The comments on the nature of soap operas I quoted earlier in relation to Downton Abbey reminded me of James Thurber’s series on soap operas from the early forties, which appeared first in  The New Yorker  (here’s the first of the series , though available only to subscribers) and then, under the title “Soapland,” in his book  The Beast in Me and Other Animals . It was an early example of the close examination of popular culture we’ve gotten used to by now, only actively critical of the productions in a way the average pop culture critic isn’t today, and is often very funny and insightful.

Here is the only quote I could find online, and though amusing, not the funniest or most insightful in the series. But since it’s the only one I could find, here it is.

Most actors dread the periodical appearance in soap-opera scripts of a singularly syrupy kind of dialogue written in by reluctant authors in support of a commercial device known as a premium offer, or giveaway, or deal. For a period of several weeks once or twice a year on most soap-opera programs, a piece of costume jewelry is mailed to the listeners who send in a quarter and a box top for a forget-me-not pin, a lovebird brooch, or an orchid clip.

In most instances, the pieces of jewelry are credited in the script to the leading woman of the serial who, it turns out, is something of genius at designing the stuff. She is often forced to tell her listeners, at the end of the program, that they, too, can own a gorgeous, beautiful, resplendent, and scintillatingly decorative gadget exactly like her own.

To make things gooier, the dialogue of the opera itself during this sales period is used to plug the jewelery. In one studio the other day, a young actress new to radio encountered her first giveaway dialogue during rehearsal. The reading of the script, with interpolations, went something like this:

Young Actress: I am happy to meet you, Mrs. Nelson, and where in the world did you get that perfectly stunning orchid clip? Why, it gleams like virgin gold, and just look at those gorgeous colors exactly like a rainbow and sunset coming together in a resplendent
display of almost unimaginable beauty . . . . For heaven’s sake, do I have to read this glop?

Mrs. Nelson: I’m glad you like it. I designed it myself . . . . I’m afraid you’re going to have to read it, dear.

Director: Look, darling, this is what we call a giveaway and I couldn’t cut it out without cutting myself out of a job. Just get
hold of yourself and be brave.

Articles by David Mills

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