Page last updated at 13:04 GMT, Friday, 21 December 2012

Desperate soap star for a day


The Turkish version of the TV soap Desperate Housewives gets huge audiences every week.

Turkey's TV soap operas are beginning to dominate ratings across the Middle East, and this success is boosting tourism. Visitors are keen to see the locations used for their favourite shows. Rajan Datar decided to get behind the scenes of this booming industry, and even ended up in front of the cameras.

Istanbul's Cerrahpasa district is bathed in sunshine as we pull into a local school parking lot-turned-temporary hospital entrance.

Using what looks like sticky-backed plastic, three set designers are frantically trying to convert the shell of a white van into a makeshift ambulance.

In the seven years since these soaps were first aired across the region, tourism to Turkey from Arab countries has soared five-fold

Camera operators, script editors, publicists and producers huddle around a TV monitor - bustle about a bit - then huddle back together again.

They look harassed, anxious - yet the shooting day has only just begun.

I have arrived at the location for episode three, series two of the Turkish version of Desperate Housewives.

Yes, it is a soap opera based on the US original - Wisteria Lane is now Gul Street, I am told - but to regard it as only that would be to do it a disservice.

Sex scenes

Turkey is emerging as one of the key political players in the Middle East, using its economic strength and historical ties to the region as a way of bridging relations between Nato and the Arab world.

And soaps like this are a prime weapon of its soft power - matching the global prestige of telenovelas in Latin America with arguably even more social influence.

Leading lady Songul Oden floats onto the set and we are introduced. She is a big star - especially in the Arabic-speaking world - and good pals, I am told, with the equally fragrant Queen of Jordan.

Songul Oden
Desperate Housewives star Songul Oden has been recognised around Europe.

Oden is charming, with a good sense of humour - and doesn't seem like a prima donna.

She tells me that her character Yasemin is based on Susan in the American version - but there is a subtle difference in tone when it comes to scenes of a sexual nature.

She describes it thus: when Yasemin talks to her lover she will be watching over her shoulder, worried about who might see them together. In the American series Susan is staring at her lover whilst dreaming of making love to the man next door.

It's been agreed that the man from the BBC - yours truly - will be an extra in the next scene, in which Oden's character smuggles her lover out of hospital in a wheelchair.

When I ask her how I should approach the role, she grabs my hand and tells me: "Feel - not act".

Suddenly Songul is whisked off again, presumably to sign autographs and reply to fan mail or whatever it is soap stars do in their spare time. She is now a huge star all over the region.

Some 85 million viewers watched her in the final episode of a rags-to-riches saga called Noor.

She has promoted Istanbul's shopping festival in Dubai, been mobbed in the Balkans and is recognised frequently in France.

Rising aspirations

Another drama called The Magnificent Century, about the Ottoman ruler Suleiman, has been sold to more than 40 countries.

One director tells me the rise in popularity of Turkish soaps during the last decade is down to new affluence in the Middle East and rising aspirations amongst women - coupled with the explosion of cable and satellite TV.

The programme's distributors claim that, in the seven years since these soaps were first aired across the region, tourism to Turkey from Arab countries has soared five-fold.

A poster for the Turkish version of Desperate Housewives
Turkey's soap operas dominate TV ratings around the Middle East
Turkey has earned £37m ($60m) from the export of more than 100 drama serials, according to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet
The shows have a strong following amongst women
Turkey's version of Desperate Housewives first aired in 2011 - seven years after the original American version of the show began in the US

Figures comparing 2011 with 2012 show visitors from the Gulf increased dramatically over that single year.

That is why the industry wants financial reward from the government, for the value that soaps like this add to Turkey's brand.

They argue that in South Korea, the pop music, film and soap opera industries are backed and nurtured by the ministry of culture.

A man comes round with a tray of Turkish tea and I wonder if it is wise for me to drink my fourth cup.

I'm sitting among the other extras, who are dressed up as nurses, physicians and patients, with an assortment of ailments and bandages.

I don't speak Turkish - but like extras the world over, it's clear they're not happy with the catering or working conditions.

And then suddenly it is time for my scene to start. There is a hush on set. I decide to look at my watch anxiously, in the manner of an expectant dad, and try to remember the advice - "don't act, feel".

A wheelchair rolls up, carrying a 40-something man, pushed by a white-coated doctor and Songul Oden, who is now wearing big dark glasses and a floppy summer hat.

They try to push the wheelchair up the ramp into the ambulance but fail - and fail again - and again.

This is not deliberate, so there is retake after retake. When it is finally done, after about an hour and a half, to my horror I realise I have to repeat my supporting act again for three more camera positions.

Just a couple of weeks later, with the episode rushed through the production line to take pride of place of prime time TV, I cannot believe what I see of me - just a fleeting blur behind a wheelchair.

I might as well have done handstands and juggled behind Oden, the star of the show. All that "feeling" for nothing.

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