Note: this first appeared on the Authors Electric blog (April 2020), time has brought us to another place, Ed & Emma’s story has resolved, Normal People has shown & been discussed – but the question remains – soaps, dramas, novels and happy endings?
I am a fan of The Archers… The Archers potters along, but I find myself these days hoping that something might have a successful outcome – why must The Archers mirror society, and more relevantly, does it? The Rob and Helen storyline was exciting, moving, and telling, a warning about coercive control… now the Emma and Ed one informs about the desperate plight of a rural population struggling to make a home and living… but, if that crash lands in total failure, doesn’t it, somehow, also teach that there can be no escape, none at all, and leave listeners only depressed and hopeless?
I don’t know. I don’t believe in total ‘happy endings’ but I hunt for a bit of balance. I watch Call the Midwife for relaxation, fully realising that the happiness achieved is not, of course, always an outcome in real life, but at least I am relaxed and entertained. (Some friends can’t watch – they recall labour and birth and don’t want to watch it on screen…)
Back in the day (of the 1950s & 60s) the kids in CTM’s East End could really have no shoes, rats in their homes, desperate mothers did die of back street abortions. And it was the late 1950s. And, I was a middle class small child who as yet didn’t know, except about the shoes.
So, with domestic violence, child poverty, and failing relationships, can we and should we accept “happy” endings now in our secular 21st-century world? What is a “happy ending”? Fairy stories often and with a rather empty, cliched stock phrase “and they lived happily ever after”.
Is compromise a “happy ending”? Why might we now prefer an ending which is open or even tragic? Why are these endings considered “more realistic” and why do we desire “Realism”? Was Fleabag’s ending what we want: open, but unresolved?
More specifically, is the realism in soaps and TV dramas truly real? Are the characters real? Is it consistent? The “realism” may inhabit the dialogue, but breaks down when characters supposed to be professionals (as in the drama Dr Foster, particularly inept and depressingly focussed on negativism, sex and rows) or running a successful business, behave like street kids at home with their partners. Do so many of us do this that it is realism? It cuts talk, yes, but what else? Violence isn’t ‘acceptable’ but it’s what we do? Meanwhile total lack of realism reigns in the boring bits such as when medicine or business is being practised. Of course we’d not expect long boring “being at work” scenes, but we do need, if insisting on accuracy and realism, to be shown whether this character or that are competent people or already living a chaotic life of emotional stress, mistakes, snapping at colleagues, on the edge… will it result in mental breakdown and inability to function in a professional capacity? Realism? Rather, these stories require suspension of disbelief! What do they say about relationships but selfishness, misery, and middle class domestic violence?
Is there maybe a “message” contained in these dramas: if so, why? Are they the descendants of the “kitchen sink” plays written by “angry young men” of the 1950s – Kingsley Amis, Arnold Wesker, Stan Barstow… John Osborne’s Look back in Anger being an iconic example. As Hobbs said, human life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. And is unlikely to be anything else?
Perhaps writers feed the public what it wants? Or are we writing out of our frustrations and regrets, sadnesses, disappointments and rage? The recent memoir phase has covered topics from the life of minorities, whether of ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and other groups who find themselves in what feels like an unfairly negative position in a culture which seems to suggest that everyone can and should “have it all”. Helpful or unhelpful to read, these memoirs aren’t written to entertain, or “lose yourself in a book” but to expose life’s unfairness, or highlight disappointments, tragedies or frustrations. Occasionally there’s a “happy ending”, as with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love or Alice Jolly’s Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, where the protagonist ‘obtains their goal’, and thus solves the problem.
And so memoir might deliver the hope, while fiction highlights the grim reality…?
To embed reality into drama or fiction needs care and insight. Diana Evans puts the problems of the black middle-class into novel form, (Ordinary People) and it ends up just that – ordinary… (Evans is great at writing about boredom so that you feel it!) Tayari Jones does far better in An American Marriage, going deeper into character, developing (and demonstrating through interaction and dialogue) motivations and ambiguities, which demonstrate an empathy with her creations, and creates a page turning story rather than flat complaint. The young African-American author Angie Thomas does superbly with her page-turning THUG (The Hate you Give), chronicling the struggles of escape from the inevitable place class and skin colour has assigned her and her fellow African Americans.
If novels can entertain, inform, and open our minds to the lives of others while supplying at the same time as satisfying read, is this impossible for drama, especially soaps and TV drama? Conclusions with ambivalent, open endings, even happy ones, usually involve growth and change. Soaps and TV dramas are the sources of quickfire entertainment. Characterisation can slip in order to pace or literally “sex up” a story. They’re a preferred relaxation for most people. Novels may speak more constructively, memoirs less so. But memoirs, possibly, are informing the lack of if not happy then satisfying endings in the threads of soaps and the themes of dramas. People are made aware of the sufferings of others, maybe even find pleasure in the satisfaction or schadenfreude which appeals, and maybe also reassures them, that the lives of others are not necessarily better than their own: the grass is not greener, and happily ever after can be dismissed as a myth.
Of course, I would still like Ed and Emma Grundy to reconcile, but I suspect a Thomas Hardy influence at work on the ending…