Friday, February 18, 2005 by

Resurrected on a whim, then killed off by expediency. What a way to go.

Ahead of his collision with a china dog, we were treated to a few fleeting glimpses of the erstwhile Den Watts – the proper one, from back before his collision with a BBC sound effect of someone falling into a puddle. Watching him strut about behind the Queen Vic bar during this birthday edition of EastEnders, silencing quarrelsome punters with a barbed remark or withering grin, was to be reminded of those vaguely halcyon days when he was everything you hoped he’d turn out to be again – a likeable rogue, a hateful hero, a wise-talking harlequin.

But they were only flashes of the man’s former greatness, just like his return proved to be a cruelly ephemeral burst of excitement amidst the steadily decaying detritus of Albert Square. Moments before his butchering from the antique mongrel, the knife was twisted even more thanks to a clumsy but distractedly moving exchange between Den and Pauline about their respective clans. It’s about the only thing EastEnders does well nowadays: über-brief exchanges of nostalgia between Walford’s most outspoken veterans, who entertain the notion that things might not have been all that bad in the old days before turning on their heels and heading back out into the real world of gangsters, hoodlums, dimly-lit dives and ultra-clean cafes.

Just as when Channel 4 pointedly refused to enter into any celebrations on the occasion of its 20th anniversary for fear of calling even more attention upon its then-faltering condition, so EastEnders notched up two decades with barely a concession to the party spirit. Viewers were treated to the tawdry-looking opening night of the latest in the Square’s endless procession of seedy clubs and ugly drinking establishments. The Queen Vic was barely a third full. Outside in the street there was almost a punch-up (“C’mon! Give it your best shot!”) and somebody threw a bin bag at a passing car. Finally there was not one but two deaths, both as preposterous as each other, the china dog vying with tumbling off-screen onto a dual carriageway as candidates for the most undignified, unsatisfactory exits from a soap since Derek Wilton met his fate at the hands of a giant paper clip.

In one sense, at least it all meant we were spared the sort of escapades OTT endured on the show’s 15th birthday, and again when it added a fourth episode in 2001. The bunker mentality that seems to have gripped the production team also torpedoed plans for the Nation’s Favourite EastEnder, in the process sidestepping the usual scenario of seeing such an accolade bestowed on someone who only joined the soap three years ago.

Proper anniversaries manage to make a point of celebrating both the past and the present. Newsnight did it on its own 20th, and again just last month with a special week of 25th birthday commemorations. But maybe it was hoping too much for EastEnders to even try and do itself justice, especially at a time when the walking embodiment of its past (Den) had ended up just as much an embarrassment as the backstage shenanigans of its present. Ratings dipping to the lowest they’ve ever been and the show’s boss getting sacked after just three months in the job (following her predecessor suffering a similar fate) do not suggest themselves as the foundation for any sort of credible publicity drive.

Instead we got a double-length episode which, for about 90 per cent of the time, chugged along doing little of consequence, constantly switching between the same sets of people conducting the same conversation in a pageant of disreputable locations. The dénouement came almost from nowhere. There’d been no slow, careful injections of tension, no sustained rising of anticipation – no real sense of unfolding action at all. Suddenly Den found himself facing a trio of wronged women. A fourth was then wheeled out of the shadows for a three-minute cameo. This was Sharon, whose surprise re-appearance, clunking confessions aside – “You know, I feel contaminated by you” – did generate a momentary frisson of melodrama. Proceedings promptly reverted back to burlesque, though, when Den began howling like a hippopotamus and shoved his wife’s head into a fruit machine.

As a desperate frantic effort to get rid of Leslie Grantham in as crude and sensational a way possible, it was ironic the episode comprised 45 rambling minutes of nothing before a quarter of an hour of snarling and spontaneous violence. Nobody was handed any plausible rationale for behaving the way they did during the finale, and the device dreamed up to unite the previously warring females – getting Den to sign a piece of paper – was half-arsed in the extreme. As the man himself noted, it was hardly the stuff of what he’d been assured would be “the worst night of my life”. When characters themselves pick plot holes apart on screen, things are close to meltdown.

There’s precious hope on the horizon when many of the popular stereotypes about a TV show are writ large right across the screen. Tune in to any episode of EastEnders and people do moan and bicker every other minute. People do shout at each other instead of talking. Even the way the show looks has gone wrong: the café too sterile, the market too cluttered, the front rooms decidedly un-lived in, the wine bars and watering holes too dank and unpleasant. When the Dagmar was set up to represent the epitome of everything the Queen Vic was not, at least it always looked the kind of place you could conceivably enjoy going to for a drink. At the moment there’s nowhere in Albert Square you’d feel at home. No one seems to live or work in any surroundings that have had care and attention bestowed upon them. The café remains the least enticing location for a cup of tea on television.

Above all, the show’s now completely lost its ear for dialogue. Characters in Coronation Street and Emmerdale may lapse into cliché or caricature, but you can always recognise it for such and it’s mostly carried off with charm and aplomb. In EastEnders people sound like nobody on earth. “You’re my brother? I thought you was a two-faced ponce!”, “Leave tonight as a myth, instead of what you really are, an empty husk of a man”, “You’ve just lost the last person to look you in the eye and tell you what’s what!”, “It’s better to die standing up than live kneeling down!” Nobody talks like this anywhere in the world. No wonder the programme gets endlessly accused of spinning off into fantasy and the realms of disbelief. Never mind the boring plethora of criminals, thugs and corrupt suit-wearing con merchants; even the everyday people who drink pints and work on the market don’t walk and talk like human beings anymore.

The one resounding image of the 20th birthday episode was that of characters wandering about for no reason. Somebody would cross the Square, somebody else would mooch down an alley, then the same person would cross back over the Square while a third sauntered by a billboard. It was repetitious and boring. It also smacked of waiting for the final curtain. Nobody wanders about in Coronation Street or Emmerdale or even Family Affairs. There’s no time, and there’s no point. A soap that comes to rely on its cast meandering listlessly around a bunch of shoddy sets cannot help but end up terminally listless itself.

Be grateful we won’t ever have to sit through an EastEnders 25th birthday episode. At this rate it might not even turn 21.


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