After a spell in jail hardman Phil Mitchell is back in Walford and up to his old tricks, but he’ll hardly be noticed among all the other larger-than-life residents. Paul Clark bemoans the increasingly surreal world of EastEnders
Nothing is as annoying as a slow puncture. The faster you pedal, the worse it gets. It’s not like it is such a big deal to fix it – if you know what to do. You just have to stop pedalling, take it off and fix it.
These days, a bike is the only safe way to get around the East End since the Underground stations are overcrowded with commuters. Except, of course, in the BBC’s fictitious Walford – the only stop in East London from which no one commutes.
The residents of Albert Square do not need jobs, as most are gangsters (or working for gangsters), murderers (or working for murderers), self-made businesspeople or unemployable. There are hardly any married families with children, and no members of the Chinese or Muslim communities. Local businesses, such as the nightclub, the pub, the garage, nail bar and the bookies, seem to change hands without reason (or paperwork) and otherwise perfectly rational people simply disappear, never to be seen again. This virtual East End is manufactured in the minds of the writers, but remains far removed from the reality of life in East London.
Walford is, simply, unbelievable.
The rot set in around the time when one of the show’s female leads, Sam, metamorphosed from introspective beauty into oestrogen-fuelled Al Caponette, making Billy burn down Den’s club, turning EastEnders into the Alfie Moon show, with Shane Ritchie single-handedly saving the show through its decline in 2004.
The resurrected Den blackmailed Zoë into bed for a night of passion amid the imagined clatter of false teeth and beery breath. The union was to be blessed until Zoë was persuaded, super-fast, into an abortion.
Oh, the reality. Oh, the characterisation. Oh, the madness.
Sharon dropped by, as you do, on a two-minute visit from America (round-trip flying time: 16 hours) to see the three witches of Walford – Sam, Mrs Watts and Zoë – confront Den in the Vic. Then left.
Den referred obliquely to “the Scottish Play” by its proper title and was bludgeoned to death with the doorstop of long-time sparring partner Pauline, quicker than you could say “Gawdblimeylawdluvaduck”. There he lies, dirtier than ever, six feet under cement that, somehow, was laid without anyone noticing the barely cold body of Walford’s finest landlord and bar-jumper. Rigor mortis hadn’t even set in and there was laid Den, under the floor of his cellar, a crate of beer and an extra-large size box of salt’n'vinegar crisps for a headstone.
Such is life – and death – in Walford.
EastEnders has ‘jumped the shark’ – a saying for shows that have passed their peak on the long, irreversible decline into undignified death, or worse, BBC3. Now BBC1 hangs on to its wounded charge, hoping in vain that somehow, something will turn it around. Blaming producers and chopping characters is just tinkering around the edges, as the writers have written themselves into a very difficult corner, indeed.
Killing off the local mobster and bookie was over-the-top drama, and probably gave the show a short-term, and shortsighted, boost. Having the newly introduced ‘good gangster’ Mr Allen do it while simultaneously portraying him as a caring sharing pillar of the community was pure hokum. One week he pushes a man off a flyover, the next he contacts the council to fit an alarm in an old lady’s house. And then there is Derek. Celibate and lodging with the Fowlers, he is truly the only Gay in the Village.
Viewers cannot relate emotionally to such worthless, ‘written on the back of a cigarette packet’ characters. Viewers of soaps are not daft. They expect beautifully researched well-written characters, not just believable but typifying personalities in real life.
In soaps there is a very simple formula for keeping the audience happy: consistency. It is okay to play with characters: make them suffer and fail, see them crawl and clamber back up before kicking them down again. Shakespeare shows us only too well how people must be challenged and beaten, change and adapt, before rising (or falling) to their final fate. Real life is not dramatic, and drama should not just be real life. Yet it should not be a travesty of lived experience. We need to feel for the protagonists and to know that, whatever may happen, they will maintain their inner selves.
When Brookside began its slide, Channel 4 failed miserably to protect and nurture it and it was allowed a long, lingering death, on air. EastEnders is far too important to our national cultural consciousness to allow that. We should not forget that it has given us some of our greatest TV moments.
So what can be done to turn EastEnders around? It is clear that the writers cannot find their way out of their current dilemma of ridiculous characters and witless plots while endlessly racing on production deadline to fulfil another five shows a week.
BBC1 has a summer full of sporting events, any of which could conveniently ease EastEnders out of the schedule for four weeks. This could provide crucial time during which the writers could stand back and re-assess what has gone wrong and put it right, subtly moving the goalposts. Characters lacking believability could be invigorated, silly plots left unfinished and gangster’s molls could be re-aligned.
In 2004, EastEnders had a slow puncture, easily repaired. Instead of fixing it, the writers pedalled madly, spokes turning faster and faster, hoping it would fix itself. The more complex their plotlines, sillier the characters and more murders, the worse it became.
Today, EastEnders’ puncture could be patched up, as simple as fixing a tyre – if you know what to do. They just have to stop pedalling, take it off and fix it.