Friday, December 30, 2005 by Ian Jones
It’s rare these days to be present at the very end of a TV programme’s life.
With so many shows dying thanks to decidedly offhand machinations – be it premature cancellation, disappearance mid-run or banishment to a post-midnight killing ground – we’re getting less chances than ever to see something through to a proper full stop.
So disregarding for a moment the reasons how and why Family Affairs got axed, let’s first acknowledge how great it was to actually be allowed to appreciate an organised, pre-conceived and orderly bout of self-combustion.
And a textbook one at that. It was all here. A character returned from many moons ago to announce she’d won the lottery. Two others got married. Another threw a punch at someone else. A vicar was reconciled to his blousy girlfriend. A woman was caught stealing and got her face slapped. Another was tied up and held hostage. A third decided to take her glasses off for the first time and was instantly changed from a plain Jane into a tousled beauty (rightfully murmuring “there’s something I’ve got to do” as she went).
As midnight approached on New Year’s Eve, an orchestra struck up the Blue Danube waltz, and like the band on the Titanic continued to play proudly as the end drew near. Characters vowed to start a new life “in Chigwell – the promised land!” Fireworks soared high in the sky as somewhere a woman was strangled with a string of black pearls. “I’m going to miss this place,” a voice blubbed. “Won’t we all?” replied Arthur Daley’s nephew, before turning to camera and leading everyone in a faltering chorus of Auld Lang Syne. Meantime the Charnham strangler menaced a young girl with an old school tie, while she clutched a satisfyingly lethal lead trophy behind her back. The credits rolled …
You couldn’t fault the final episode of Family Affairs. It did all it had to do, no more, no less. In this, however, it was just like every other episode of the soap, and hence as good an advert as any for its abiding insignificance. All the right buttons were pushed, all the necessary archetypes looked in, and all the requisite one-liners were rattled out. But that was it. It was possible to pick up the gist of months’ worth of storylines in a matter of minutes, which was just as well as a matter of minutes were all that was left. It was similarly easy to identify, size-up and pigeonhole everyone you were supposed to like and everyone you were supposed to hate. In fact there was very little you needed to invest in the show at all, beyond which there was nothing left to do but, well, watch. Or more likely, watch while investing yourself in something else.
It wasn’t that the thing was badly produced or badly acted – far from it. But it just wasn’t that particularly well produced or commendably acted either. It was simply, unassumingly, unobtrusively … enough. A good effort, as your teacher would always write at the end of a piece of work you knew had done what was asked of it, but assuredly no more.
And though as far as soaps are concerned a good effort is better than no effort (and especially a bad effort – something which loads of people have worked on to create a finished product that is still staggeringly awful), for a channel like five that’s evidently no longer enough. Other networks can seemingly get away with throwing out mediocre long-running shows as long as they’re surrounded by enough high-profile programmes to pick up the slack, and don’t have advertisers or executives who ask too many questions. Not five. It doesn’t have enough high-profile programmes, save Home and Away, but it does have advertisers and executives who ask lots of questions – chiefly why, almost 10 years into its life, the channel still doesn’t have an obvious identity and an obvious audience.
As such Family Affairs was given the chop. Not for doing badly in the ratings (quite the opposite – it has always performed in its 6.30pm slot), rather not for doing well enough. Quite what “well enough” means is a question for which there as many answers as there have been five commissioning editors and TV executives. The current director of programmes Dan Chambers stated the show had reached the end of its “natural life span” – but since when did soaps have life spans, and when was there anything natural about them?
In truth there was really no reason why Family Affairs had to come to an end right now. But then there’s also never really been a reason why Family Affairs should not have come to an end at any point in any year. Its airy inconsequentiality was both the motive for its birth (by dint of being cheap, unassuming and disposable television) and the manner of its death (by dint of being cheap, unassuming and disposable television).
It could have gone at any time; it could have run for years. Either way most of us wouldn’t have noticed. By trying too hard not to appear to be trying too hard, it prepared the stage for its own curtain call, and for another soap to fall out of our schedules.
Nonetheless Family Affairs deserves our respect for making a dignified exit, with no traces of malice placed in any characters’ mouths. It also deserves a note in TV history for embarking on a revamp that didn’t just restock most of its cast but relocated an entire district a distance of several hundred miles. But wherever the fictional borough of Charnham purported to be one week to the next, it somehow never did enough to claim either a residual place in the right kind of minds or an affectionate one in the right number of hearts.
In TV soap folklore it now seems inertia can kill just as much as incompetence. As well as a swift throttle from a pearl necklace, of course, but then we knew that.