Monday, December 1, 2003 by

Is EastEnders on the cusp of a return to greatness or riding on the crest of a wave of mediocrity? Make your own mind up. However, what cannot be denied is that the writers have, at the present time, a golden opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of the aforementioned mediocrity. The practicalities of the EastEnders orthodoxy have hindered its progress continuously over the last few months; rigidly adhering to the twin gods of family/feuding and coupling/uncoupling, has left the inhabitants of the Square in a strange, strangled twilight of burnished confusion and profligate efficacy. By screening episodes in the style of a Powerpoint presentation complete with scripted bullet-points, EastEnders has, on occasion, become little more than a pastiche of itself and sadly predictable.

Yet, malleable though my malcontent is, tonight hinted at a golden future in the medium term. For too long certain actors have been given depressingly one-dimensional characters to play, with little or no room for latitude. Signs of a thaw though are beginning to appear and the green shoots of hope assail the eyes now and again; whether it is traces of Ian Beale possessing a soul or Sam Mitchell being given the opportunity to sink her pearly whites into some serious scenes, it surely beholds a brighter future down Walford way now that some of the characters are being fleshed out. Not only that, but there’s actually some development of character that is integral to the plot. Tonight we saw a pivotal scene as Phil passed the family baton to his sister. For far, far too long the character of Sam has been nothing more than faintly ludicrous. Forcing the character into the role of moll may, perhaps, be the saving of her. Ignore the overly symbolic matriarchal stereotyping, what we have here is the chance to watch an actor sink or swim with the script that they are given. And for Kim Medcalf, it is indeed a moment of truth.

Coupled with the promised return of the spurned Andy, at last we have the regular promise of a genuine malevolent presence on the screen. Michael Higgs’ turn as Andy proved that there is room for a dark, gothic character within the cast. Both the Watts of the parish carry no threat at all and Young Den’s continual wild-eyed stare into the middle distance has moved inexorably from annoying habit to national joke. A cheeky smile and a sub Dick and Dom haircut do not a gangster make. Similarly, the seamless transition of Old Den from horny but loveable wide-boy to major player has been as baffling as it has implausible. Positioning the two as a mini-firm has proven to be a bit of a disaster. The plotline that carried us to this point has been utterly risible. And a not so subtle combination of bad acting and bad dialogue has ensured that, for Steve McFadden at least, a short stint in the pokey means less screen time with the two lightweight Watts’ boys.

The pre-occupation with gangsters has been another failure of EastEnders. The eagerness to play upon this aspect of the East End is understandable but it defies belief that it has been so badly handled throughout the history of the show. There have been many outrageous examples of desperately bad characterisation over the years. Christ, we’ve even had the bizarre sight of Wullie Melvin as a gangster. What the hell was he going to do – camp them to death? Hywel Bennet’s turn as a weeble was also instantly forgettable. Ross Kemp always seemed camply aloof and Martin Kemp played, well, Martin Kemp. The pervasive image of bad boys will always be a staple of soaps but, in recent times, only the character of Corrie‘s Jez Quigley can be said to have been truly evil. Thankfully, as I’ve intimated previously, Michael Higgs as Andy could be the saviour of the East End bad boys. Following in a long line of fulsome failures, Higgs has an air of real menace about him and, unlike his predecessors, a genuine aura of evil malevolence. I really hope that the writers intend to bed him in for the long run. Giving him rein to take over the Square and wreak his revenge would be a master stroke. It would also, I believe, give the show greater scope for developing the Alfie/Kat story further.

The success of Shane Ritchie has been a genuine surprise. About a year and a half ago, I reviewed a miserable programme that recalled the highlights of television for the year 2001. In it I wrote, “I really don’t need to see a clip of Shane Ritchie behaving like a tosser. I know he’s a tosser.” Well, forget the slicer, give me the whole humble pie. The man’s performance has been of a consistent level of nothing more than brilliance. I scoffed at his introduction to the show but, for me and a fair few other critics, Ritchie has rightly earned the copious praise that he has been showered with. Despite the awful, early scripts, his character has injected life into the show just as it was reaching a level of stultifying averageness. In their determination to pair Alfie off with Kat, I’ve previously accused the writers of short-termism. Genuinely, I believe that the show would have worked so much better with Kat having married Andy and developing into the moll that Sam will become. This would have left Ritchie to further deploy his not inconsiderable charm to the masses. But, with the return of Andy, we have some fantastic possibilities for character and plot development.

Tonight we witnessed the demise of Phil. Strangely under-written, the scenes allowed Steve McFadden little artistic manoeuvre other than a menacing phone-call to Watts Senior. The dialogue placed in his mouth was strangely creaky and out of kilter with the actuality of the situation. It has long been a bone of contention at OTT Towers that soaps are inherently badly written for men. Fellow contributor Chris Diamond and I rail long into the night (and our pints) at the inadequacy of writers with regards to dialogue in these scenarios. Sadly, this evening proved no exception – another aspect of getting it wrong with regards to gangsters, I’m afraid. This is a pity as McFadden has hidden depths as an actor that are rarely challenged on the show. Despite his heavyweight storylines and intrinsic value to the plot, he is rarely rewarded with decent material in relation to his billing. However, despite the weak script afforded him, he still manages to out-muscle his would-be pretenders to the bad boy of the manor throne by some considerable distance. Really, these Watts boys are paperweights who are adding little or no value to the show currently.

Another performance that deserves mention is that of Ricky Grove’s portrayal of the hapless Garry. With a quite wonderful sense of comedic timing, Groves has turned in a level of consistent excellence matching that of Ritchie. The recent bed-hopping antics and the upcoming STD dénouement have been brilliantly written and Groves has stolen the show of late. One can only hope that something along the lines of “Remember; an STD is for life and not just for Christmas” pops up in the script. Aye, if you can’t laugh at the clap then what can you laugh at? Regardless of the subject matter, Groves has conveyed considerable guile and charm as the new-found love god who can’t quite believe his luck. Like Perry Fenwick’s Billy, the character of Gary has been sparingly used, perhaps even underused. It seems that their characterisation is always founded in the immediacy of the imminent future rather than the longer term. Which is a pity, as both are wonderful actors with an impressive range to offer, which in the case of Groves, we are finally being allowed to see.

Whilst the future is looking considerably brighter, we’ve had many false dawns in the past and the viewer knows better than to be carried away on a tide of hopeful exuberance. The return of Andy holds bounteous promise as does the possibility of McFadden phoning in his performance from the nick on a regular basis. EastEnders has always excelled at psychological drama and the re-positioning of these two characters allows the writers to further explore that particular territory. For once, instead of self-indulgent navel gazing we can be confident of some long, deep and dark soul-searching invading our homes. Forget the pantomime performance of Brian Capron as Richard Hillman (undoubted brilliance though it was), here the writers have a genuine opportunity to deliver something special. God knows we deserve it.


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