Who killed EastEnders?

Garry Bushell’s 1,001 Reasons Why EastEnders is Pony is not only a rollicking read – it also shines a light on the metaphorical castration of working-class soap characters by BBC bigwigs who have never set foot in the EastEnd.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that EastEnders is shit. It’s hard to believe now, but when the BBC soap kicked off in 1985, it was required viewing. From Queen Vic landlords Den and Angie Watts’ relationship meltdown in 1985/1986 to the arrival of the Mitchell bruvvers in the early 1990s (played by baldies Ross Kemp and Steve McFadden, looking like the ‘cheeks of one hideous arse’, in the words of Garry Bushell), EastEnders had verve, spunk, grit. It regularly pulled in audiences of 25million. It was talked about on buses, at watercoolers, in the papers, and, in my case, in between scraps and games of football in the school playground (especially the ‘Who knocked up Michelle Fowler?’ storyline. That had us schoolkids in a state of giddy, gossipy conjecture for weeks.)

Today only a masochist would watch EastEnders. Albert Square, with its market, launderette (in 2009?), cafe and pub, is peopled not by believable characters with human hopes or fears or hatreds, but by whining women, gangster men, sad fat birds, hung-up blacks, failed petty businessmen, and stroppy teens whose accents are so facking common (‘leave it aaaht!’, ‘You’re not my muvver!’) that they can only have been learnt in the rough corridors and lecture halls of the Sylvia Young Theatre School. This Christmas, EastEnders gave us its usual festive serving of claw-your-eyes-out, eat-up-your-own-soul human misery: a court case involving a paedophile, a man so deeply in debt that his wife and kids decided to leave him, and the bludgeoning to death of current Queen Vic landlord Archie Mitchell. Happy Holidays, one and all!

Remarkably, it won the Christmas ratings battle, pulling in 10.9million viewers. Even more remarkably, the BBC celebrated this as a stunning victory for its apparently ‘still relevant’ soap, failing to realise that these 10million gluttons for punishment (I’m sticking with the theory that most of them were sleeping off their Christmas lunches and just happened to have EastEnders on the box while they did so) are only a third of the number that watched Dirty Den serve divorce papers to a sozzled, wild-eyed Angie on Christmas Day in 1986.

And yes, as every BBC suit and boring TV critic will tell you – the sort of people who preferred it when we concentration-challenged TV viewers had only three channels to flick between and no choice but to watch Morecambe and Wise or some other dirge in our billions – this is partly due to the Arrival Of Cable, or what I prefer to describe as the Dawn Of Choice. But there’s more to it than that. EastEnders has also lost skiploads of viewers and its grip on the national consciousness because what started as a slightly-patronising but frequently well-written and even comic study of a mostly salt-of-the-earth cockney community has morphed into a grim glimpse into a mostly scum-of-the-earth gathering of characters so wretched and irritating that the producers of The Jeremy Kyle Show would turn them away. What went wrong?

Garry Bushell’s brilliantly titled 1,001 Reasons Why EastEnders is Pony! (as in ‘pony and trap’ – crap) offers some answers. I know there are some people who would rather rewatch the episode of EastEnders in which fat Heather stalks George Michael and ends up licking the lid of a Greek yoghurt pot from his bins (FFS) than read anything by Bushell, the right-wing, bearded TV critic first for the Sun and now for the Daily Star Sunday. But you need to get over yourselves. It’s not 1984, Thatcher’s no longer in power, Linda Bellos has been given an OBE, and the Sun now has a TV critic who wears a hijab (no, not the brilliant Ally Ross – the, ahem, less brilliant Anila Baig). And more to the point, Bushell’s book is really funny and genuinely insightful.

Bushell says he has come to bury EastEnders, not in glee, but with sorrow. He was a fan in the early days (and seems to have been especially enamoured by poodle-haired Brian May lookalike Anita Dobson), but he reckons ‘a soap with its finger on the pulse of modern urban London’ has slowly degenerated into ‘a badly written, error-strewn, melodramatic embarrassment’. EastEnders has become a ‘colossal libel on Londoners’, featuring ‘none of the characteristics associated with cockneys’: ‘There is no wit. No banter…. If life were like EastEnders, there wouldn’t be a lamppost left to hang yourself from.’

EastEnders is set in Walford, an imaginary East London suburb that is an amalgamation of Walthamstow and Stratford, where the creators and heads of the show from 1985 to 1989 – producer Julia Smith and writer Tony Holland – were born. Holland had worked in EastEnd pubs as a youth and he created a cast of characters based on the people he encountered. Den and Angie, originally to be called Jack and Pearl, had been teenage sweethearts but were now locked in a loveless marriage – ‘they’ve been married for 15 years but haven’t had sex for 13 of them’, said Holland in his pre-show notes; their marriage is ‘a front for the sake of the pub’s image’. Den’s affair with snooty, middle-class Jan Hammond (remember her?) not only precipitated the demise of the Queen Vic couple, leading to Angie’s fake cancer storyline and attempted overdose; it also added a frisson of aspiration, of escape, of a potential life beyond the grotty square in suburbs with bigger houses and immaculate lawns, which both tempted and repelled Den – a complex feeling that will be familiar to many who grew up in London’s poorer, greyer quarters.

