“Poor old Reg” – Radio Times, 16-22 February 1985 edition.
I remember, of course I do, the day EastEnders first aired1. Much brouhaha from BBC1, trailered whenever the channel inhaled. Things don’t change. But what surprises me watching it back now – courtesy of BBC iPlayer and the show’s 30th celebrations – is how raw it is.
When the door is booted open to Rog Cox’s flat, the scene is recorded on cameras unequipped to deal with the light levels. Dark shadows become moss-coloured stripes. All this is really telling us is, back then, the production wasn’t adequately resourced for what it was trying to do – but (predictably) I liked that. Probably because it made me feel nostalgic. Also, those flaws inferred a kind of reality, as if the camera crew had to just bustle in and get on with it.
As a first episode of anything, this, written by Gerry Huxham2, does an excellent job. By the end of the 30 minutes we had a reasonable grip on the geography of Albert Square, with some key spaces – specifically the stairwell behind the bar in the Queen Vic – already working brilliantly. Similarly, we understood the characters, and how they interrelated. Granted, there was some ungainly place-setting dialogue (“Me? I’m Den Watts, publican of the Queen Victoria”, or “‘Ere, what’s all this about, Lou?”/”I dunno, Ethel”) but when we saw Kathy enter the cafe, all smiles, it was as if she’d been doing it for years.
Yes, performances varied, to a degree that just isn’t countenanced in the show today, but no one yet felt like they were chiseling out a specific archetype – falling into a type of characterisation that will be passed on through subsequent generations (Leslie Grantham then, Danny Dyer today).
If memory serves, the critical consensus was that this thing had got off to a rocky start. Part of that was the shock of the new. Some of it still shocks. This repeat was preceded with a friendly 21st-century BBC caption: “First broadcast in 1985, this episode contains some content that present day viewers may find offensive.” In the main, that referred to the casual racism espoused by Nick Cotton, but also the decision to frame half-a-dozen shots so that a topless Big D Nuts model was in view at the back of frame.
What was really surprising, though, were the couple of lines loaded with political intent. “Community spirit went out the window when the Tories come (sic) in,” said Pete Beale. “It’s ‘uneconomic'”. Later, Lou Beale roared about “that cow at Number 10!” What a time, when our soaps felt politicking to be part of the package. But, as they would learn during the latter half of the 1980s, it was in the plotting, not the politicking, they could impact upon the national discussion…
“So join in the conversation on social media!” It’s a few days short of 30 years later. I haven’t watched EastEnders with any regularity since, maybe, Willmott-Brown’s short-lived return, which would mean around 1992. However, like the Coronation Street 50th birthday celebrations, the anniversary is reason enough to drag me back in. So, it’s Tuesday, and I’m confused. Whereas Weatherfield brought us a big explosion, toppling residents in such a way so that their reorientation helped lapsed viewers, this is an implosion, sucking characters into a storyline which, I understand, has a year’s worth of wrinkles to iron out.
Coming back to Walford, certain things struck me. Some repeatedly, like how the mechanics of each scene work: a character arrives (usually letting themselves in), has a conversation with someone in which they only partially disclose the information they’re holding, then one of the party leaves while the camera lingers on whomever remains, their expression changing to indicate there’s something they’re not saying. And repeat. There’s also a strange flatness to everything, interiors are flatly light – except for Nick Cotton’s resting place – and the sound is similarly one-dimensional. There’s never the cadence of being in a front room or a pub. It’s not so much EastEnders‘ house style as its studio style. But once you’ve reacclimatised, you kind of forget about it.
In this instalment, Barbara Windsor returned for an odd scene in which her every line seemed self-regarding. Was the purpose of her encounter with Danny Dyer in the Queen Vic (she’d just let herself in) to establish his character as being in someway less definitive than her’s? Why do that? Elsewhere, Ian and Sharon chatted – a quorum from the First Days. “How many times have we sat on this bench putting the world to rights?” she wondered, using the kind of cliché that’s only ever uttered in soap. No one puts the world to rights. Then, a genuinely nice line from Ian, his realisation “there’s no one to be proud of me anymore.”
“She knows you killed Lucy,” said Max Branning at the end, in an #EELive segment. Until then, the rationale behind these bits felt elusive, but coming back on Wednesday, I started to get it. Live was where this birthday party came alive, the production team stockpiling all the revelatory stuff for those moments – although it did mean anything not hashtagged seemed rather inessential, with no purposeful business to be conducted therein. But, what fun! “How’s Adam?” This was where the drama could be found, actors on their mettle, cameras being cued then and there, and despite the dialogue stumbles, this aspect was terrific.
Come Thursday, though, and everything sagged. As neat as it was to open with a reprise of episode one, the feeling of holding back the inevitable in the hour-long special was overwhelming. Ian wandering around, saying to various people he knew whodunnit, Mick acknowledged that at one point, but had something more pressing to attend to than asking the newly-wed to name names. A birth, a death, another death, a possible third death (at Danny Dyer’s boot) and a ludicrous conspiracy to hide Nick Cotton’s body; it was epic but rambling nonsense, lurching around all over the shop. Kathy’s return – someone I recognised! – felt lost, just another crazy revelation.
Except, none of this was meant for me. None of it. And why should it be? It’s not my party. As I said, I haven’t watched EastEnders in years and I wondered if this was how ex-Doctor Who viewers felt about the show’s 50th. From that point of view, I accept the soap was delighting its faithful, and all power to them. In those terms, you can’t deny it’s been a massive success. But it did mean I was completely thrown by the subsequent flashback episode, wherein relationships I had a tenuous grip on after three episodes were no longer relevant. And what power, really, could the ultimate revelation hold when a character I’d only ever been aware of once she was dead turned out to have been murdered by another character I didn’t know existed until that very moment?
But then tonight: “Over 10 million of you were part of TV history last night,” said the BBC1 announcer, about to press the button for our final 30 minutes. Here, at last, I yielded to the moment. Sure, there was the unwelcome stupidity of two families, mere yards apart, potentially hiding murderers in the midst, but live – live – EastEnders looked its stories squarely in the eye. “Jane says she killed Lucy,” said Ian, at last ditching the obfuscation. These scenes were testament to something probably too few of us realised. “How’s Adam?” Turns out Adam’s amazing, giving a moving, dignified performance of a man crumbling, then rebuilding himself. Respect also to the younger cast members (as young as 12, in fact).
Even the writing felt bolstered. Okay, some of the dialogue creaked in a way nothing else did (“Emma was a good officer, she put her heart and soul into finding Lucy’s killer”) but the scenes of the Beales interrogating Jane, determined to make her say every last painful truth, were rightfully harrowing.
Fade from that front room outside to shots around the Square. Life goes on, soaps go on. As Ian said, “Slowly, Lucy will fade from people’s memories.” To put it plainly, she will from mine. What happens next in EastEnders? I won’t know, because I’m off again.
Poor old Lucy.
But, unexpectedly, despite my resistance, there was more than one moment tonight when I surprised myself by actually feeling glad this show exists. A fine legacy for “Julia + Tony”. There go the fireworks, with a final triple-crack into the closing drum beats.