What distinguishes the Soaps from situation comedies (sitcoms), cop shows and McGiveresque action adventure is that they are performed live in New York studios by actors passionate about the craft of acting. The dramas are akin to theater; therefore, dialogue is everything. Unlike the sitcoms with their insipid canned laughter telling you something is funny or sex & violence and car chases that titillate and keep you from dozing off, dialogue and plot are what keep an audience returning to the Soaps day after day, year after year. “General Hospital” and “As the World Turns,” for instance, have third-generation viewers.
The dramas are called Soap Operas because they are melodramatic and their advertising of soap products is directed at an audience of housewives, who do their chores with the TV set turned on. These ladies may not be watching all the time, but they are listening to the dialogue. And they buy a lot of Tide and Cheer laundry detergent, too.
The Sunday morning religious hour on AFN is another good time. This is because the Christian pulpit is famous for its oratory, sermons spoken clearly and succinctly. And if an African-American preacher is in the pulpit, you will hear the deep mellifluous voice for which these men are famous. It was Martin Luther King, Jr., arguably the best American orator, who opened America’s ears to this preaching tradition, when his “I Have a Dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. resounded through the land, from sea to shinning sea.
My favorite English hour is between eleven p.m. and midnight. This is when The History Channel presents “The Return of Sherlock Holmes” or “Poirot,” famous sleuths created respectively by Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, acknowledged masters of the mystery genre. But it is the dialogues that I relish, not the intricate plots. For anyone’s English would be improved by listening to the shows’ thespians. I never tire of watching or, rather, listening to the episodes again and again.
Both series are British productions (Granada TV), and the Brits are past masters at presenting social history and historical reenactment. Authentic costume, sets and an eye for detail coupled with precise English takes one back in time to Holmes’ Victorian or Poirot’s post-World War I England. And juxtaposing Holmes with Poirot makes a transition from the Victorian-Edwardian tradition to the motorcar modernity following it.
Playing the role of Sherlock Holmes is no small fete, especially with the looming specter of Basil Rathbone, the Sherlock by which all thespians are compared. Yet Jeremy Brett is more than up to it, bringing his own unique interpretation of the master sleuth of 221B Baker Street to the TV series. And I much prefer Edward Hardwicke’s interpretation of the role of Dr. John Watson, Holmes’ invaluable companion, to that of Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of a bumbling Dr. Watson in the Rathbone episodes.
I am so enamored of the Granada dramatization of Conan Doyle’s classics that I began reading them. And I must read Agatha Christie as well, since I am equally enamored of Hercule Poirot, her fastidious Belgian sleuth.
Although Poirot speaks English like a Belgian, his choice of words and clear diction, when using his “little gray cells” to solve a crime, is music to the ear; while his occasional use of common French expressions is precious.
David Suchet is masterly in the role of the sartorial Hercule, a 19th-century continental gentleman who is disdainful of things modern, but an admirer of things British. Poirot is assisted in sleuthing by a certain Capt. Hastings, who is frequently called upon to explain the peculiar habits of the British to a bemused Hercule.
Both dramatizations run the gamut of class-obsessed British society by including characters that speak with a rich variety of accents, from Cockney and yeoman to vicar and squire. Sometimes you hear American, a reminder of Americans and British being “two peoples separated by a common language.”
I would be remiss if I did not include the dramatization of “Miss Marple,” another Agatha Christie sleuth; though there are fewer episodes to enjoy. The 1930’s are upon us when we encounter the elderly Miss Marple, who seems barely able to get through the day let alone solve a murder mystery. Yet solve them she does.
Although there are noticeable changes in the English spoken in the trilogy spanning over 50 years, especially between the stilted language of Holmes’ era and that of Poirot’s, it is the motorcar, or lack there of in the case of Sherlock, that signals times have changed. London’s streets, for example, change very little over these years, while the verdant English countryside remains pastoral.
Students have better things to do with themselves than to sit all day in front of a TV set, but there are informative programs that are worth watching. CNN, of course, offers 24 hours of continuous news programs though students are frustrated by its speedy newsreaders. But its specialized programs, including everything from travel, fashion and food to high-tech, medicine and space exploration, are easier for students to comprehend.
CNN’s forte is political analysis. Programs such as “International Correspondent,” with Sheila MacVicar (a thinking-man’s babe), “Diplomatic License,” hosted by the pompous Richard Roth, and “Late Edition,” with Wolf Blitzer (CNN’s attack dog), offer viewers insightful analysis from eloquent guests who lucidly expound on issues of which we should be informed.
“America’s Black Forum,” a program about issues central to black folk, and by black folk, counters the entertainment media’s image of African-Americans as a people who are singing and dancing their lives away. And if the fluctuations of the financial and oil markets interest you, then CNN’s complete coverage of global business news, punctuated by the very affected British enunciation of Becky Anderson and Richard Quest, will keep you informed.
Those who are partial to the Queen’s English can switch to BBC World News on the Arirang channel, which is anchored by newsreaders trained to speak it. I always put the kettle on beforehand, and while sipping my Darjeeling I like to imagine that I am listening from a hunting lodge in Kenya or from the veranda of a bungalow in Dalhousie. For the BBC World Service was the voice of civilization to the minions of an empire upon which the sun never set.
If you are knowledgeable and have a high opinion of your English, then test yourself on Arirang’s “Quiz Champion,” a quiz show that invites the best and brightest teams of high school students to go head-to-head by challenging their encyclopedic knowledge with questions that tax their little gray cells. But it is off-putting to hear the hosts egregiously mispronounce a key word in a question or a multiple-choice answer, a handicap the contestants can do without. And they strike me as really good kids, too.
Television, a medium its creators hoped would educate and inform the masses, was hijacked in the 1950’s by Madison Avenue advertising types to sell laundry detergent, underarm deodorant and every product under the sun. Nevertheless I wish that I had as many French programs on TV when I was a struggling student as today’s Korean students have English programs. INVU.
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