opportunity to shoot Mitchell.

The plotline is even threatening to overtake our other national obsession, football.

There is talk that the crucial televised Uefa football match between Liverpool and Barcelona was given an 2015BST kick-off so it would not clash with the EastEnders special.

Have we gone mad? All we need now is for West Country songsters The Wurzels to come up with a single reprising their 1980 hit "I Shot JR" - an ode to gunned down Dallas baddie JR Ewing.

Soap gets in your eyes

Norman Lebrecht, a high-brow arts commentator of the Daily Telegraph and BBC Radio 3, says the nation's cultural life is being sacrificed on the "altar of soap".

Dave Courtney
Even former criminals want to know who shot Phil
"What will future generations make of us if they view our age through the shooting of Phil?" he asked.

Are soaps really such a poor picture of our hopes and aspirations? Audience researcher Dr Mallory Wober says Britons wouldn't watch the shows if they weren't able to "harmonise" with them.

"Viewers choose a soap with the environment they like. Some harmonise with the urban soaps EastEnders and Coronation Street. Others favour the mythologised country life of Emmerdale."

As cultural artefacts, the long-running soaps are not without merit. London School of Economics academic Professor Sonia Livingstone says soaps perform a valuable role in society.

"There's no question soap operas provide a sense of community and shared experience for their viewers - whether they are morally or aesthetically the best way to provide those things is another matter."

Get yourself connected

So is it true we only watch soaps to witness the kind of neighbourhood tittle-tattle our real-life neighbours no longer supply?

Professor Livingstone says our attachment to our local communities has waned. "People have a desire for a sense of connection that they can't get from people in their street."

But soap watching is no mere voyeurism, it give us the excuse to make real-life contact too, says Professor Livingstone.

Liverpool's Jari Litmanen
"Ref, It was Steve Owen!"
"Soaps are not a replacement or substitute for community life, they gives us a common topic to talk about. These common topics allow us to make real bonds with real people."

When Coronation Street's Deirdre Rachid was imprisoned thanks to the double-dealing of her boyfriend, a desire to see "The Weatherfield One" set free crossed all social boundaries - even Prime Minister Tony Blair railed against the injustice.

But what are these common topics? The libidinous antics of Phil Mitchell? His violent shooting? Such storylines grab the headlines, but Professor Livingstone says soaps reflect normal life in a way we would not demand of other cultural products.

"We see soap operas as bearing an almost unique responsibility to represent the country."

In this role, a soap which fails to recognise the UK's ethnic mix, its changing mores or major events fails its audience.

Note the speed with which BBC Radio 4's rural soap The Archers tackled the issue of foot-and-mouth and the broad praise its new storyline prompted.

Highest common factor

The popularity of soaps is often held up as evidence of their willingness to cater for the lowest common denominator. But the ability to speak to millions allows the soaps another unique opportunity.

PM Tony Blair
"The tunnel comes up under Deirdre's cell, prime minister"
The BBC World Service's soap New Home, New Life is widely popular in Afghanistan - partly thanks to the Taleban government's prohibition of many other cultural and leisure activities.

Following the maiming of one character by a landmine, the United Nations found New Home, New Life listeners were far less likely to fall foul of Afghanistan's many real landmines than their compatriots.

What will we learn from Phil Mitchell? Always keep your door-chain on?

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04 Apr 01 | TV and Radio
Match delayed for EastEnders climax
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