Thursday, February 18, 2010

25 years of EastEnders

On Feb 19 1985 BBC One broadcast the first ever episode of EastEnders. Tomorrow, a special 'live' episode centred around the murder of Archie Mitchell will mark the 25th anniversary of the programme.

Contemporary British popular culture is often criticised for its descent into a mix of industrial scale car crash television, Simon Cowell's naff-a-thons, and the rise of bullying dressed as gossip in the guise of tabloid journalism and "magazines" a-la Heat or Closer.

If that may not sound encouraging, it is instead remarkable that one of Britain's most popular television products continues to be a work that, if not exactly realistic, at least prides itself on mirroring real life.

Even around the time of its conception, EastEnders kept well away from the gloss of popular 80's US soaps such as Dallas and Dynasty. Even compared to its Australian contemporary Neighbours, EastEnders' characters were often nasty, grotty and ugly, their teeth far from perfect, while the storylines followed the template of the humdrum social realism of 1950s' British cinema.

It's to their credit that the BBC stuck to that formula. Centred around tales of deception and cheating, domestic violence and addiction, teenage pregnancy and mental health, EastEnders proved incredibly successful with the public, soon becoming the nation's favourite TV programme. Many of its characters have become national institutions: the Mitchell brothers, Dirty Den, Ian Beale, Auntie Peggie, Bianca, Rick-aay and so on.

Sure, critics would say that there are a dozen plot holes and that EastEnders staged more murders than the mafia and more resurrections than Jesus and Lazarus on ketamine. Like, it's not unlikely that tomorrow Archie Mitchell walks in through the back door saying he just hopped to Marbella for a few weeks.

One could also argue that the programme redefined the definition of "agoraphobia", with virtually no character ever venturing beyond Albert Square. No-one ever suggests going for a drink somewhere that isn't the Queen Vic and god forbid if a tea or coffee wasn't consumed in "The Caff". Etcetera.

And yet, no other programme managed to woo the nation's imagination on such a large scale for such a long time, striking the perfect balance between fiction and social realism. Viewers' ratings often top ten million per episode and it's not uncommon for a character's trouble and pain to be granted workplace debates up and down the country the following morning.

The beauty of it, is that - for once - such a major programme is consistently centred around the gritty everyday life of working or low/middle class characters, something that in most other countries would be unthinkable.

Often the stories involved have pushed the boundaries and portrayed real-life debates, prompting a complaint or two over issues such as euthanasia, homophobia, abortion, rape, prostitution - all subject matters that most prime time programmes wouldn't touch with a bargepole.

Also, EastEnders has so far resisted the frenzy of juttery filming, epilepsy-inducing flashes, pop-ups and fast lights that today seems mandatory for each and every TV product, from Dispatches and Panorama to Skins and Champions League Weekly. Otherwise, so it seems, they're not deemed "cool" enough for public consumption.

One can only imagine the devastating effect on the viewer that a fast forwarded Dot Cotton or Peggy Mitchell filmed diagonally to a background of sped-up drum'n'bass would have on the viewer.

Instead, EastEnders is proving that high drama and commercial success don't have to involve hackneyed editing techniques and extreme TV fakery.

And so happy 25th birthday to EastEnders and may the future bring more of the same.

9 comments:

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

I'm not a fan to be honest, more of an Emmerdale man myself.

Anita said...

I havent watched Eastenders in years. I used to love it buy went off it round the time Mark Fowler left. I think it had become a little implausible by that time.

I do agree though that it's better than most of the stuff on the box these days.

Newmania said...

It is a programme in which no-one ever betters themselves and any attempt to do so is treated as comic .
Of course you like it, it is the world as you would like it to be . It is a socialist manifesto and part of the reason the BBC must be cut back to size.

Emma said...

Methinks Newmania needs to take a few weeks off and have a holiday somewhere.

claude said...

Oh my god.
First time ever I hear someone describe EastEnders as "socialist"! I read about Coronation Street been called left-wing before, but EE???

But yeah, in some people's mind socialism is EVERYWHERE, behind each corner, in every TV programme, bowl of lentils and pint of ale, government directive and raspberry tart.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

May I second Emma on that one.

Word verification: "outbums"

Charlie said...

I have to say I can't stand Eastenders, I find it dire and utterly gloom-ridden. But then I find shows can go downhill permanently after 50-100 episodes, so something that's shown multiple times a week for 25 years is never going to be my cup of tea.

All that aside, Newmania's post is hilariously daft.

harpymarx said...

Tee he!!

We find out tonight for killed evil patriarch Archie. There's always smatterings of the greek tragedy and Jacobean/revenge in the script writing of 'Enders, revolving around the important of 'family' as lamented by matriarch Peggy. It always did right from the start.

At least in Corrie humour punctuates the misery and gloom unfortunately that is now lost in 'Enders (there used to be humorous respite now gawn...)

Will Barbara W. is leaving 'Enders and so is the guy who plays Bradley.... Too obvious methinks!!

Anonymous said...

Diversionary prolefeed reinforcing things-as-they-are.