There was also Pauline Fowler, who Holland described as ‘the salt of the earth. Jolly and rounded. Someone you can get your arms around.’ What?! As the show went on, Pauline, played by the late Wendy Richard, became a byword for grinchy, nosey, twisted misery; never mind walnuts, you could have cracked a coconut on her boat. Mark Fowler, Pauline’s son, started the soap as the James Dean of the square, complete with chiselled features, hyper quiff and leather jacket, a handsome biker boy out for a good time. (Back then he was played by David Scarboro rather than Todd Carty. Scarboro committed suicide in 1988 at the age of 20. Google him to remind yourself what he looked like.)

There was Kathy Beale, Pauline’s sister-in-law, who, you imagined, considered herself too young and too pretty to be ‘just a mum’; Kathy’s son Ian, who was always wheeling and dealing and trying to make some readies; Arthur Fowler, who went mad after losing the family money on one of those dodgy Christmas savings schemes; Dot Cotton (my favourite EastEnders character) and Ethel Skinner, the ‘old birds’ who provided both moral and comic relief; and punk Mary, loser Lofty, posh Debbie, evil Wilmott-Brown, and the very occasionally appearing Dr Legg (the soap’s only Jewish character, which is bizarre – does the BBC think all the EastEnd Jews made the move north to Hampstead and Golders Green?).

Some of these characters were nice, some were horrible (or ’orrible, as Sylvia Young might insist); some had three dimensions, some had two (and some – I’m thinking in particular of that lanky streak of piss Lofty – just about had one); some were more believable than others. But all of them felt real at some level, as people with backstories, complicated relationships and internal struggles. Yet over the years, slowly and sometimes imperceptibly, Holland’s creations were sacrificed at the altar of the BBC’s moral and commercial requirements. They were castrated, defeated, made into metaphors and symbols, turned from real-ish people who expressed something about life as it was lived in the EastEnd of London into reflections of some BBC suit’s bizarre idea of what EastEnders were really like – or really should have been like. They were turned from men into messages.

Consider the fate of Mark Fowler. Starting off as an Easy Rider, he was later given HIV, whereupon he turned into the most boring character in the history of soap. Made wise by disease, his leather jacket became not a symbol of rebellion but a shoulder upon which his miserable family and friends could shed a tear. Initially BBC producers had wanted to make Mark into a racist (well, he’s a cocky white boy from the EastEnd – he must be racist, right?), but David Scarboro refused to turn his fun, delinquent character – ‘dangerous and sexy, the nearest E20 would ever get to an Elvis’, says Bushell – into a cardboard cutout of wicked prejudice. And so Scarboro was sacked. The producers brought in Todd Carty and made Mark HIV positive, physically diseased instead of racially diseased. It was ‘pure propaganda’, says Bushell, and he has a point; this was ‘an educational storyline about AIDS and associated social prejudices’, and it is striking that at a time when the then Conservative government and liberals and gay activists were hysterically warning that everyone was at risk from AIDS, the always-obedient BBC chose to give HIV to a ‘heterosexual market trader who wasn’t an intravenous drug user’. The injection of Mark Fowler (no pun intended) with An Important Message utterly killed his character; his substance, struggle and believability were quashed as he became a ventriloquist’s dummy for fashionable nonsense.

Likewise, Pauline was turned from ‘jolly and rounded’ into miserable and one-dimensional – a BBC producer’s view of what a working-class woman who works in a launderette must really be like. Ian Beale’s early Del Boy-style attempts to make money, which were initially quite inspiring (if also unintentionally comical), were turned into something wicked and greedy. ‘The soppy wet writers have it in for Ian because he wants to make a few bob and better himself, and for them that’s the cardinal sin’, says Bushell. ‘The soap is determinedly anti-aspirational. Ian has been persecuted for decades for having the temerity to run a business and make a profit.’ Once again, a character who used to be fairly interesting – remember Ian as a schoolboy? An aspiring pop star? A cheeky market trader? – has been destroyed by being made into a symbol, this time of the evils of making a buck and not knowing your place.

When Grant Mitchell (played by the big and bald Ross Kemp) first arrived in the square in 1990 he was a ‘rock of testosterone in an ocean of wimps’, says Bushell – ‘so hard he probably performed his own caesarean birth with a Stanley knife’. Grant was never one of the best characters in my view (a gruff, grunting bloke who had been in the Falklands War? How original), but he was made worse still by later writers and producers who made him go to therapy (or ‘ferapy’), presumably on the basis that no character can possibly be that angry and brooding without some good if well-hidden psychological reason. They gave a character some balls and then swiftly removed them, lest the BBC come across as saying that it is in anyway okay to be a big, burly, fuming bloke.

