Thursday, August 22, 2002 by

If I were to write this review in the style of current EastEnders, then halfway through I’d have completely forgotten what it was that I was originally… bugger me, what was I talking about?

Characters depart explosively, situations reach apocalyptic meltdown and events occur daily of such outrageous and outlandish contrivance yet, perpetually, a new day dawns and the world begins afresh. And, like the 24-hour amnesiac, the metaphorical slate is wiped clean and history is relegated to the hazy hinterlands of a scriptwriter’s memory, only to be rehashed and morphed as required, with barely even a passing glance to continuity or the viewers’ sensibilities. Considering the critical panning that Being April received for its contrivances and “ticking off” of the ethnic boxes, it seems almost bewildering that EastEnders gets away without much in the way of critical comment.

Let’s make no bones about it; EastEnders bears utterly no resemblance to the East End of London. It’s as authentic a representation of London as Taggart is of Glasgow. The ethnicity comment bears looking at. When Billy Joel crooned about his Uptown Girl living in a white bread world, you could be forgiven for thinking that his lemon curd was, perhaps, Letitia Dean and Albert Square was the epicentre of his homogenous but Piano Man rocking world, such was – and is – its overwhelming whiteness. Tokenism occasionally rules in this mythical East End, but serious questions must be asked. Where are all the Nigerians, Turks and East Europeans? Where are the Jews, the Ghanaians and the Bangladeshis? And, most importantly of all, where the hell are the East End accents? Do the cast attend the Dick Van Dyke School of “Cor Blimey, Mary Poppins!” Cockney Accents? Or is there somewhere twixt Bethnal Green and Whitechapel where the inhabitants actually speak in this peculiar, strangulated manner?

I had always taken my fiancée’s protestations (she being a genuine cockney) regarding EastEnders on board with a superficial smile and a hidden snigger. After all, being Glaswegian myself, I’ve been subjected to some utterly cringe-worthy attempts at the Glaswegian patois and odious representations of the working class way of life over the years, so what was the problem with yet another duff attempt at gritty, unsentimental realism? Well, clearly, as the Better Half pointed out, there’s getting it wrong and getting it totally and utterly wrong. And, I have to add, now that I am living in the East End itself, it is patently obvious that the majority of the good burghers of the parishes in question themselves, also consider it to be a particularly shoddy effort.

But the tales from the environs of Albert Square are not entirely without merit. There are characters genuinely rooted in the East End, actors of considerable skill and aplomb and storylines that are authentic, watchable and readily identifiable. However, rarely are any two of these factors on screen simultaneously and never, ever all three concurrently. In truth, there are perhaps a frostbitten handful of actors that are worth watching. Some, however, are so far distanced from reality as to be no more than cardboard, cartoon characters, ciphers for a mordant pastiche of what passes for life back here in Beanoland.

Another failure is the inherent ability to frame EastEnders with some suitable points of cultural reference. When soaps do so, it tends to be extremely heavy-handed and, indubitably, patronisingly obvious. Yet, when properly achieved it is a joy to behold. Take Coronation Street around a month ago. In one beguiling scene, we had an on-air reference to the Chuckle Brothers complete with catchphrase and camera actions. This went beyond joke and ventured charmingly into the territory of homage. It was executed with simplistic reverence and was measured to perfection. That said, the Chuckle Brothers have always been cruelly under-rated by the chattering classes anyway, and it’s about time someone tipped a cap their way.

Caught in a quagmire of its own self-deluding seriousness, the action down Albert Square of late has been tedious to the point of switch-off boring. The storylines (sic) plod along with almost frightening predictability and the cast struggle to imbue them with any emotion or zest. There has, however, been some wonderful unconscious comedy. The scenes featuring the presciently monikered “Little Mo” post-prison release have been utterly hilarious. In particular her mad eyed, head lolling, “I’ve-been-changed-by-stir” routine had my local rolling in the aisles. But if that was bad enough, then the lead-up to the recent pre-coital snog between Dr Trueman and Kat Slater was undoubtedly a classic of its genre. As these two behemoths of bad acting lumbered like arthritic dinosaurs across the screen, the dialogue was butchered mercilessly as the phrase “sexual chemistry” was made totally and utterly redundant. This was a veritable masterclass in how not to act, a living example for the next generation of Soap Star wannabes that you truly need not have an ounce of ability to become a soap star.

