EastEnders rules the waves

Why Walford Still Has Britain’s Best Soap

Sometimes – though not often – you can’t help but feel sorry for Brookside supremo Phil Redmond and his fellow soap moguls from of Emmerdale (Kieran Roberts), Family Affairs (Corinne Hollingworth), and Hollyoaks (er, Phil Redmond again).

This time last year they were probably rubbing their hands with glee, looking forward to a year when perhaps, for once, EastEnders might be about to lose its grip on the nation’s hearts and minds and remote controls. 

After all, EastEnders’ poster girl Tiffany was about to meet her death, not once but twice effectively: shoved down the stairs by Grant and then, as soon as she had miraculously recovered/been resurrected, being run over by Frank Butcher (who had taken a long run-up for the job, driving into the Square having careered down the motorway from “Maaa-aaa-aaan-ches-tah” as he calls it). 

The news that Bianca and even Grant Mitchell would soon be following Tiff out of the series must have had Phil hiring bouncy castles to celebrate on at the thought that, come the millennium, Brookside and co. might finally be in with a chance.

(Coronation Street, by the way, is immune from such discussions – being virtually a self-supporting cottage industry, untouched more or less totally by the fluctuating fortunes of its so-called ‘rivals.’)

Sadly I’m afraid Phillip, it has turned out to be a case of ‘ne plus ca change innit’: a year that has ended with EastEnders only tightening its grip on the nation’s consciousness. 

If anything, the high-impact/in-depth departures of Tiffany, Bianca, and Grant – not to mention the Walford One, Maff-ew Rose, and Tiffany’s mum, Louise – have actually helped the series by prompting a string of brilliant story-lines to carry it through the past few months.

By doing this, this year EastEnders has almost re-written the rules on How To Run A Great Soap (rules that it wrote in the first place). Chapter One now reads: “Pruning: How To Kill Off Your Three Most Popular Characters Each Year To Help The Series Grow.’

An even more demoralising thought for its competitors is that, earlier in the year, EastEnders seemed to be in serious difficulty – over-loaded with a sudden rash of transparently-inadequate minor new characters involved in storylines that were going nowhere (not fast, but painfully slowly).

Michael Rose and His Incredibly Miserable Missus, Simpering Simon & Fat Tony From the Walford Gazette, Annie & George Palmer, The Boring Old Biddies Maude & Dot, Alex The Trendy Vicar & His Trade Union-Leader Dad, Jeff, the whole Irish contingent, not to mention a glut of Italian characters such as the Di Marco’s parents and grandparents whose Italian was so bad they couldn’t even pronounce their own children’s names. (Gianni and Bepe coming out “Jann-aye” and “Beppy.”)

Most of these have mercifully now departed with characters like Martin Fowler (Albert Square’s One-Man Crime Wave) Jamie Mitchell, and Theresa Di Marco being developed. (You could say they were ‘coming along nicely’ but in EastEnders nothing is done nicely.)

The Fowlers sadly are still with us, although Mark & Ruth 

(or “Muck” and “Roof” as they call one another) did at least split up when Roof went back to being the lead singer of Portishead.

Pauline Fowler reminded us just how truly vile she was when yet another Italian boy turned up and was introduced to her. 

“Bonjour !” she shrilled, as thick and charmless as ever. 

“Benvenido a Wawl-ford.”

The series also handicapped itself with a load of nonsense from Changing Rooms, too much karaoke, and Dot getting arrested for possession of cannabis, not to mention a clutch of vapid girls like Sarah, Lisa, and Nina, of whom only Melanie seemed even remotely appealing. Ingeniously, it also got rid of Lenny, the series’ only black character. 

All of which, looking at it now, seems like the recipe for a pretty disastrous year. 

Except that when EastEnders is good, there is no other programme on television like it. Whenever we get the chance, the whole country still rubs its hands with anticipation and gets stuck in.

While Coronation Street maintains a kind of quality that is quieter and more or less constant, when EastEnders goes off it actually rises out of the limitations of the genre totally – above the simple superficiality of soap into hard, bitter, drama – and becomes a part of the culture. People can’t stop talking about it, in the same way that nattering neighbours have to discuss the latest local juice in our own streets. 

People talk about EastEnders and Brookside tackling ‘issues’ but, although EastEnders has handled social issues like gay love or HIV pretty well, it’s actually its individual characters that make it so absorbing. The best storylines come from there. We want to know what’s going to happen to these individuals’ lives; how much drama can they handle ? (Before they can’t survive ?) Think about Dirty Den and Michelle; all the juicy permutations of Grant and Phil/Sharon and Kath; about characters like Tricky Dicky, David Wicks, and Sexy Cindy: people doing their worst.

