Atienza: Of soap operas and dynastic ambitions


I TOOK a peek at my first soap opera as a high school student in the United States in 1972. Grandma Beeman, my American foster grandmother, would be glued to ABC-TV from noon till 3 p.m. watching General Hospital, All my Children and the like. Woe betide anyone who dared interrupt her from her afternoon shows!

As for myself, I never got around to following a full drama series on TV the way Grandma Beeman did with her hanky in hand and brimming tears in her eyes. Not then. Not now.

In the Philippines, soap operas are more popularly known as telenovelas. A soap opera is defined as an ongoing drama series, on radio or on TV, featuring lives of fictional characters with their complex personal and emotional relationships. As the fiction unfolds, viewers inevitably connect with the ironies and vicissitudes of life: love and loathing, triumphs and failures, births and deaths, laughter and tears, vengeance and forgiveness, jealousies and solidarity, war and peace.

My friends laugh at me when I say I’ve never followed a telenovela. There is no way I can add to their discussions on Hanggang Saan, Meteor Garden or comment on the latest Turkish hunk.

But I can discuss with full gossipy authority on the lives of the British royal family! The timeless Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles the Joke, the “martyred” Princess Diana, the “evil” Lady Camilla, the ever-perfect Duchess Kate who has never put a wrong foot forward, and the much maligned American “social climber” Meghan Markle are among my favorite characters,” I tell my friends. “They are my reality TV and telenovela rolled in one.”

Like Grandma Beeman, I’ve followed my personal soap opera since the 1960’s, when General Hospital first aired on TV. In my case, I have in fact been following my telenovela from the 10th century, since I was obligated to study and read history on this British dynasty.

Let’s move forward to the 1500’s. This was the time when England’s King Henry VIII beheaded his wives and detractors at will, mostly for political purposes and to ensure succession. He beheaded his first wife Catherine of Aragon mainly because she could not produce a male heir. The power of the monarch was clearly absolute.

Fast-forward to the 20th-21st centuries. Like most telenovelas, there has been an abundance of tragedies, sexual liaisons and treachery in the lives of the current British monarchy. Think Charles and Camilla. Think Diana’s alcohol-fuelled car crash. Princess Margaret and her lovers in the island of Mustique. Fergie and her toe-sucking suitor.

But life in the 21st century has become vastly different for members of the British monarchy since the 1500’s. While King Henry VIII could behead people at will, today Queen Elizabeth II serves at the people’s will. Where in the past, their power was absolute over land and monies; today the people have the power to make them serve, providing them a limited budget to spend.

It is often said that Diana, Princess of Wales and the “People’s Princess” singlehandedly saved the British monarchy. Her popularity came at a time when British anti-monarchists were gaining ground in their position. Today, British commentators severely criticize Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, for spending millions of pounds of taxpayer money on their wedding and on their Frogmore House renovation. When they try to be coy about press briefings, the people call them to task. Hey! We spend our tax money on you. Now provide us with a photo of the new kid-on-the-Buckingham block, newborn baby Archie!!! And so the show goes on.

Fortunately, would-be dynasties in Philippines do not to need to behead wives to assure succession. Spouses, aunts, uncles, cousins and sycophants are aplenty. But what soap operas clearly show is that life is unpredictable. We give it different euphemisms: Karma. Weather-weather lang. Bilog ang mundo.

Clearly, soap operas (and political history!) are meant for those who think power will last forever. Think British monarchy, people!


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