Tuesday, October 28, 2003 by

When I last reviewed this august institution, my negative – though, as I saw it, constructive – criticisms resulted in me receiving a barrage of hate mail from irate acolytes of this show. With a paucity of wit, originality or intelligence (presciently mirroring the script at that particular time) they informed me that I was, variously, a dead man, a stupid cow and – my own particular favourite – “a jellus, iddyit haffwit”. I was following through to my boxers with regards to that one, I can tell you. Well batten down the hatches and gird the loins, here’s more of the same.

Despite the false dawn of this week’s National Television Awards, there can be no doubt that the recent episodes of EastEnders rank amongst, arguably, the worst in its entire history. I expect the slings and arrows of outraged Walfordites to be winging my way by this paragraph alone. Tough titty. It’s true. But if you are going to threaten me, at least have the decency to spell check first.

The reintroduction of Leslie Grantham has thrown up more questions than answers. I’m sure that his initial spoken words – “Hello Princess” – will feature in countless pub quizzes the land over for years to come but there can be no denying the magnitude of the gamble in bringing him back. Alongside Anita Dobson, the pairing of Den and Angie and the rollercoaster ride that they gave the viewing public is cited as a golden age for EastEnders. But surely things have only got better since their demise? Or was it, indeed, a halcyon time that today’s cast can only hope but aspire too? Well, judge for yourself. The past may be another country but UK Gold can sort you out with a visa. Debatably, Grantham may have been the glue that held the Square together in those days and Dobson no more than an unconvincing, unattractive ham, but the reality is that with the return of Den we are allowed to compare like with like and contrast the past with the present.

Grantham’s re-introduction will take time to gel despite the familiarity of his thrawn, haggard face and, more importantly, the continuing inability of the writers to expedite this process satisfactorily. Like the character of Alfie Moon before him, Den will have to live through the badly judged, poorly written lifecycle of ragged reintroduction before the storyline slips neatly and convincingly around him. The current supposed spark twixt him and Sam Mitchell (conveniently, another unconvincing ham) lacks any frisson whatsoever. However, in Grantham’s defence I would concede that this due to the overwhelming lack of charisma on Sam’s part – actor and character.

This is just one of many current on-going screen relationships that similarly suffer from a complete lack of sexual tension. Two quick, pertinent examples; In the case of Janine and Paul, this centres on the inescapable fact that Janine being considered remotely sexy is laughable. With the corpulently wooden duo of ZoĆ« and the soporific DJ, there is a singular lack of interest due to their dreadful performances. This is a strand of the show that highlights both the lack of ability on the writer’s part to convincingly portray sexual dynamism on-screen and a similar lack of ability inherent within the cast to take what they’ve been given – however poor it is – and make it work.

Another aspect of Den’s return has been the chance to observe, and consider, the functionality of the Watt’s brood. This, manifestly, leads us to the conclusion that the character of Vicky has been a huge (though entertainingly glorious) mistake. Leaving aside her wonderfully awful accent, the plain fact is that regardless of how bad an actress the girl is, the character just hasn’t worked. Likewise, the performance of the lad who plays Dennis Junior deserves scrutiny – if only to try and work out just what’s caught his attention whenever he does his baleful, thousand-yard-stare into the middle distance (ie almost every scene). However, unlike Vicky, his character has legs and I’m prepared to allow him time to develop. And develop he must. The cardboard mean, moody hard man image just doesn’t wash. He has no air of menace about him whatsoever and playing Dennis as such is a mistake that must be arrested immediately. Strangely though, the character of Sharon (always, for me, one of the weakest and most irritating) seems to be more workable in the presence of her father. Go figure.

The current compulsion with cartoon gangsters seems to have reached its acme with the introduction of Mr Kat Slater. Reprising his Eddie Santini role from The Bill with wonderful relish, here we have a character that does genuinely seem to have an omnipotent air of malevolence. If only the scriptwriters had the foresight to ensure the long-term embedding of the future Mr Kat, then a world of future possibilities would wonderfully open up. The idea of Jessie Wallace performing a Widows style character in the Square has enormous potential. Well, if you’re going to obsess with the East End Gangster myth, then do it properly and for the long term. Progressing with the Alfie/Kat romance may satisfy the Walford obsessives and keep the romantics happy but it hardly reflects the reality of everyday life. Never mind it would do no justice to either actor involved.

However, short-termism is at the root of practically all the flaws within the show – the Alfie/Kat plotline being no more than the most obvious example. Too many storylines seem to simply run out of steam when, with a little planning and judicious chance taking they could extend into genuine, gripping storylines in their own right. But these fruitful possibilities are ruthlessly extinguished and, all too often, future storylines are clearly signposted. Not for our benefit in the sense of watching the actual show, but to alert us to a batch of fresh faces in the forthcoming editions of TV Chat et al.

Another flaw that is beginning to eat away at EastEnders is the generally dreadful standard of acting by the younger members of the cast. Compared to, say, Hollyoaks‘ Premier League standard, EastEnders is – one or two cases apart – strictly Vauxhall Conference. You know a soap is in trouble when they hive off a group of young people to somewhere for the weekend. I dread the forthcoming adventures of the Walford Cubs in dear, old Scotland. Will they hit the nadir of stereotyping as they did in the Fowler’s Irish escapade? One can but hope. Anything to take your eyes away and mind from the performances of those characters involved would be a godsend. Such a mass wooden movement hasn’t been witnessed in Scotland since High Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane Hill I wager. Still that’s for future consumption.

Tonight’s consumption consisted mainly of Lucy Benjamin getting through alcohol on a scale that would endear her to George Best. With her cunning plan falling apart, her character’s descent into the bottle has become tediously self-pitying. Played with just the right amount of devil-may-care panache, the portrayal of Lucy is a prime example of an actor taking a rather thin, suddenly one-dimensional character and a pig’s ear of a script and making a silk purse from it all. Once again, short-termism rearing its ugly insidious head.

Phew! All that and I managed to studiously not comment on the Diwali celebrations and execrable neighbour-from-hell storyline. Insert your own thoughts here, dear reader – I’m sure you all have some bile to spew. For once the constant assertion that “everyone’s talking about it” rings true. Pity they’re all saying just how shit it is.


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