TV UK, 6 November
Bye bye Brookside.
‘The End of an Era’ declared the closing credits of Brookside on Tuesday night, and perhaps it is. The final ever episode of the soap was a feature-length special, featuring the return of a legendary character, a gruesome murder, and new starts for everyone.
Andrew O’Hagan has suggested that the demise of Brookside is a telling consequence of the rise of reality TV (1). Who needs fictional representations of ‘ordinary people’, when the real thing is all over the schedules? Certainly, Brookside is an institution that belongs to another, more political era. It was born in the midst of Thatcherism, and set among working-class families in Liverpool, it was unmistakably left-wing.
Indeed, much more than other soaps, Brookside was campaigning television, though its campaigns were not really socialist, so much as communitarian, memorably taking on domestic violence, alcoholism, and, er, teenage lunatic religious cults. Often the soap felt more like a public information film.
Towards the end, Brookside Close was plagued by a demonic drug dealer by the name of Jack Michaelson (after the former Channel 4 controller, Michael Jackson, Brookside‘s bête noir). It took the return of the much-loved gangster Barry Grant in the final episode to inspire the locals to deal with him once and for all, but this was not quite an example of independent working-class action. Barry spoke mystically about ‘the stranger’s field’, evoking a dark, pre-modern vision of community. Then as Barry himself went off to avenge the ancient murder of Our Damon, the yokels strung the dealer up. Phew.
The best bit, though (I use the word ‘best’ advisedly) was when the much-loved village idiot Jimmy Corkhill sat on his lawn, burning his furniture, and spouting a jeremiad about the state of TV, and the world in general. It was characteristically over-the-top and conspiratorial, but this was more than just a gag. Surely the voice of the much-loved, long-haired Scouse producer Phil Redmond could be heard, lamenting that documentaries and dramas used to mean something, and that now there is nothing on but celebrity makeover shows.
There is something in it, of course. Redmond is one of those television people who actually believed in a public service ethos, and wanted to contribute something to society. That may be patrician, but it beats cravenly serving the market by kowtowing to whatever is perceived to be popular taste. Brookside’s direct replacement is Hollyoaks, a ridiculous teenage soap aimed at the same demographic as Redmond’s other old favourite Grange Hill, but which replaces worthy moralising with sexual titillation. And who is responsible for Hollyoaks? Phil Redmond.
Actually, if you look hard enough, the moralism is still there: Redmond has simply adapted to survive, bringing the worst of his patrician instincts to contemporary, market-driven TV. Arr-aigh, the bleedin nomark.
Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).
(1) See ‘Watching Me Watching Them Watching You’, Andrew O’Hagan, London Review of Books, 9 October 2003
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