Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Cliche: in soap operas and beyond

A strange topic, but I seem to remember observing that the dialogue in Coronation Street is constructed almost entirely out of cliches. I've seen similar programs since and this one seems to stand out. This could be explained with the Adornian theory about 'pre-digestion' which was originally applied to popular music, using the argument that it had all been heard before in such a way that the listener almost knew what was coming next. The familiarity of listening to the 'same song' over and over again is only a good feeling, Adorno says, because the listeners are too exhausted after work to pay attention to anything of any value. Considering the time-slot of Coronation Street, could this be true for this too? And possibly any mainstream television program showed after working hours.

Cliches are terms that actually need no concentration whatsoever to understand. They resist concentration by their meaningless passivity, which pushes the listener in the direction of simultaneously ignoring and acknowledging them, like a subconscious process of phrase recognition. Just like well-known musical phrases (the Nokia ring-tone, television theme tunes), cliches in speech are so familiar that they can be predicted, recognised and processed in a split second. This is the opposite to anything fresh, new and unexpected. The first time we experience anything we must force our brain to think in an entirely new way to understand it, for example the first line of Orwell's 1984 ('It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen').

Going further than cliched phrases in speech, many of the story arcs in Coronation Street are familiar. While it may not always be predictable who the father is, who set fire to something or who is sending hateful letters, it is still a time tested device, tapping into the pre-existing ideas which are employed to make sense of a storyline when it is presented to us. Nonlinear storylines, dream sequences, new characters, inventive camerawork, all of these things need to be 'digested' in a fresh way. In a way, by relying on predictability and simplicity, the writers are insulting the audience by not presenting them with more challenging material. The simple, self-resolving sequences of events, often ending in moral victory, are a dangerous way of pacifying the public. The more times that it is stated that good will triumph over evil and that events will resolve themselves simply, the more frustrating it will be when it turns out to be increasingly true that life is a complex story with hundreds of overlapping narratives. However, perhaps the freedom from these indecipherable story elements of life is what makes the simplified television plot so appealing?

The cliches used in popular television such as Coronation Street further establish themselves in the common pool of phrases used in speech, which will again permeate into scriptwriting in self-perpetuating nature. The thing is that cliches are embedded in our minds, masked as the true way of expressing something, when they are actually metaphorical. For example, hearing that the 'heavens opened' instead of 'it rained' is not  uncommon. First it was seen as a descriptive and perhaps poetic phrase, it has now become as common as a simple report that it rained. The dialectical relationship between these two technicalities of expression means that they are struggling against each other when the speaker is recounting, for example, the weather. Since time constraints don't allow speech to be ever so premeditated, the speaker will likely opt for the first term which comes to the forefront. At some point 'it's raining' will sound commonplace.

I'm not sure the criteria of a cliche, but watching 22 minutes of Coronation Street, I picked out a list which seemed to be cliched phrases - picking them out was a reversal of what normally happens when I hear them:

Last minute
With all my heart
On the way
I've done everything for you
Caught in the act
For the best
I'd better go
Taking it slowly
Over the road
Get rid of it
Getting her own back
No offence / none taken
Over before it began
Girl of your dreams
Thinking things through
We can make things work
These things take time
Clean break
Five minutes
Just for a bit
Going out of my head
Bored to death
Behind my back
Do you good
Save your own skin
Keeping me sweet
Check it out
You are a right misery-guts
Oh, charming
Don't be daft
Never been better
I opened up to you
You were using me
Sordid little affair
Buttering me up
On your back
Give over
We're square
I could kick myself

Of these, some of them were more interesting to analyse than others. Particularly the generalised time period of 'five minutes', which is used here as an overly specific interval. The widespread use of 'five minutes' as opposed to any other phrase denoting a short amount of time probably stems from the division of time on the clockface, or the human satisfaction of rounding things to the nearest five or ten. Saying 'four minutes' is regarded as odd. 'One second' was once a quasi-meaningful expression of a short time period, but lately that has become overused as well. The less cliched 'thirty seconds' seems to be an attempt to instill confidence in the person who you are making wait, by giving a time period which is actually realistic. It's unlikely someone would be able to accomplish much in one second; thirty, however is more reasonable.

Some of the sentence structures and ways the words are used could seem, to a modern audience to be archaic or at least dated. Two examples, 'get rid of it' and 'for the best' seem to be constructed in a pre-modern way, suggesting the cliches are slightly older than the rest. The impact of these phrases, since they are cliches, is deadened dramatically, despite the fact they are out of place with the structure of the rest of the sentences they are found in. Things would not be 'for the best' as much as they are 'the best option' or 'the most moral choice', but these phrases are not cliched (as far as I'm concerned), which makes them a less popular choice in everyday discourse.

As well as cliche in television scripting, it may also be worth mentioning a study, quite an old one now, conducted analysing the assumptions made from the name of television characters by John Sumser, entitled Not Just Any Tom, Dick or Harry: The Grammar of TV Names. Published by SAGE in 1992, it uses characters mostly from the hideously politically incorrect 1970s to reveal that script writers have racist and classist undertones which are successfully conveyed to the audience, who were able to guess the role of a character by their name alone. The questions included: 'Which of these characters might be rich?' I quote Sumser here when he says "virtually no one believed that Israel Sanchez, gardener and murder victim might be rich, but 24% mistakenly identified him as a criminal." That alone should speak volumes about the sinister results of the study. I wish I could scan it and upload it here, but I wouldn't want to get in trouble with SAGE and I'm sure it's available through their website.

As much as it is a danger that the media dilute language and perpetuate stereotypes in this way, it is we who are susceptible to it. Sumner's study was quite shocking because it shows that it's not just a handful of writers who hold prejudices on whole character based on name, but it is also picked up and interpreted 'correctly' by people, 20 years later! Similarly in the Coronation Street episode viewed, it was surprising how many cliched phrases are spoken in such a short period of time. Is this lazy writing or deliberate circumvention of the need for contemplation?