TV hit man sues for cash as world turns in Britain


December 29, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- It was dirty work, but somebody had to do it.

The contract went to David Yallop, a man with melancholy eyes accustomed to dealing in violence and conspiracy. He was handed a list of 10 names. Get rid of these people, he was told.

The paymaster promised about $156,000. Mr. Yallop put black stars by the names of his victims on a chart by his desk. He planned to start with a bomb.

He wound up in court. So did his bosses.

The would-be victims? Well, they're still around: Pete, the market stall holder, and his girlfriend, Barbara; Sufia's still with us, and even baby Steven. You can see them three times a week on the BBC's televised soap opera, "EastEnders," brightening the lives of millions of people throughout Britain.

The reason they were ordered liquidated, it seems, is that the producers of "EastEnders" thought they were not brightening those lives quite enough, or brightening enough of them, at least not with the candle power of the characters on a rival soap, "Coronation Street."

Thus, Mr. Yallop was hired to devise ways to do away with them. The bomb idea seemed efficient. There were so many Irish Republican Army bombs going off in London a couple of years ago when he was hired that such a turn in the plot, with an IRA explosion, would be entirely credible.

Besides, in the TV business here drastic measures are occasionally called for, especially when ratings are falling through the floor. The newest soap on British television, "Eldorado," was so badly received, the acting so atrocious, that one scenario advanced was to have the entire cast killed off in a bus crash.

It was only narrowly rejected.

Apparently Mr. Yallop didn't reckon with the BBC's sensitivity with regard to the IRA. Virtually every time any television station deals with the subject in depth, it feels heat from the government, which prohibits any kind of direct reporting on that organization.

Mr. Yallop's fictional bomb was to go off on election night last April and kill two characters in the cast. In fact, a real IRA bomb went off in London two days after the April 9 election and killed three people.

The coincidence probably confirmed the BBC broadcasters in their opinion of Mr. Yallop's insensitivity; they had already rejected his story lines and had called a halt to the contract.

The BBC tried to pay the would-be hit man off with $15,000. Mr. Yallop, author of a book alleging that Pope John Paul I was murdered, went to court after the whole $156,000.

Soap operas are big in Britain and quite different from the kind Americans are used to. U.S. shows treat with the heroic agonies of the rich; they purvey standard images of glamour: big houses, fast cars, men with chins like bricks and women of sexual alacrity.

British soaps -- "Coronation Street," "Brookside" and "EastEnders" -- trade in the day-to-day problems of the common man: stories about the tribulations of bartenders, unemployed garage mechanics; their characters run laundromats and grocery shops and have other unpromising careers. They thrum to what one observer called the "banal rhythms of everyday life."

Some people think the royal family satisfies any yearnings for the other kind of soap. That may or may not be so, but it is fairly evident Joan Collins would never be hired on "EastEnders."

There are reasons for these differences. Dr. Sonia M. Livingstone, the author of "Making Sense of Television," a study on audience interpretation, said the difference in the soaps reflected the difference in the U.S. and the British cultures.

"Americans believe people have to make it on their own, anybody can be president and all that. Thus the soaps show you the world that people aspire to. They also show that people in that world aren't always happy, which reassures those who don't make it.

"In Britain, it's not just that they portray ordinary people, but something of a romanticized version of how working people used to be. It is not so realistic as it seems to be, but more nostalgia."

Nothing ever came of the few attempts to cast the upper middle class in soaps here. "They achieved only moderate viewing audiences. Not enough."

And Mr. Yallop? He won his case.

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