Now, I’m not any kind of expert on flirting (indeed, for some time I thought that, because of sharing the first three letters of the word, it was pretty much the same as FLIcking someone on the shoulder, albeit whilst adopting a come-hither look), but I do often find soap opera flirting almost painful to watch.
Much of the time, the dialogue’s to blame – just a bit too knowing and arch, and it sounds strangely like a blend of Mamet, Sorkin and Harlequin Romance novels, if you know what I mean; the characters have ready answers a tad too swiftly, as if they’re doing some kind of pre-rehearsed verbal dance. Granted, characters in fiction invariably talk quite differently from people you’ll actually meet (I think it was screenwriter/director John August who said that characters in films speak as we would in reality if we had five extra seconds to frame our words), often because they’re sneaking bits of exposition into the conversation or whatever, but sometimes it’s just a stage too far removed for me.
I’ve been mulling this over because the ‘flirty banter’ in EastEnders has been seeming clumsy to me for a while now, to the extent that the on-screen conversations (and the creaking of the rather visible plot levers) tend to get drowned out in Chez Nous by me yelling ‘Oh my GOD! That’s not how people talk! Ugh!’ at the screen whenever there’s a would-be wooing scene going on.
There are two main offending types of EastEnders ‘flirty banter’, as far as I’m concerned:
1 – HARD-BOILED: As exemplified by Ronnie and Roxy, the purported sex-kittens of the Queen Vic. Obviously, nothing says feisty and smouldering more than names which echo well-known members of the East End underworld, but it’s bolstered by the sisters acting less like femmes fatales and more like people who’ve seen too many Guy Ritchie films. The standard set-up tends to be that one of them (and you’ll guess from the repeated use of that phrase that, offhand, I don’t know which is which – the perils of having names that are so similar*) meets a chap who is, of course, a bit of a wide-boy and a geezer, not to be trusted, and so on. Thus, they are destined by fate and plot requirements to pair off, and the banter is usually something a bit like:
He: So what are you doing tonight, then?
She: What’s it to you?
He: Just wondering, that’s all.
She: Well, stop wondering, it’s none of your business.
He: Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. How does your husband feel about you being in the bar all the time, with all the male punters?
She: My husband’s dead.
He: Sorry to hear that. Boyfriend?
She: Are you offering?
He: Maybe I should be.
She: Maybe you shouldn’t.
He: Maybe you want me to.
She: Maybe I do.
He: Maybe I’ll do something about it.
She: Maybe I won’t be sitting and waiting.
He: Maybe you won’t have to.
… and so on. It’s the kind of dialogue which was prevalent in Moonlighting, but that TV show was a comedy, whereas EastEnders is meant to be based in reality, despite occasionally veering into melodrama and the realms of the East End underworld. That rapid-fire kind of dialogue reminds me of the old ‘Who’s On First?’ routine by Abbott and Costello or Murdock talking to Oveur in Airplane! – again, comedy items.
I referred to Aaron Sorkin above, and yes, there’s certainly an argument to be made that the speedy patter of characters in, say, The West Wing is unrealistic, but I think the ‘walk-n-talk’ sequences in that show are designed more to show the intelligence of the characters, who are able to assimilate information and respond in an unnaturally articulate fashion (plus, when you have a burgeoning romance between character in that show, it’s at least a continuation of those speech patterns, as opposed to the residents of Albert Square suddenly sounding as if they’re residents of Sin City).
Of the two styles of EastEnders flirty banter, this one is more prevalent – especially as EastEnders is full of characters who think they’re well’ard (despite that being the dog’s name), but a new strand has started to make itself known :
2 – ADULT-FEATURE-STYLE: Oh yes. Genuinely not that far from ‘I’m come to fix the shower’ or ‘I’m the pizza delivery boy’ school of flirting, this type of dialogue (so far) mainly seems to be allocated to the recently-returned character Clare, played by Gemma Bissix (who also played a character called Clare in Hollyoaks; I hope that isn’t some kind of condition of her agent passing scripts to her). Now, given that EastEnders is a mid-evening show, it’s unlikely to turn into an all-out nudey-romp-fest, and so the dialogue is less direct than in an adult feature, but it’s still not that far off. It often seems to run along the following lines:
She: Oh hello, man under fifty years of age.