For a show that likes to revel in its hagiographic self-publicity and bask in the afterglow of its stars’ supposed sexual dynamics, the cast of EastEnders are curiously androgynous. With the departure of Martin Kemp and his sunken dome, there is not one member of the cast that generates anything approaching sexual magnetism. Nevertheless it would appear that to criticise the show’s sexually led storylines is to invite charges of prudishness and to stand accused of not living in the real world. Whilst not being completely averse to the odd piece of rumpy-pumpy on television myself I must confess to watching in anodyne disbelief at some – make that most, if not all – of the recent attempts at coupling. In particular, the whole storyline with Jamie Mitchell and the older woman may have tried to emulate Benjamin and Mrs Robinson but, in reality, it reeked of laughable desperation. The only thing these two have in common with Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman is that their surnames contain vowels and consonants.

And let’s not even go down the road of discussing the criminal characterisation of Ian Beale and his “relationship” with Janine. Actually, can we discuss the ebullient manner in which Janine’s descent into crack-whore hell (and subsequent, almost immediate, redemption) was – ahem – stunningly and so accurately portrayed? No, didn’t think so. This was, arguably, the irrefutable nadir of EastEnders in recent times. Only the runaway-whore hell of Zoë, the “I’m an alky just like my mum” hell of Sharon, the “which lump of wood do I choose?” hell of Lisa and the shagging-Robbie hell of Nita come close to matching this. Factor in Charlie Slater’s heart attack, the lady in red episode with Dr Trueman and the android-like, adenoidal Zoë and the eldest Beale spawns’ ridiculous efforts at playing the child from hell and you have some idea of the competition that crack-whore hell is up against.

Yet amidst this assault on the acting profession, there are shafts of opaque sunlight to pierce even the murkiest corners of the Square. Jim and Dot, Billy, Patrick, Gus and Sonia take up the slack and carry the rest of this under-worked, overpaid, collectively uninspiring cast on their over-burdened shoulders. Whereas the axeman cometh with increasing regularity down Weatherfield way, it’s long overdue that he made a rampaging visit to Walford to cut away the dead wood and, not so much clear, but denude the forest.

Vitriolic, bitter, vituperative histrionics aside, I do recognise the fact that the cast and crew put in considerable effort to the show. But, like any profession, there are those on either side of the camera who are clearly not up to the job. I mean, is it the scriptwriter’s fault that Trevor can only do ominous malevolence or should they write him accordingly? Is it the cast’s fault that they look like forlorn dummies incapable of acting every time the director uses the overhead crane? And, laughably, a midget landlady who has all the gravitas of an out of date jar of jellied eels as the feisty fulcrum of the show’s focal point? I don’t think so. It seems that the obstacles in the path of the development of EastEndersare to be praised not buried.

It is telling that, directorially speaking, the show resorts to cod techniques stylistically to emphasise gravity or underline the magnitude of a situation. The portentous overhead shots of Patrick and Anthony in the cemetery destroyed any emotion in the scene. Clearly emasculated by their presence, both actors struggled to credibly deliver their lines and always seemed to be acting with an unnatural stiltedness, as well as one eye to the crane itself. Not quite the Dogma School but undeniably dogmatic nonetheless. Another pet favourite is to have a character wistfully wandering around the Square – preferably in the dead of night and ideally in the rain – with the sound of revelry washing over them as they agonize over a life altering decision. Hell, throw in some fireworks and an overhead shot and you have the quintessential EastEnders sequence. Whilst I am not advocating that these fingerprints of the auteur should be removed, I do definitely think that less is indeed more. However, the stark reality of the prevailing attitude is one’s too many and a million’s not enough.

So, with all baggage in mind, where do we – as Haircut 100 so beatifically sang – go from here? For me it’s time to say adieu to the hapless individuals who play Lisa (one dimensional), Little Mo (too earnest and obviously acting), Zoë (can’t act won’t act), Charlie (has one dimension less than Lisa), Tom and Sharon (sexually hermaphroditic and both make Charlie look oh-so multi-dimensional), Martin (the acid trip episode exposed him for the incompetent entity that he is), Pauline (a screaming harridan so awful that even the token gay man finds her difficult to be around), Peggy (a joke figure in my local and the one character so indefatigably removed from real life) and Sam (where does one even begin?) And that’s just for starters.

