EastEnders: The Family Album

Sunday, February 13, 2000 by

Scurrying along in the wake of Monty Python‘s 30th, Not the Nine O’clock News (and Newsnight‘s 20th and The Simpsons‘ 10th), comes the flags-and-bunting jamboree that is EastEnders‘ 15th birthday; a bizarre anniversary to mark in itself, and one that compounds the impression of television retrospective celebrations coming round on an almost weekly basis.

“In-house” tributes to series which are still being made, such as this one, all suffer from the necessity to disguise the fact that the programme in question is quite simply not as good today as it used to be – never mind whether this is grounded in truth or simply the distorted impression of the passing of time tricking us into remembering something as being better in “the good old days”. It means that a substantial chunk of the tribute has to be taken up with a phalanx of on-message, contemporary cast members twittering in unison about how, in this case, EastEnders has this remarkable ability to remain as innovative, engaging, controversial blah blah blah as it ever was. The veterans (Wendy Richards, Adam Woodyatt) are stapled down and prodded into uttering some pithy sycophantic soundbite (Richards: “It’s essentially a team show, it is all teamwork and we are a jolly good team … at the end of the day we are all there for each other.”) which, because it is coming from one of the “originals”, is supposed to then support what all the infants are uttering and confirm that the programme is indeed going from strength to strength.

It takes a scales-falling-from-the-eyes kind of conversion that accompanies kicking the soap addiction to destroy a huge wall of prejudice which has been clouding your perception of that soap all the while you continued to tune in. At an instant you’ve realised you don’t need this programme in your life anymore; you can then go on to ask yourself why, what it is that has changed and let you down. This happened to me as regards EastEnders a couple of years ago; letting go was ultimately very painless. I quickly saw both what it was that was present at that time which was making the series so lifeless and unengaging – and therefore also what it was I had valued so greatly in the past; you wait for that magic to return, but if nothing happens you can only wait so long. This “tribute” to EastEnders helped to articulate for me and underscore my twin conclusions as to what is wrong with the programme today, and what was great about it in the past. A rather lightweight, poorly edited and researched one-dimensional documentary consequently ended up helping me order and rationalise my mind – but not in the way the current EastEnders regime intended.

What we were shown was a once great giant of sociopolitical realist drama, built on an overpowering aesthetic and linguistic authenticity, hitting great heights of TV drama due to its integrity – integrity to such key tenets as rounded, consistent characterisations, an ear for naturalistic, moving dialogue in even the most mundane and ritualistic of settings, and figures themselves who remarkably were at the same time crucibles for a nation’s projected wants and needs and catalysts reacting to and against plots and incidents emphasising the drama in the everyday. The climaxes and showdowns, which a tribute like this one concentrated solely on, were contained within such a framework of integrity and of not patronising the audience.

That integrity is now shot to pieces as the series has withered and paled; our expectations have been lowered to such an extent that EastEnders can only be “good” and television worth talking about unless it has one such climax and showdown virtually every fortnight. We are patronised with images of cod Kray twins and their Carry On mother, Terry & June-esque bickering couples, “misunderstood” youths … Where is the humour and tragedy in the banal, the everyday, the way people talked to themselves and one another, which was once its strongest points? Discarded in the name of ratings and of generating tabloid interest and publicity.

This was typified in this tribute by the way the lame voiceover, appalling delivered by Linda Robson, had the gall to dub as “less infamous” the circumstances in which a whole host of key characters left the series, including James Willmott-Brown, Mary, Dr Legg, Joe, Colin, and incredibly both Ali and Sue Osman. Similarly we had a cascade of vox pops from current stars, including a ludicrous plethora of waffle from Martin Kemp, but co-creator Tony Holland appeared for just 15 seconds, and Michael Grade even less.

But there again, a tribute such as this will, by its very existence and purpose, always fail: and this is simply because of its purpose, the fact that everything has to be filtered through the prism of the here and now, the present, the New Model EE, so the past and the programme’s history must seem to either look forward to, complement or pale into insignificance next to the programme as it is today – today’s EastEnders has to be appear better than the past to justify it continuing, to make us tune in for the next episode, and to ensure it remains an important ratings winner for the post-Birt BBC. Hence the tribute could not make any mention of great slews of vital key storylines such as Kathy’s rape by Wilmott-Brown, Den’s long stretch on the run and in prison, Michelle’s abortion, Angie’s attempted suicide, Michelle revealing the father of her child to Sharon, and many many more. Ethel might just as well never had existed, Lou turned up in a ridiculous cameo at the end, and so on.

A tribute like this propagates a certain reading of EastEnders‘ past, leading us to mediate our response to it on telly today in the light of an awful revisionist past where “Dirty” Den was a scheming hoodlum, Cindy a betraying harlot, Ian a helpless victim, Dot a poor fool always being poisoned be her son – a dangerous, problematic distortion, and one that really is something worth talking about.


Comments are closed.