Dani Garavelli: The enduring appeal of EastEnders

The cast of EastEnders in 1985, the year of its launch. Picture: BBC
The cast of EastEnders in 1985, the year of its launch. Picture: BBC
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Duf, duf, duf… as the nation’s favourite soap noir warms up for a 30th anniversary orgy of denouements, Dani Garavelli examines the enduring appeal of EastEnders

THEIR faces expressionless, the figures drift as one through the night towards a city garden as a gate swings back and forth on its hinges. On a roof high above them, a woman, pale and waif-like, appears and casts an accusatory glance in their direction. If it weren’t for a handful of tell-tale signs – the red telephone box, the graffiti and the fish and chip shop (Ian’s Plaice – geddit?) – it could be a scene from the series The Returned.

But the nearest hostelry is not Le Lake Pub, but The Queen Vic, the zombie is not Victor, but Lucy Beale, and if any of the characters were to open their mouths, they would speak, not in soothing French tones, but in a Cockney squawk which would ruin the aura of mystery.

The eldritch trailer for a series of 30th anniversary EastEnders specials stands in stark contrast to everything we associate with the soap: sophisticated as opposed to brash, subtle as opposed to in-your-face, though with a duf duf duf drumroll-worthy ending to rival any in the programme’s history. But the week of live programmes – kicking off on February 17 – is expected to take on the more angsty, shouty, pugilistic atmosphere we have come to know and love since it first hit our screens in February 1985.

Billed as “the most ambitious week of live television ever attempted”, it will see the return of stalwarts such as Nick Cotton and Peggy Mitchell, the wedding of Ian and Jane Beale, some form of Albert Square “justice” (no need to involve the rozzers or the beak) being meted out to Dean Wicks for raping Linda Carter, and the killer of Lucy (Ian’s daughter by Cindy) being identified after 10 months of hype. There will, and this is an educated guess, be much hurling of insults, an emphasis on the family – “You mess wiv one Beale, you mess wiv us all” – and at least one death. The death, which has already been flagged up by programme-makers, will be Cotton’s and will leave no-one in need of bereavement counselling. But there is a pleasing symmetry to it. If he is finally going to get his comeuppance for murdering Reg Cox for his medals in the very first episode, it makes sense he should do so now, when the contribution of both war veterans and the soap itself are being commemorated.

Cotton is in many ways the archetypal EastEnders baddie – nasty in kind of grubby, low-level way. He has made it into the top five of various league tables of fictional villains. Yet, despite two murders (he also stabbed Queen Vic landlord Eddie Royle), the manslaughter of his son Ashley (he tampered with the brakes on Mark Fowler’s bike, then Ashley stole it) and enough TICs to wipe clean the slates of several police divisions – not everyone thinks he is evil enough. Charlie Brooker once wrote: “Whereas [Coronation Street villain] Jez Quigley looked as though he’d enjoy riding an onyx stallion through a field full of groaning, recently-impaled victims before galloping home to bathe in the blood of the fallen, Nick Cotton merely looks like he might, at a push, dispute the price of a dented tin of custard with a supermarket checkout girl while you wait behind him, wondering when he last washed his hair.” Wherever you stand on Cotton’s badness, though, the latest plotline is a master-stroke, which plays on the viewer’s sense of irony – last year Cotton faked his death, now he’s dying for real – and allows EastEnders to move seamlessly from one whodunnit it to another.

That anyone cares who killed Lucy Beale (whose body was found on Walford Common) – or is interested in any programme available on “cooncil telly” – may be baffling to the Netflix generation. But it is testament to the current team of writers that despite almost unlimited competition more than 7 million viewers regularly tune in and that the twists and turns of the lives of the characters (and the actors who play them) are still a source of water cooler gossip.

Like all soaps, EastEnders has had its times in the doldrums, times when story-lines have waned and the most pressing question was why the Carters had flamingo wallpaper in their bedroom. There are those, too, who complain the soap no longer reflects the make-up of its real-life counterparts Tower Hamlets, Hackney or Mile End. Where once its social diversity was what set it apart from Coronation Street, it has failed to keep up with the area’s rapidly changing demographics, with little heed paid to the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Somalia. Perhaps it too has got caught in a time-warp, constantly harking back to the days when the East End was peopled by shady market stall holders and gangsters. The hard men may have been edged out by the big families – the Beales, the Brannigans, the Masoods – but there are no Russian oligarchs buying up properties and forcing out the local people.

Even so, EastEnders, like its northern counterpart, has become a British institution, carving out a niche for itself and enduring while others, such as Eldorado and Brookside, fell by the wayside.