The plot driven obsession must be ditched and ditched pronto. Let’s take some time out and watch the characters go about their humdrum lives, as opposed to the manic, amphetamine fuelled existences they currently inhabit. The best scenes of late have been the simplest – Gus courting Sonia, Jim dealing with his dead budgie and Dot’s reaction to her freshly redecorated sitting room for example. Let’s have more of them. This is an area that Coronation Street has historically triumphed in over the years, but the writers on EastEnders have proved that they can match like for like. They should have the courage of their convictions and shift the balance of the show to incorporate more of them. The dynamics of a relationship are always best expressed in the nuts and bolts of everyday existence as opposed to the fireworks of passion, extremities and obsession. We understand, and develop empathy, with characters when we see their foibles and weaknesses exposed in everyday situations. That’s why the characters of Jim and Dot work. That’s why Sonia and Gus work. It’s honest, austere, straightforward and a pleasure to watch. Sometimes, simple things executed simply can be the most delightful to view.

Alongside this, let’s leave the cartoon characters for the pantomime season. Tom the Oirish Romeo. Trevor the Evil Sweaty. (Can you see a theme developing here? Christ on a bike, all we need is Huw The Taff to reappear and we’ll have a full set). By all means have a Casanova or a wicked presence. But, in the case of Tom, ensure that the character is, in itself, credible and that there is a modicum of on-screen sexual chemistry with his amour. With Trevor, well, great screen presence though the mono-browed Alex Ferns brings, he has been dealt a poor hand and, subsequently, appears to be a one trick pony. Whereas Tom may have left his bullying behind him, it does appear a tad remiss that the Little Englander mentality to the Scots and Irish still shines through. This has been a consistent fault of the show though. The Scottish characters have been entirely disingenuous and utterly unappealing as have their Irish counterparts. Who could forget Aidan or the Fowlers’ relatives from the stereotypical farm? Including, naturally, a tousled haired lothario.

The raison d’être of soaps is that they are rooted in reality. Yet, the fact is that they are a world away from the truth of everyday existence. Walford continues to exist in a timeless cocoon of indifference, cosseted by layers of ambiguity and pretence. There are no loan sharks here. Neither are there order books or single mothers coping with attention deficit hyperactive children and absent fathers, no CSA, no pawning of wedding rings. Hell, when was the last time you heard talk of a crisis loan? This a sphere of existence into which the dark shadow of credit card debt rarely looms. A world in which manicured nails and brilliant white teeth are the order of the day, where even the ugly people are not particularly ugly (Robbie is, of course, the exception that proves the rule). This is a place where best friends depart and are immediately forgotten, a place where history is rewritten in the style of Pol Pot. A location where hopes are raised and dreams are crushed within the space of 30 minutes. Furthermore, this is the place where the concepts of family, of being sorted and of having one’s head done in have become a permanently chanted mantra.

Other, more fundamental and pressing questions also beg to be answered. Why have the Howard League for Penal Reform never investigated the preposterously high conviction rate for the populace of Walford? Surely the concept of Charlie Slater having done The Knowledge has to be the biggest oxymoron in the history of television? How does Laura keep a family on the weekly proceeds of the sale of a half dozen cod and chips? Do the Homo-Police stand guard at Walford tube station and refuse to let any gays’ in? (Must be. After all, clearly the Black & Asian Police are doing their job). Who supplies the “roofies” that Robbie slips Nita on a daily basis to keep her under his spell? Dr Legg – is he a conduit to the spirit world? Where did the legendary bum-fluff from Ian Beale’s upper lip slink off to? What happened to the concept of do your laundry in your own home? When will someone realise that there’s more to life beyond Walford than Manchester? (Well, I’ll grant you that the Di Marcos’ hotfooted it to Leicester.) All of this and we’ve not even dared to enter the province of where the heck Mark Fowler gets his fruit and veg from.

Crap asides aside, I do have genuine affection for the show. However, it is currently floating along the river of television on cruise control, and shows no sign of coming into dry-dock for a much-needed major refit. EastEnders is no more than mediocre presently. Which is a pity as it has the elements contained within its cast and crew to raise its standards and become so much better and more entertaining than it currently is.

As they say down my local in Bethnal Green, it needs a right good kick up the ‘arris.


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