Monday, 15 September 2008

Spanish TV

One of the paradoxes of modern life is how much we complain about the quality of television programmes in the UK, and yet it is widely regarded abroad as one of the best TV systems in the world. I've always found this hard to believe. Until, that is, we started watching TV when we went to Spain.

Now, don't think me obsessive: when we are on holiday, we don't just sit in watching this stuff. We do try to get out and about - honestly. But there's something temptingly fascinating about watching TV in another country and another language, and Spain is one of the most informative...

Spanish TV – all 14 or so free channels – is good introduction to the Spanish psyche. For a start, programmes often start and finish late, and get rescheduled at short notice. The TV schedules are renowned for saying ' Sin determinar' (not known) when referring to the films planned for the week ahead. Do they really not know what is going to be on?

Then there are lots and lots of adverts; between programmes, these can last for anything up to ten minutes. These are for all sorts of products that would fall foul of the Advertising Standards controls in the UK, especially for wonder slimming products which claim to lose you five inches of waistline just by painting on some green goo. In any programme with an exciting ending – a film or quiz show, for example – just before the end there is often a long advert break of at least five minutes.

Sport is a national obsession, with a lot more on sports such as cycling, motor-cycling and motor-racing. Soccer, of course, is the main attraction, and matches are often repeated again and again. For internationals, the commentators get very worked up when goals are scored for Spain: they shout ‘goal’ and hold the note for as long as they can, before becoming completely hyperactive - as in, 'goooooaaaaaaaaal. Goal por Espanya! Goal! Goal! Goal! Goal! Goal!'. It's definitely not 'Grandstand'.

Daytime chat show programmes - of which there are a huge number - are notable for large groups of guests - six or seven is not uncommon - who often all talk at once. Seemingly random camera shots often focus on the crotch area with gratuitous, lingering images of women’s cleavages. (This can happen in any programme, actually). Women’s make-up - especially for late middle-aged celebrities - is often heavy to the point of scary, with lashings of mascara and eye-liner featuring prominently.

One of the most interesting contrasts with the UK is the Spanish equivalent of ‘Deal or No Deal’ , called ‘Alla Tu’, on Tele 5. It’s much more fun that the UK version to watch – completely hyper-active. Expect spontaneous singing and dancing (another facet of Spanish TV, generally), especially if someone gets a run of bad luck - they have a song they sing, which goes something on the lines of, 'let's do away with the bad luck'. The absence of Noel Edmonds helps, of course: there is none of the faux seriousness in trying to build up the tension. The other contrast with Noel Edmonds is that the host is usually the oh-so-televisual Jesus Vasquez – a fantastically worked-out gay man, and generally regarded as one of the most handsome in Spain.

On the plus side, Catalan TV makes some wonderful documentaries - my favourite being the 'Routes of Faith' programme every Sunday morning, when they travel around the little-known villages and towns of the Catalan Pyrenees looking at the history and fascinating early mediaeval architecture of their churches (whole chunks of the area are included as UNESCO Heritage Sites). They also buy in lots of foreign stuff (they seem to like British programmes - lots of Dr Who and Spooks), which is a good way to get your head around the heavy consonant sounds of the language.

But best of all are the South American soaps. These can show schoolgirls (looking about 25 and heavily made up) in unfeasibly sexy uniforms (tall leather boots, crotch-high skirts and copious cleavage, anyone?) - which seem to be timed mysteriously accurately for when Spanish men are returning home from work. But most show feuding families, á la Dynasty, with evil, greedy and jealous women a speciality.

The general format of all of these consists of unfeasibly complex plots, with five or six parallel story-lines (which develop tediously slowly), featuring unhappy but vengeful rich people with their (largely) contented peasants in the background. I read somewhere that this had been devised as a form of social control - to encourage the general population to aspire to the lifestyles they see, without actually fostering resentment against the rich for their wealth.

The downside of watching this stuff as a foreigner is that you learn a rather skewed vocabulary: words like murder, poison, revenge and hate, and a whole lot of unpleasant ways of bumping people off. The highlight at the end of one series, La Tormenta, was one of the women being bitten by a spider just as she was about to reach the zenith of her drawn-out evil scheme: it paralysed her, and the camera focused on her terrified face as a boa constrictor slithered into view...

Perhaps 'East Enders' could take a note or two...?

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