I'm terribly worried about Ruth, said my lunch companion.

 

Have you heard?  Do you know what's happening?

 

A normal gossipy chat with a friend, you might think.  But you'd be wrong.  I'm sitting in a restaurant with the editor of a broadsheet newspaper - and though we don't really know each other, we've discovered that we have mutual friends.  The Archers.

 

And what about Sid?  He continues. I can't see him and Cathy lasting after this affair, can you?

 

Well there were a few indrawn breaths in our family car during those Sunday morning omnibuses - 'shagging' on Radio 4 - who would have thought it?  Though I can't quite believe in sex with an rural Oxfordshire accent.  Sid and Jolene's love scenes sounded like the Worzels singing Jane Birkin's je t'aime - parental guidance recommended.

 

The cancer story, however, had me rushing anxionsly off to the GP with my own long-standing lump asking for another referral to the breast clinic, despite having already been told that the lump is benign.  I was the third Archers fan the Doctor had seen that week, but just because the worry has been prompted by a soap opera doesn't lessen the fear.  No mother facing the same real life drama could listen to Ruth worrying about not being around to see her children grow up without recognising her own dread. 

 

As a woman over thirty-five I was given priority at the One-Stop Breast Clinic run at St Mary's Hospital in Paddington.  A week after visiting the GP, I postured like a bad lap dancer while a consultant, a nurse and two student doctors examined me.  Then I sat in the waiting room with nine other patients knowing that the odds were that at least one of us would discover we had cancer.  Each woman from the fat, middle aged grandmother with three gold rings in each ear to the slim girl in a cut off cardigan and Mui Mui mules knew exactly what we were there for, yet no-one made eye contact.  Not until we queued outside the radiographer waiting for a mammogram did someone speak.  "Do you think it hurts?"  She said.  Some things are too difficult to talk about in public.

 

Intimate personal problems with health, marital infidelity or father's nastly ferret-bashing fetish are subjects we don't usually discuss with strangers over lunch or in hospital waiting rooms. It's much easier to worry by proxy, sit back, switch on a soap opera and watch your uncomfortable linen being laundered by someone else. 

 

Certainly, we are a nation of prime time soap addicts, preferring our reality second-hand.  Millions tune in every week to watch Coronation Street and Eastenders battle in the ratings for television supremacy.  Tabloid newspapers run stories about the plotlines as though the characters were real. We may not know the people next door but if we all watch Corrie then Gail and Martin become our virtual neighbours.  Better to think about their marriage break-up than worry about our own.

 

As a housebound mother for almost a decade, I have several honorary degrees in soap.  After an early education at Crossroads Academy, I attended Eastenders from day one, then did an MA at Brookside.  I dropped out of Emmerdale and Take the High Road after just a couple of terms, but have followed a sort of Open University modular course at Coronation Street, on and off, for years.  I've even studied obscure soaps like the two-season Gems and a badly dubbed drama from Brazil. 

 

But personally - when it comes to soap operas - I like to dig a bit deeper - all the way down under to that antipodean world of perpetual adolescence, where the teenagers are all twenty five and women over forty look like wizened advertisements for sun screen.  Thank the God of wooden tea-time television for Australia. 

 

There seem to be only ten actors in the whole continent.  They die, are resurrected as another character in a rival soap, or go overseas or 'inter-state' to live a parallel life here in Blighty during the Panto season.

 

While American soaps are full of blonde women with more silicone than fat, and thin enough to go through a paper shredder unscathed - women in Australian soaps like Neighbours still think it's 1954, wear polyester and cook roast dinners.

 

Home and Away, meanwhile, celebrates the disfunctional family.  No-one lives with their real parents and everyone has been either a murderer, an alcoholic, a drug addict, or homeless.  Almost everyone lives happily ever after - and if they dont - you don't really care.

 

The Archers may be the only socially acceptable soap opera for the Middle Classes to believe in, but although I'm an avid listener, sometimes it's easier to watch something which you don't believe. 

 

So let's not talk about Ruth.  Let's pretend I'm Kylie and lucky, lucky, lucky.  Pass the remote control.