Perhaps the most symbolic neutering of an EastEnd character by the writers and producers of EastEnders – in this case a real-life EastEnd character – came with the arrival of Barbara Windsor as Peggy Mitchell in the mid-1990s. Windsor is best known as the giggly, bra-busting, boobs-exposing blonde from the Carry On films, so what did the BBC do to her character Peggy? Gave her a mastectomy. They cut her boobs off. And ‘as potent symbols of Englishness go, this was like booking Trafalgar Square and demolishing Nelson’s column’, says Bushell. Peggy, almost the polar opposite of actress Windsor, became a grim, man-hating misery guts who now orders the execution of her enemies ‘like Tony Soprano with a cob on’. ‘It’s like Chicago in the 1930s’, Bushell writes – a long way from East London in the 1980s.

Sometimes the actors and original writers have rebelled against the BBC’s top-down, instinctive debollocking of the characters and its insistence on having relentless misery in Albert Square. Alongside Scarboro’s refusal to go racist, Mike Reid (who played Frank Butcher) said he would only return to the soap in 1998 if he was ‘guaranteed upbeat stories’. Barbara Windsor complained about Peggy’s attire, describing it as ‘too downmarket’ (reflecting the BBC’s notion that EastEnd pub landladies are some kind of poor, matronly, stony-faced bitches) and insisted it should be made ‘flasher and more aspirational’. In 2008, the BBC got rid of black character Yolande, played by the handsome actress Angela Wynter, on the basis that they had ‘run out of storylines for her’ – which, as Bushell points out, is bizarre for a soap that kept Pauline Fowler and Dot Cotton on screen for more than 20 years. What they meant, says Bushell, is that they no longer had any ‘black issues’ for Wynter’s character to deal with; Wynter complained that EastEnders got rid of her because it felt it had exceeded its ‘quota’ for black characters – who are always ‘tame and toothless’ – and I think she has a point.

The most significant rebellion came in February 1989 when Holland and Smith, the creators of the show, protested at the way in which Den Watts was only kind-of killed off. Twenty million viewers watched Den get shot by a villain with a gun hidden in a bunch of daffodils. Holland and Smith intended this to be Den’s death scene, and so Den was filmed being shot and falling into the local canal. However, the controller of BBC1, Jonathan Powell, demanded that the scene of Den falling into the water be cut, in order to leave the door open for his potential return in the future. Holland and Smith were so furious that they had their names removed from the credit list for that episode. They never contributed to the show again. Powell got his way, and Den returned in 2003, walking into his daughter Sharon’s nightclub and uttering the immortal words: ‘Hello, princess.’ Where some characters had their spirits killed in order to communicate a message, Den’s character was magically resurrected in order to keep EastEnders in the TV ratings. With the return of Den the show didn’t only jump the shark, says Bushell – ‘it jet-skied over the whole ruddy aquarium’.

The demise of EastEnders reflects more than the changing nature of television. It is itself a kind of real-life soap opera, a struggle, in the early days at least, between writers and actors who wanted to put some real-feeling characters on the small screen and other writers and producers who forced those characters to have some higher educational purpose beyond mere grubby entertainment, and who in the process turned them into vessels for the cultural elite’s own fears and prejudices. EastEnders started as a sort-of (and that’s an important qualification) genuine working-class drama but has become a middle-class morality play. The sweeping changes on the soap reflect real-world changes in the standing of working-class communities. When the soap started in the mid-1980s, the working classes still had a public presence and some public clout; they were not so easily demonised or scapegoated for social problems; they had to be taken seriously, even by those who feared or pitied them. Today, as a result of numerous political quakes and developments, the working classes are more isolated and less politically important, and thus they can be written off as problematic and in need of re-education. And so the cocky, aspirational, complex characters of early EastEnders have given way to the vulnerable, miserable, dangerous creatures that people Albert Square today.

Bushell has done a very good and entertaining job of tracing the demise of EastEnders. I don’t buy his argument that only working-class writers like Tony Holland can create believable working-class characters (the history of literature proves that isn’t true), and at times he tends to hark back to the ‘bulldog spirit’ and the poverty-enduring, happy-go-lucky nature of the old EastEnd, which was as much a fictional creation of earlier cultural bigwigs as miserable Albert Square is today. But he has shone a light on the politics of soap, and any book that contains lines like this on Dr Legg – ‘he always talked softly so as not to wake up the squirrels kipping above his eyes’ – is fine by me.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

1001 Reasons Why Eastenders is Pony!, by Garry Bushell, is published by Pennant Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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