She: Is that the launderette over there?
He: Yes. Dot runs it, she’ll look after you.
She: Oh good, I need to do some washing.
He: It’s open seven days a week, I think.
She: Mmm, I need to wash my underwear, it’s all lacy and delicate.
He: Er, yes, Dot can probably help you.
She: Yes, my lacy g-strings and stockings need to be washed, or I’ll have no underwear to put on.
He: Well, as I say, it’s just over there, on the left. Push hard on the door, it sticks sometimes.
She: And my bras are so delicate and see-through I have to make sure I wash them properly. Don’t want them tearing apart.
He: In this weather, I can understand your concern. You don’t want to catch cold.
She: Oh, I’m so very hot right now. Mmm…
He: If you go to the caff, Ian’s probably got some canned drinks in the fridge.
… okay, so I’m exaggerating a bit there, but not really that much (from half-listening, Clare had at least two conversations about her underwear with male characters in her first week of returning to the soap, with the men looking as bewildered and scared as if Catherine Tremell had suddenly appeared and asked where the ice was), so please don’t go thinking I’m constructing a straw man argument.
I guess the underlying problem is that the real-world ways people banter and flirt aren’t actually very telegenic; people meet in pubs and bars or at work or in nightclubs, and the way they sound each other out and find they have similar outlooks or interests or whatever aren’t as dramatic as the TV camera, and the narrative drive, demands. Whilst it might be realistic to show people meeting at a club where the music drowns out all their dialogue to the extent that they’re more conducting dual monologues than having a proper conversation, it’s not necessarily going to make for good TV.
Which is probably why instead we see a lot of scenes like the above, which is a shame, as I think that actually properly showing some characters getting to know each other, and realise they get on, would make for a greater degree of audience empathy with them – something which EastEnders is wholly lacking to my mind at the moment, as there are very few characters who aren’t in some way stupid or venal or worthy of come kind of contempt; okay, maybe there’s Dot or Bradley, but her bible-bashing and sanctimony makes her hard to care for, and his refusal to move out of the Square after his dad slept with his wife looks less like the behaviour of a stable character and more a case of plot necessity.
And I genuinely believe that with likeable characters comes audience ‘support’ for them, so that they’ll have an emotional connection with them and want good things to happen to them. I appreciate that may sound simplistic, but I think it’s absolutely vital for an audience in some way to feel a connection with the protagonists. Whether it’s wanting Peggy to be made a Yellowcoat or Tony Soprano not to be gunned down by an old enemy, I believe that the audience has to – on some level – feel engaged and connected with the characters. Without that connection you’re trying to get an audience to spend their time watching a tale of things that never happened to imaginary people who the audience doesn’t care about, and thus has no emotional attachment to, so if they’re laughing or crying or flirting, it’s irrelevant, as the audience doesn’t give too hoots about the outcome, and may well be long gone before the resolution hoves into view.
I’ve perhaps strayed a little off the point here, but before I end this post, I want to make it clear that I think it’s entirely possible to have on-screen flirtation which makes you feel that the characters are both getting along and growing closer, whilst still speaking words that could come out of the mouths of actual people – there are many examples of it around, but perhaps the best example that springs to mind is the relationship between Jack Foley and Karen Sisco in the film ‘Out Of Sight’. Great performances by both the actors, and a terrific script too (I’m sure you can think of other films with good romantic banter or flirty stuff – feel free to post them as comments), showing that it most definitely can be done. And given that all you need for on-screen flirtation are two actors and a script, there’s no reason why TV soaps shouldn’t be able to create the same sort of sparks between characters as, say, Bogie and Bacall did. Budget should not be an issue.
Unless I’m missing something? If so, post a comment and let me know.
Maybe I’ll listen. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll agree. Maybe I won’t
You like that repetitious banter, eh? Well, wait until I start talking about my underwear, you’ll be twice as giddy. Apparently.
*And, for my money, also the reason the band Tony! Toni! Toné! never quite made the big time.