Whisky and soap - the wrong blend

Whisky and soap - the wrong blend

Dave Broom considers why Scotch has become the chosen tipple for British soap opera characters hell-bent on self-destruction

A Dram with Dave Broom | 16 Jul 2001 | Issue 17 | By Dave Broom

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Admission: I love soaps. I pretend it's because I like the serious examination of the major themes of human existence, but really I'm just a shallow old gossip eavesdropping on other people's lives.I love these self-contained universes. The fact that no-one buys wine from an off-licence but always from the pub, that they never go to the toilet (or watch soap operas), or that they casually forget they have lost any number of children - soap people are unnaturlly fertile. It's reality TV with the comedy and tragedy of everyday life cranked up, like the amps in Spinal Tap, to 11. Soap characters are defined by a cunning system of shorthand: we know what they are like by their make-up, clothes, accent and what they eat and drink. Occasionally one of these signs has an extra resonance. Like whisky.Let's face it, whisky has a very bad image in UK soaps. While beer, like tea and wine, is quaffed as a sign of comfy, mild-mannered, middle-class conformity, whisky is the devil's own brew, drunk by thugs, depressives and wide boys. Asking for a Scotch in a British soap is to signify that you are either desperate or deeply untrustworthy.In EastEnders, refuge from depression is found in Scotch. Ian Beale may have kept up a brave front over his bankruptcy but his increased thirst for Scotch revealed the turmoil behind his snide exterior. When Grant Mitchell faced up to the fact that his wife had been having an affair with his brother, this confirmed lager drinker suddenly developed a previously hidden appreciation of blends. Coronation Street's Ken Barlow, a champion of supping best bitter, when faced with his daughter's death and possible loss of his grandson started sucking on a bottle of Scotch as if his life depended on it. You name the character and I'll guarantee that at some point they've specifically reached for whisky to help them through nights of despair.It's not just fuel for depressives: there's another group of whisky drinkers, personified by Corry's Mike Baldwin. This time, whisky is the signifier for the arrogant, self-made git. Baldwin, the shark-toothed epitome of the pushy, self-centred, small businessman drinks whisky to show he is above the working-class regulars at The Rover's Return. Whisky shows he has money but it also, at a deeper level, signifies that he is untrustworthy. The same goes for Dev from the corner shop and the human Foghorn Leghorn that is butcher Fred Elliot. Lords of their tiny empires, they drink Scotch to say: "I've made it." Their whisky drinking compadres in EastEnders include dodgy second-hand car dealer Frank Butcher and (failed) entrepreneur Ian Beale. The fact that the last two are also psychologically fragile (and therefore whisky drinkers), underlines whisky's multi-faceted layers of signification. Whisky also reinforces class divisions. Mike Baldwin doesn't just drink it, he has it in a crystal decanter. When his eternally downtrodden rival Ken Barlow needs a Scotch he reaches for a bottle of own-label, bought incidentally from (malt drinking) Dev's shop.Whisky tends to be a loner's drink. When two (usually unattached) people start drinking it late at night (through depression) you can guarantee they'll end up in a compromising position. Take EastEnders' Roy and Peggy: Roy's wife Pat had been having an affair with Peggy's husband - before you know it Roy and Peggy are having a late-night malt and an unappealing clinch. Whisky signifies losing control, illicit sex and regrets in the morning. There's no joy as they reach for the glass and each other. Soaps are an exaggeration of real life where Scotch is the preferred tipple of loners, psychos and Thatcherite businessmen. Which, come to think of it, isn't that far off the truth. If whisky is to be rehabilitated, distillers better work on its image. Better still, we hacks should infiltrate the script writing teams - a Michael Jackson penned EastEnders would be a cultural treat!
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