Oi, Dirty Den, meet Dirty Don

February 18, 2005

EastEnders celebrates 20 years of ratings success this month. But with audience figures now tumbling and its future reportedly in doubt, what could ever take its place? Valerie Atkinson proposes a campus alternative

A Soap Outline (otherwise known as A Tidemark around the Bath) Name of programme: Doublethink.

Format: Hourly slots in place of Big Brother . Each episode opens with whirling camera shots, like Green Wing or ER . Doors flying open, pounding background music, camera panning to overloaded noticeboards, flashing lecture theatre signs and important names on office doors. Then nothing.

Total stillness, emptiness, absence of activity. Apart from the almost imperceptible movement of a robotic goat.

Main sets: The vice-chancellor's private toilet. The department of artificial intelligence general office, leading to two offices. Office of first AI academic, where a yellowing notice on the door reads: "Hour of work: 1800-1900 first Wednesday of every month, term time only. Exceptions: sabbatical leave; attending conferences. Urgent inquiries: department secretary." Office of second AI academic. Door open revealing mayhem. Books and papers are piled higgledy-piggledy everywhere; the desk (what can be seen of it) boasts a large array of railway memorabilia. On the floor is a robot resembling a goat.

Main characters: All academic staff but one are male. Only 5 per cent of students are female.

Denise Cheng: the AI department cleaner and a postgraduate student. She has an evening job in a call centre. Denise acts as commentator, introducing each episode with her reflections on university life. She is a working-class girl from Tunstall but is often mistaken for an asylum-seeker. She is by turn ignored and patronised despite having a starred first in physics. Denise has noticed the robot on her rounds and a set of questions on the greenboard. She has devised her own solution, tweaked the robot and caused it to speak. She does not realise that the goat was previously mute.

Professor Bernard Morrison: known to the secretaries as Professor Mogadon (or Moggy), holds the J. G. Ballard chair of artificial intelligence. He is a dreamy, gentle individual who is totally baffled by the sudden leap his robotics research has made. The robot has unexpectedly said "good day, professor" to him. He is convinced it has an Australian accent and has recognised Bernard Morrison as its Creator.

Helen Royce: Helen is the department administrator. She is well organised, stoical and tolerant. She always does what she can to be helpful, believing this to be her mission in life, and, as a result, is endlessly exploited.

She has a soft spot for Bernard Morrison and defends him against the gibes of her colleague Kate.

Kate Fry: the office junior. She is flirty, flighty and shameless, spending much of her time chatting up students. Her secretarial post is a "fill-in" until she goes to drama school. She has no respect for any of her colleagues and teases Helen mercilessly.

Mr Beverly de Villiers: head of department, known to all as chief. He is posh and articulate but barely able to cope. He rushes around frenetically trying vainly to multitask and throwing both himself and Helen (to whom he refers as his PA, which irritates her almost beyond endurance) into stressed confusion. He is always missing deadlines, meetings and trains, and has not published anything since becoming head of department.

Dr Frances Blakely: corporate liaison co-ordinator. Frances is ruthless and rude. She speaks a commercial language no one understands, which enables her to wield considerable influence over the endlessly hassled de Villiers.

She has organised several business development summits with high-flying industrial companies, achieved precisely nothing for the department, but lined her own pocket very nicely, thank you.

Dick Dupont: department lech. Say no more.

Dr Guy Mason: headhunted for his research profile, he is now totally unproductive and spends his time inducing colleagues into a little-known religious cult. Such was his value to the department when recruited that his appointment package included a permanent administration post for his wife two grades higher than the most senior secretary.

Professor Tony Featherstone: sleek, persuasive and attractive to both sexes. He has risen through the ranks despite being held in contempt by experts in his field. He has successfully played the blackmail card (promote me or I'm off to a post I've just been offered elsewhere) at least three times.

Dr Prudence Partridge: she has published more books, monographs and articles than anyone else in the department but cannot get promoted to a professorship. Her distress has caused her physical appearance to deteriorate and she seems to have developed a severe facial twitch, though no one can remember whether she ever communicated any differently. She is seeking counselling for a sex change.

The vice-chancellor: when not travelling abroad, the vice-chancellor (who remains nameless throughout) spends a great deal of time in his private toilet, where no one can gain access to him. In this refuge, he has his most inspired ideas for the development of the university. He is obsessed with saving the planet and introducing environmentally friendly innovations, hence the greenboards. This, he says, is an essential part of his Micro to Macro Project. His next plan is to encourage members of staff to plant trees in the campus grounds, financed out of their own pockets, to counteract global deforestation. He dreams of worldwide acclaim and a knighthood.

First episode: Bernard Morrison tries to find out from Helen who has penetrated his inner sanctum and successfully completed an important piece of engineering on his robotic goat. Helen thinks of everyone but Denise. Bernard is fearful of industrial spies and tries to blame Frances Blakely, who is outraged (but privately wonders whether she could make use of such information in future). Kate targets a new research student for seduction and asks for his help in organising an office party. Prudence has her first counselling session. And the goat starts eating Bernard's research documents. Meanwhile, Denise wonders why there is one door (to the experimental laboratory) that she is expressly forbidden to enter.

Valerie Atkinson is departmental administrator at York University.

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