Monday, November 6, 2000 by

“Over my dead body you will!” – Susannah Morrissey

Albert Square has been rocked by the affair of Pat and Frank. Coronation Street‘s residents are still suffering from the after shock of the supermarket siege. Hollyoaks is still reeling from a double dose of male rape and “wife battering”. So what has Brookside to offer us? Tonight saw the first instalment of a week of special episodes. A murder mystery told (perhaps uniquely for a British soap opera) in flashback, invites the viewers to piece together events culminating in the death of resident toff – Susannah Morrissey. Typically for a classic whodunit there are a number of key suspects, and no real evidence available to allow us to work out for ourselves who the culprit actually is. Whilst the publicity may encourage us to believe otherwise, we will have to wait until Brookside is ready to disclose who the killer is.

Soaps love their counterpoints because it allows them to accentuate the lonely plight of the chosen victim. If Coronation Street is anything to go by, terrible things usually happen amidst a communal and joyous event involving most of the other characters. Contrasting scenes cut between a suicidal, pill guzzling Ken Barlow and a festive knees up in the Rover’s wrings out an irony that seems to underpin a very modern perception of tragedy. Here, Brookie opts for fireworks and Guy Fawkes Night. Yet – in this most self-conscious of soaps – there is an appreciation that an audience weary of ironic contrasts understands the rules only too well. During one scene, a loud explosion goes off, startling two (minor) characters. We are not with Susannah at this point, but know she is not ready to die just yet (after all this is only Monday). Nonetheless this is as subtle as soaps get these days, and – as an unspoken portent of doom – it is mildly effective.

By necessity the drama is unfolding in almost real time. This allows the programme makers to begin the inexorable heightening of tension as we idly flit from house to house, and get all the key protagonists into position. We expect – and get – to see a besotted Mick enthusing over his bride-to-be, and predictably, events begin to conspire to place all of our key suspects in the vicinity. Susannah is even allowed to utter the types of phrases that sealed the fate of Andy O’Brien (“Oh drop dead!”) way back when in EastEnders. So plot mechanics (as ever) undermine the naturalism of the drama. Yet, although fighting a losing battle, Brookside does emerge from this episode with some credit. More anyway, than it has achieved in the last three or four years. Leo’s run through of his “Best Man’s Speech” covers all the required bases, yet is not unduly mawkish, and is not even tonight’s most impressive scene. The confrontation between Susannah and Jacqui Dixon (the birth mother of Susannah’s son) plays out with a modicum of intelligence as – for once – a soap characters’ threats of legal action seem relatively plausible and well thought out. The argument concludes with a cliché-ridden catfight, though: the requirements of plot riding rough shod once again.

It has been reported that Brookside is keen to stop the rot. They have drafted in a new producer who is determined to bring the focus back onto the characters. The fireworks of this week will not testify to this strategy. Perhaps though, tonight might just be the first spark of a renaissance. There is not reason enough to trust Brookside just yet, but perhaps enough of an excuse to tune in tomorrow.


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