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Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV

Life ends at El Dorado

Asking a soap writer to review the opening episodes of El Dorado, is like asking a brickie what he thinks of Carl André's famous work 'Bricks.' 'Bricks' is not a piece of shoddy workmanship that you suck your teeth and shake your head at. 'Bricks' is so devoid of skill, cleverness, expression or functionality, that it is impossible to apply the usual critical criteria to it. It is a pile of bricks and in some way this is sublime.

El Dorado too is a pile of something. And it too is devoid of all the qualities we normally look for in entertainment. In production terms, the opening episode was simply not broadcast quality. The sound was appalling. The light in certain key shots did not match. The script was beyond discussion. The sets wobbled. Punctuality was the only quality it shared with mainstream TV drama. It started exactly at 7pm. But it was, in its way, sublime.

I was birdwatching once in Spain and saw a hoopoe. Now a hoopoe is a very rare bird. In the I-Spy Book of Birds, you got 30 points for a hoopoe. You would not get much more for spotting the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. But my companion said seeing it here did not count. You had to see it in Britain.

What happens in Spain does not count if you are British. This is why people have holiday romances and wear ridiculous shorts. What happens in Spain is a long, bright dream, in which you can reinvent yourself. A good soap should be just this, of course, a reinvention of ourselves. Think of the beers - Newton & Ridley at the Rover's (cheap and creamy), Shires at The Bull (potent and traditional). Joy's Bar on the other hand sells San Miguel and Pepsi. The Pepsi is most striking because bars in southern Spain offer a whole range of amusing colas - Jolly Cola, Sporty Cola, Sexy Cola, Walky Cola and my favourite, Soca Cola. But if Joy's bar was stocked from the shelf, its customers were bin ends.

I have seen every single 'character' in El Dorado before, usually in a sitcom. Gwen for instance, the rubber-gloved, long-suffering mum crawled out of the waste disposal of Ever Decreasing Circles. Snowy is actually Benny from Crossroads. The rest are from the Queen Vic. They are all masterpieces of complexity compared to Fizz (a Bimbo) and Pillar (big breasts).

The way you introduce a character in a series like this is crucial. Pillar was shown trotting a horse around a ring while the camera peered with Benny Hill intensity at her bouncing bosom. If the characters were thin, the language was atrophied. You will not hear the Holdsworthian imperative, 'Don the motley, Mr Watts', here, nor even Bobby Grant's warning, 'wind your neck in'. Instead we had, 'I could give her one,' and 'get stuffed'. There was a moment when I thought the German boy had said 'washing up bowel' but this turned out to be the result of poor sound, not good writing.

At first this nullity was irritating but after a while it became mesmeric. It was so derivative that it seemed not to be taking place at all, to be a collection of gestures in the direction of drama, like an endless trailer. This ersatz quality was emphasised by the show's postmodern reflexivity. One of the main characters was introduced by means of a video shown in the bar. So we watched actors acting out the act of viewing an actor acting someone acting up. The baddie (Marcus) too was caught on the video of a kind of Roger Cook person. Marcus said, wittily, 'are you going to move or am I going to move you?'. And surely the oddly incongrous sign for Texas Homecare was a wry comment on the show's own flat-pack wobbliness.

Coronation Street offers an enriched version of home, something both comfortingly familiar and compellingly vivid, like memory itself. El Dorado, on the other hand, offers a picture of life diminished, depleted, dried out. It reminded me most strongly of Philip K Dick's astonishing novel of exile, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, in which settlers on Mars spend most of their time taking drugs and staring at a kind of Barbie doll's house, using chemicals and plastic to build a shabby, fragile version of home. Faced with infinity, the human imagination implodes, busying itself with the comforting tokens of normality - brand names, old jokes, stock characters, 'these fragments I have shored against my ruin'.

El Dorado gave a similar picture of humanity washed up, exhausted and enfeebled, on the barren shores of time. The title - with its historical overtones of gold-lust and genocide, vying with the yearning for the Fountain of Youth and the possibility of earthly paradise - is surely the most bitterly ironic since Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, in which the only character gabbles aimlessly while sinking into the sand.

But at least with Beckett and Eliot you can close the book and hug your kids. The Beeb have leased the site of El Dorado for 10 years, subjecting the viewing and tabloid-reading public to its nihilistic howl with a persistence that even Andy Warhol would never have attempted. This is creative bravery indeed. Unless you happen to think that the human mind is not depleted or exhausted, in which case it's just a load of bricks; and the San Miguel and Pepsi is just naked product-placement.

You can get 50-1 at Ladbroke's on El Dorado having less than six million viewers by the end of the year. What d'you reckon? As I've outlined, it's a question of epistemology. I never put money on epistemological questions. To do so implies the existence of a truly objective bookie and this is logically absurd.

A piece of insider gossip to finish off - Gary Lineker and Stan Hey are developing a drama series for Central TV about a British footballer who gets transferred to Spain. Terry-Thomas is apparently slated for the part of Graham Taylor.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 46, August 1992

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