The Living Soap

Friday, September 3, 1999 by

Two television genres collided on Friday night, with the welcome chance to revisit The Living Soap as part of BBC Choice’s theme week Manchester Revealed.

Theme nights and docu soaps seem to be the stuff of late ’90s TV, and The Living Soap (broadcast in 1993) represented the BBC’s first toe-dip into such murky, soapy waters. The premise was simple: inspired by the success of MTV’s Real World, BBC2 introduced us to a group of Mancunian students plucked from obscurity to share their life experiences with us.

In retrospect, very little happened when these studes stopped being polite, and started getting real, and reacquainting oneself with Dan and Spider and co. proved to be a slightly disappointing experience. The two episodes shown contained all the staple diets of the genre: the incessant attempts by the subjects not to look crap in front of the cameras, bickering and confessional, yet defensive tracts about their lifestyle. Yet the squabbling which once pleasingly set the teeth on edge, appeared tepid and tedious half a decade on. In fact only Simon’s gingerly made and hastily retracted description of Spider as “ugly” elicited any pleasure in this viewer, even if it was mainly derived from watching Dan’s vicarious squirming discomfiture.

It was as a museum piece that The Living Soap held its fascination. The programme has an underlying preoccupation about how much the presence of television cameras is distorting the subject matter. Dan was quoted as saying that filmed trips to the supermarket took on logistical complications which entirely negated the “ordinariness” of the experience. Simon would often re-instigate arguments with other members of the house (usually Spider) in order for their stupidity to be caught on camera. If he felt that he was looking like a tit, Matt would begin to swear excessively and jump around or hold commercially-branded goods up to the camera, ensuring the footage became unusable. Today, we’re not concerned with the “reality” of our docu soaps. Contrivances usually make for good telly, and at the end of the day we don’t actually watch this kind of stuff to gain an accurate insight into various strata of our society. We want good soap opera, and reality can take a flying-one if it gets in the way. That debate has run its course and no one cares anymore.

Yet there was still much to enjoy. Young adults perpetually justifying their existence is always fun to watch. Simon and Spider’s arguments represented great battles of will as each attempted to represent the other to the TV viewer as a wanker, whilst trying to ensure that they themselves were not attributed that epithet.

These two episodes were from the glory days of The Living Soap (ie. before that arse Colin joined), and the format and participants still seemed fresh and up for it. It didn’t take long for the whole thing to unravel: the subjects got pissed off with the incessant TV presence, the programme makers ran out of ideas, and the TV viewers got bored with the whole thing. Finally, the BBC showed a couple of Brian Cant narrated specials to wrap everything up and that was it. No one cried.

This is the sort of thing satellite channels should be doing: re-showing all those kinds of programmes that never get terrestrial repeats. What about: Video DiariesUnited Kingdom!,Cutting Edge? Rather these then perpetual EastEnders. I couldn’t give a toss what Mary the Punk is up to now, yet I’d like to know if Spider has grown up enough to cringe at her teenage principality, or if Matt is still stacking shelves in the local supermarket (I bet he is).


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