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The Soap Omnibus


Kellie Arthur is a New Zealander living and working in London.

It's Sunday afternoon, 3pm. It's dusk outside. The temperature has dropped to 10 degrees. Our Indian summer is officially over. All around London, people are sitting inside, curled up on the sofa, central heating giving it some welly, sipping on PG tips and eating Hobnobs. And they are all watching the same thing on the telly. You may think I'm talking about the football premiership. Or even the current and never ending series of Pop Idol 2 . But neither of these programmes are keeping us all in on a Sunday afternoon. At 3.10 every Sunday, the familiar drum intro to Eastenders blasts out from the telly and we are transfixed for 2 1/2 hours. The great British institution - the weekend soap omnibus. All the week's episodes re-screened back to back. Is there anything more indulgent than a cuppa tea, a chockie biscuit and 2 1/2 hours of family feuding and bar staff bickering?

Indulgent maybe isn't the best word? Many would say "boring" would be a better description. But for each person who (supposedly) loathes the omnibus, you would get another who relishes it, and yet another who is a closet fancier of it.

While not all of us are open adorers of the omnibus, I found out this weekend at a party, there are more than a few people who like a bit of soap action on the sly. I was chatting to one guy in his early 20s. His hair was scruffily cool, his tattoos just visible through his slightly holey t-shirt. His trainers well worn and conversation well versed in topics from the current Tory party (or lack there of) to the Sigmar Polke exhibition at the Tate Modern. Not someone who you would ordinarily think would be lying down on the couch watching Cat Slater telling some poor bird to sling her hook. But he openly admitted (well after many cans of Guinness) that a Sunday afternoon in front of the Eastenders omnibus was the perfect ending to a mad weekend.

This comment rippled into a flood of agreement with everyone around the table. Although we never speak of it, the omnibus rules supreme in our weekend viewing schedules. The conversation then settled in for the next 1/2 hour on the pros and cons of the omnibus. The people at the table were having a cathartic experience. Relishing the opportunity to discuss their love of the big O like it was an obsession that they felt compelled to keep secret. Their TV shame finally given more than a modicum of acceptability. They talked of their love for being able to catch up on the weeks episodes given that many are stuck on a public transport coming home from work when the episodes originally screen. Others showed their frustration at catching one episode during the week and then having the dilemma of what to do for the 20 minutes when it rescreened during the omnibus. Should they nip out and put a load of washing on until the next episode was on? Or should they watch it again, simultaneously flipping through the Sunday Times until the next episode started? What they were most annoyed about was the break in their routine. When an episode they had already seen was on, it was harder to not think about all the other things they could be doing. If you got up and did something else for those 20 minutes, then the decadent intellectual abandonment to the telly would also be broken and it wouldn't seem so indulgent anymore. The omnibus is a tricky business - everyone had their routine and liked to stick to it. Where they sat, what they drank or ate, blanket or no blanket, phone switched on or off - so many decisions that a novice omnibus watcher wouldn't be aware of.

Everyone agreed that watching the omnibus was more a winter phenomenon and as they talked it became obvious that it held a slipper like feeling of comfort. When the leaves begin falling off the trees and the night approaches even though it is only mid afternoon, we all reach for the remote control for a touch of comfort and familiarity. And I have to agree - when you have been on one all night and you awake in the afternoon to find it is already turning back into night, there is something decadent about dragging your duvet out to the sofa and watching hours of ad-less east end drama.

A non-believer joined the table. Hearing the discussion he began to look perplexed. Eventually he asked the group why, when they were hungover or lacking sleep from the weekend's exploits, would they tune into 2 1/2 hours of Pauline Fowler's miserable mug yelling across the square for Martin to get back to his barra'. In some ways I can see his point and I have to admit that it could seem more idiotic to tune into it now that I live in the east end and I could walk around the corner to Brick lane and hear the same thing. But, that is exactly why we tune in. It is something familiar and unchallenging at a time when no one is feeling like the Brain of Britain. It shows ordinary people living ordinary lives which is just fine with us when we are slouching around in track pants and hoodies looking decidedly less glamorous than we did shimmying around the club a few hours before.

So as the winter starts to take its grip on London, slippers have replaced jandels, jerseys have replaced singlets and the sofa and central heating have replaced deck chairs and sunshine. Hobnobs and PG Tips are at the ready. The time of the Omnibus has arrived again.

 Flipside Correspondents

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