The whole scenario involving Bianca & Carol, Bianca & Dan, Dan & Carol was so compelling because, even though it was a bit far-fetched, you could still believe in it and could commit yourself to it in a way that Brookside hasn’t managed since the days of Barry Grant and Saint Sheila. We all know people who’ve got involved in more unlikely messes.

What’s so great about EastEnders storylines like the ones involving Bianca & Carol or Grant & Tiffany is they don’t spare their own characters in a way that, say, Coronation Street does. They are FIERCE and unforgiving, and by doing that, actually do offer viewers (especially younger viewers) some sort of life lesson – about how savage the implications on characters’ lives can be.

One of its key secrets (and here’s a clue for Phil Redmond) is the brilliant way EastEnders’ writers orchestrate events around couples: Phil & Grant, Kathy & Phil, Theresa & Janny (sorry Gianni), Ricky & Bianca, Bianca and Carol, Roy & Frank, Barry & Natalie. (Natalie having come back with an alarming red hairdo, looking like a cross between Ziggy Stardust and Portsmouth manager Alan Ball.) 

The most latent homo-erotic couple in soaps has of course been Matthew Rose and Steve Owen, especially since Martin Kemp celebrated his Valentine’s Day fulfilling every man’s dream: opening his own night-club and murdering his ex-girlfriend (Kemp’s most criminal act since his outfit for the To Cut A Long Story Short video). Caressing Maff-ew’s cheek and flashing those Angel Heart contact lenses, Steve Owen has been a major addition to EastEnders’ firepower.

The return of Carol Jackson – with Bianca’s ex-childhood lover, Dan, in tow – to help Bianca on her way was a masterstroke and brought out the performance of the year from Lindsey Coulson as Carol, fighting for her life like a cornered tigress who was then forced to kill her own young. 

The saga in which she lost not only her unborn baby (or “bay-bay” as the whole family call it), her eldest daughter, her fiancé, and even the admiration of her other children Robbie and the magnificent Sonia, was not only utterly, stomach-churningly, compelling but, compared to the way it would have been handled in other soaps, savagely realistic.

(The killer give-away is the use of the lily-livered, pathetic, nature of the excuses people come up with in those situations: 

“I can explain !”, “we had a laugh that’s all”, “It’s not as bad as you think” and the absolutely priceless argument “it only happened twice.”)

Grant also excelled himself in this respect when confronted with the fact he had slept with Kathy. 

“Alright ! I slept wiv Kaffy ! It’s not as if you’re still married !”

Or: “Maybe I’ve done you a favour – shown you what she’s really like… If she wuz worff anyfink, then she wouldn’t ‘ave slept wiv me.”

Men eh ? 

It’s this sort of quality in the writing that explains why EE is still so universally popular and provides addictive moments like the one where Phil turned on Grant and asked: “did you think about me while you were doing it with ‘er ?!”

“Yeah !” snarled his brother. 

“Before or after ?”
During !!”

Be it the ‘kitchen sink dramas’ of the ‘60s or modern novels by Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, you won’t find many lines as good – or as nasty – as that.

Even comparatively minor storylines in EastEnders wipe the floor with most of Brookside’s major plotlines (like the hopeless rape case).

A personal favourite was Roy Evans seeking help with his impotence problem – rather needlessly you’d have thought/hoped, given that he is married to the terrifying Pat Butcher.

“Roy, I’m not stew-pid,” Pat announced unexpectedly. “I read the pay-pers. You’ve bin on that Viagra ‘aven’t you ?” she cooed with an alarming glint in her eye (possibly reflecting from the Christmas tree-sized bits of tinsel she appeared to have in her earrings).

It emerged Roy was “worried that Pat may seek satisfaction elsewhere” – a line that must have had other male members of the cast going pale and calling their agents about less lucrative alternatives.

As the excitement of Phil & Grant and Bianca & Carol calms down – the lull before the traditional dramatic unpleasantness that is Christmas In Walford – best of all right now is the presence of Danniella Westbrook as Phil and Grant’s sister Samanffa.

Poor Danniella looks like a walking ‘Just Say No’ poster at the moment but is all the more compelling for it.

At one point when Dot started reminiscing about her dear, departed husband with the immortal lament “I remember when I lost my Charlie…” you could see Samanffa’s ears instantly prick up at the mention of the word, like a sniffer dog eager to start the hunt, making strange little whining noises, panting slightly and her nose twitching furiously. (Well what’s left of it, anyway.)

The only thing EastEnders needs now is to get rid of the miserable Mark & Pauline Fowler, introduce some black and Asian characters, and stop making the poor girl that plays Mel kiss Ian Beale (like watching Uma Thurman snog Jeremy Beadle).

Then the cherry on the cake, the piece de resistance: for David Wicks to come back.

Or, as it’s also known in the trade: Phil Redmond’s worst nightmare.