George Austin in Sex, Soaps and Serials

Unlike the Archbishop of Canterbury, I can’t speak with any first-hand knowledge of Footballers’ Wives. The pre-programme build-up and the occasional clips shown in advance were enough to put me off for good, so I confess I’ve never watched it. Dr Williams describes it as a programme in which charity, generosity and fairness are swept aside, showing a world ‘enslaved by rivalry, fear and self-seeking.’

There was a not-unexpected attack by ITV’s head of programming saying it was meant for younger viewers and not for the Archbishop. However, I think we can take the Dr Williams’s remarks as accurate because the programme makers themselves to some degree support his criticism.

Apparently their intention was to show that the footballers’ world of untold wealth and riches ‘comes with a price, that it doesn’t bring happiness.’ ‘We agree that the show presents a shallow, selfish, monetarist lifestyle. But I don’t think the vast majority of viewers are accepting or embracing those views.’

Soap and Steam

It does not seem to be intention of other steamy programmes. We usually end our evening’s viewing with an episode of Friends or Frasier, both of which are excellently written. David Hyde Pierce, who must be one of the funniest and cleverest actors on any TV show, plays Frasier’s brother Niles brilliantly. But if either of the brothers – or for that matter their father, a retired policeman disabled by a bullet – has a girlfriend, it is assumed that he will sleep with her.

Friends again works on the assumption that the unmarried characters will bed a girl even on a first date, and it is surprising that Joey in particular has avoided catching a sexually transmitted disease. Ross had had a crush on Rachel since schooldays and eventually they kissed – to a great roar of delight from the studio audience. All did not go well and they broke up, only to come together again. But then Rachel discovered that during that short time Ross had slept with another girl and this devastated her. In mitigation, Ross insisted, ‘But we were on a break’ as if that excused him.

Even so, unlike Footballers’ Wives, neither of these programmes could be described as showing a world ‘enslaved by rivalry, fear and self-seeking’ – quite the reverse. But they do show a world in which any encounter must become sexual if it is to be real. Maybe that is how it has become in our permissive western world and is so well supported by liberal church leaders.

Who’s the Dad?

Certainly television soaps carry the same message. I stopped watching the unremitting gloom of Eastenders some years ago, and now my wife has largely deserted Walford and its goings-on as well. But we are still avid followers of Coronation Street and Emmerdale, even though for some time they do both seem to have lost their way.

In Corrie, Tracy Barlow first claimed her baby’s father was Roy (‘married’ in church by a lady clergyperson to transsexual Hailey – in fact, a gentle and sweet relationship, bizarre only in the fact that Hailey is so obviously a woman born and bred). In reality the father was Steve McDonald, who prefers the highly manipulative and slightly scary Karen as his wife.

Both soaps have hit a bad patch, in which the writers seem to search around desperately for new storylines and get their own lines crossed in the process. Corrie’s two mother and daughter barmaids at the Rover’s Return have slept with the same man, much younger than the mother, and become daggers drawn; while the two at Emmerdale’s Woolpack, Diane and Val, have had an almost identical storyline. Diane’s ex-husband Rodney has slept with Val, while Val at the same time has been having a fling with Rodney’s 19-year-old assistant Danny. At least fornication does get them all into messy situations.

Friends of the Vicar

Even the Vicar, Ashley, has been ‘at it’, to the obvious disapproval of his rather weird curate, who himself seems to be building up to an ‘inappropriate relationship’ with a fourteen-year old girl, Debbie Dingle. Vicar Ashley, having been deserted by wife and Woolpack landlady Bernice, had a fling with yet another barmaid, Louise (barmaids really do have a bad image in soaps), broke it off and took up with the scatty Laurel.

Young love fares no better: in Corrie, young Sarah had a baby at 14 and now has a loving relationship with nice-lad Todd, who is struggling to decide if he is gay, while in Emmerdale nice-lad Andy is married to Katie whose long-standing affair with his envious brother Robert has come to a head. And just as his sister Victoria catches the two in bed, so Chesney hears his slatternly mother whispering sweet nothings on the phone, cheating on Les Battersby. Lord, what fools these mortals be.

Corrie’s ‘Tracy’ storyline of maternal confusion was repeated in Emmerdale, with Charity unsure whether her baby’s father was her late husband Chris Tate’s, or Marlon Dingle’s through a one-night stand, or Cain Dingle’s. The thuggish Cain, probably the most unpleasant of any soap character and surely therefore for the actor a delight to play, was also revealed to be father to Debbie, which has allowed him to show a gentler side.

Charity had been in prison wrongly charged with her husband’s murder, but Chris’ sister Zoë ‘remembers’ evidence that clears her name. In fact, this is in return for ‘selling’ her baby to Zoë to bring up, just as Tracy had at first attempted to sell her baby to Roy and Hailey. Phew!

Sexually transmitted programmes

How do the writers become so inventive, particularly as often the stories run so closely together in time that one could not have poached from the other, given the delay of several weeks between recording and showing. Outdoor shots in Emmerdale are still in the winter snow of two or three months back. But as stories are duplicated even the characters begin to look the same.

Of course it is all fiction, even though some seem to imagine it is real life. But real life can copy the assumptions and the most common assumption is that there are no sexual taboos, so long as you enjoy it and don’t hurt anyone else (though it has to be said that the hurt is well displayed in the two soaps we watch – and that is a morality play in itself).

Even so, we cannot blame television alone for sex. A study by economists at Nottingham University has shown that in spite of government policies on sex education and the use of the morning-after pill, teenage pregnancies and the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers have increased. But what else could they expect?

George Austin watches television in Yorkshire.