The cleansing effect of soaps

Emmerdale has changed from times past. This evening’s episode included a policeman charging a woman with multiple murders, attempted murder, false imprisonment, and assault.

Soaps in the past never had such dramatic occurrences. Life was usually altogether more mundane.

Crossroads was generally mundane but Aunt Nell watched each programme with a devotion that was almost religious. Seated in her armchair, there would have been an expectation that everyone in the room would observe a profound silence as each episode was aired.

One moment is particularly memorable, the departure from the series of Meg Richardson, played by Noelle Gordon. Meg Richardson is thought to have died in a fire, but was then depicted as leaving for New York on the QE2.

Not following the storyline, it is not possible to recall the circumstances of the Transatlantic exit, but what is memorable is Aunt Nell’s reaction of tears and anger, she spoke aloud as she criticized the person whom she held responsible for the fire at the hotel which was initially thought to have caused Meg Richardson’s death.

The moment in question took place in November 1981, more than forty years ago.

In that distant autumn, it seemed reasonable to imagine that Aunt Nell was not typical, yet tales of Crossroads¬†revealed that Aunt Nell’s reaction was shared by many, many viewers.¬† There were some who were so disturbed by the storyline that they telephoned the television studio, or wrote letters to ATV expressing their annoyance and distress that Meg Richardson would no longer be at the Crossroads Motel.

Perhaps such identification with a fictional character can perform a healthy function, perhaps it allows it allows a displacement of feelings of anger.

Crossroads drew some eighteen million viewers at its peak, among them there would have been countless people for whom a vicarious identification with the dramatis personae of the programme may have allowed a transference of feelings.  The scapegoats they needed for their anger were the imaginary people of a midland hotel, rather than the flesh and blood people around them.

Far better to channel one’s aggression and frustration toward the unreal stories on a television screen than to scapegoat one’s own family members, or friends or colleagues. There is something cathartic in pouring out one’s anger in a way that causes no hurt.

Perhaps the television soaps continue to perform such a function. One cannot imagine so much drama and tragedy befalling such a small cross-section of the population, but perhaps the statistical improbability that so much could befall so few is less important than the fact that the storylines allow viewers the possibility of identifying with the experiences of the characters, that with the unfolding of the plot, people can work through their own feelings, their own hurts, their own imaginings, their own fury.

If an unintended role of the television soap is to assist healthy psychological adjustment, then the reactions to the soaps are healthy for society.

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