It began life when channel executives asked producer and script editor Julia Smith and Tony Holland to create a soap which felt edgier and more contemporary than Coronation Street, with its cobbles and its cat and its endless cups of tea. They decided to set it in an old Victorian Square in London’s East End because they wanted somewhere inward-looking, with an almost defensive sense of community. In an attempt to capture the ethnic mix, they introduced Trinidadian-born Tony Carpenter and his son Kelvin, and Saeed and Naima Jeffery, whose families were Bangladeshi. Some people complained about stereotyping – Saeed owned a grocer’s and his marriage to Naima was arranged – but there was a general feeling that it was good to see black characters on prime time television. And they focused on gritty story-lines. Within the first few years, the soap had covered cot death, rape, prostitution and teenage pregnancy and incurred the wrath of Mary Whitehouse. The gamble paid off because EastEnders became hugely popular, frequently displacing Coronation Street as the UK’s most-watched soap.

EastEnders’ longevity and its willingness to tackle contentious issues means it has been both an agent and a documenter of social change. Remember the controversy caused by the first gay peck on the lips between Colin Russell and Barry Clark (Michael Cashman and Gary Hailes)? Politicians were frothing at the mouth. Now Cashman is an MEP, gay marriage is legal and a new Russell T Davies series, Cucumber, is exploring gay sex in a world where it is entirely mainstream. Then there was Mark Fowler contracting HIV and that heartbreaking episode when his dad Arthur wouldn’t eat the food his son had prepared for fear of catching the virus.

In the ensuing years, there have been many other crusading story-lines – rape, domestic violence, disability, suicide, some of them handled more successfully than others; when Ronnie Branning lost her baby to a cot death, then stole someone else’s, the BBC received thousands of complaints. But there has been praise too. The scenes in which Dot Cotton helped her friend Ethel to die had a nation sobbing into its collective handkerchief and pushed euthanasia up the political agenda.

One valid criticism of all soaps is the way they have to keep upping the ante to hold on to viewers. EastEnders has had fewer large-scale tragedies than Corrie or Emmerdale: no plane or tram crashes, although there was the collapse of a helter-skelter. But the murder rate is astronomical; there have been 90-odd deaths in 30 years and of those, 20-odd have been at someone else’s hand. It is difficult to be precise because some could be regarded as self-defence or manslaughter, and some of the victims later turned up alive (the reports of Dirty Den’s death were greatly exaggerated). But even at a conservative estimate, the death by murder ratio is around 1:4 which can surely be surpassed only by Midsomer Murders.

The sense of Albert Square as a vortex of violence has been magnified by the brutal experiences of several cast members. Leslie Grantham, who played Dirty Den, was himself a convicted murderer, having shot a taxi driver in Germany while serving in the Army; and Gemma McCluskie, who played Kerry Skinner, was murdered by her own brother. Two former cast members – David Scarboro, who played Mark Fowler before Todd Carty, and Paul Bhattacharjee who played Inzamam Ahmed – committed suicide.

When the characters of EastEnders are not bumping each other off, they are getting hitched. Or getting engaged then calling it all off at the 11th hour. One soap trope is the same couple marrying several times. Ken and Deirdre did it on Coronation Street. Then Ricky and Bianca, whose screeching at each other set the tone of their relationship, followed suit on EastEnders. Now it’s time for Ian and Jane Beale to re-wed and viewers are being asked to pick the song which will play as the bride walks down the aisle. They are to choose from a number of 1985 hits, including Foreigner’s I Want To Know What Love Is, though, given these are Ian’s fifth nuptials, Ray Charles’ Here We Go Again might be more apt.

If Nick Cotton is EastEnders’ greatest villain, then Ian Beale (Adam Woodyatt) is its linchpin. He is the only cast member to have appeared in the soap continuously, from the very first episode to the present day, and has undergone more transformations than Mr Benn: gawky teenager, exploitative boss, serial lover, vagrant. For viewers of my age (almost exactly the same age as Beale himself) having him appear in the living room every week is a bit like having a Dorian Gray-style portrait in your attic. However young you look or feel, watching his face collapse and the pouches under his eyes grow ever more capacious is a reminder of the corrosive toll years of louche living must be having on your own soul. One criticism of EastEnders has been its lack of LOLs; where Coronation Street has always had warmth and humour, with comic characters such as Hilda and Stan Ogden an integral part of its appeal, EastEnders is often seen as relentlessly bleak, a perception that was not quite overcome in the 90s, when a series of light-hearted roles – Julie Cooper – a brassy man-eater; Marge Green – a wacky pensioner; Trevor Short – a simple misfit – were created to redress the balance.

How much humour is to be had from the anniversary week remains to be seen. What it certainly won’t be is understated. Every show from Tuesday, 17 February, will have live inserts leading up to a fully-live edition on Friday, 20 February. In addition, there will be the “Who Killed Lucy?” flashback episode on Thursday, 19 February, and a Graham Norton special featuring many of the actors on Monday, 16 ­February.

“It’s going to be off the scale,” says BBC1 controller Charlotte Moore. With Shabnam Masood’s revelation she once dumped a baby on a doorstep getting the adrenaline flowing and big bets being placed on which of 14 suspects will turn out to be Lucy’s killer, it seems viewers are already buckled in and ready for the ride.