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The Politics of Drinking

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You can’t mix soap and water in the fictional pub
17/12/2015

Three decades ago I was invited to the launch party for EastEnders, a new TV soap opera that the BBC hoped would rival ITV’s Coronation Street. Which it did.

But what was a humble licensed trade hack doing at such a momentous occasion? I was invited because the pub, the Queen Vic, was so important to the show. As was the Rovers Return in Corrie and the Woolpack in Emmerdale Farm (as it was called then).

Even more so than in real life, the local pub in soaps was, and still is, at the heart of the action, the place where characters interacted, where storylines were progressed, where dramas unfolded.

If one or two became a little tipsy as a result, all the better. Those hidden secrets and thinly-veiled antagonisms that audiences thrived on had permission to burst to the surface. In vino veritas, indeed.

But now a boffin, who really should find something better to do, has declared this a bad thing. After analysing 3,000 minutes of soaps, dramas and sitcoms, media psychologist Emma Kenny uncovered what she described as an “unacceptable state of affairs regarding the representation of healthy hydration”.

Soaps dedicated no less than 39% of ‘drinks screen time’ to alcohol with only one in 20 drinks being water – shocking perhaps only to the National Hydration Council, which commissioned the research.

Kenny seems to mistake soap opera for an arm of health education which has inexplicably gone rogue. It’s true, of course, that radio’s The Archers (which has The Bull) was originally envisioned as an educational vehicle for farmers, and still includes the occasional awkward didactic moment.

(At least that’s what I’m told. I’ve been allergic to The Archers, and agriculture in general, since a close encounter with a cow’s underparts on a school trip.)

Believing soaps are principally there to “positively influence viewers’ lifestyles” through showing people how healthy lives should supposedly be lived is wildly wrong-headed, however.

Even if you wanted to do that – and soaps can provoke important debates on all kinds of issues – nobody is going to watch or listen unless you create an interesting fictional world that uses dramatic device and narrative structure to make it believable, engaging and a whole lot less boring than real life.

Drinking healthy amounts of water, I’m afraid, just won’t wash.

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