Friday 25 May 2018

EastEnders at 30: Great show but time to shake it up

Dot Branning played by June Brown (left) and Nick Cotton played by John Altman during an episode of the popular BBC television programme EastEnders
Dot Branning played by June Brown (left) and Nick Cotton played by John Altman during an episode of the popular BBC television programme EastEnders

EASTENDERS was once an undeniably great television series.

The BBC is hoping to rekindle some of that greatness with the soap’s Live Week. Starting tonight, three of the week’s four consecutive episodes will feature live inserts.

Friday’s will be fully live. In a deliberate mirroring of the very first scene of the very first episode, way back on February 19, 1985, Thursday’s instalment will open with a door being kicked, leading to a grisly discovery that will help unlock the mystery of who killed Lucy Beale.

This isn’t the first time EastEnders has gone live. Rival soaps Coronation Street and Emmerdale have also used live episodes to mark anniversaries. The appeal is obvious.

Viewing figures for all the soaps have drastically declined in recent years, but more people than usual are likely to tune in when there’s the very real possibility of something going wrong on the night: an actor fluffing or forgetting their lines, a camera operator missing a cue, a piece of scenery falling over.

As we know from numerous blooper clip shows, these things happen routinely during pre-recording. Unlike theatre, live TV drama doesn’t have the safety net of cues from the wings if an actor dries up, or the luxury of an understudy if someone suddenly falls ill. The limitless potential to cock things up adds a layer of tension to the viewing experience.

But there’s a sense that there’s more to this live bonanza than just giving a viewing figures a kick. I haven’t watched EastEnders consistently in a long, long time. It simply became too depressing, too silly, with too many irritating characters caught up in tediously repetitive storylines.

From what I’ve been reading in the papers and hearing from people who do watch it on a regular basis, however, it’s currently on the kind of winning streak it hasn’t enjoyed in years. What’s more, it appears EastEnders’ unlikely saviour is none other than Danny Dyer, hero of any number of knuckle-headed geezers, gangsters‘n’guns Brit flicks.

Dyer, who plays the Queen Vic’s latest landlord, Mick Carter, surprised everyone by playing against type as a caring, compassionate family man who’s easily moved to tears – not your typical EastEnders alpha male.

Both viewers and critics have been full of praise for Dyer, Kellie Bright as Mick’s wife Linda and the rest of the Carter clan (including respected stage and screen veteran Samuel West as Mick’s father). The Carters are currently the focal point for several major storylines, which are, apparently, the most compelling the soap’s writers have turned out in quite a while.

It’s as if the 30th anniversary milestone has spurred the production team to try to restore something of its original lustre. It’s difficult for anyone who was either a young child or yet to be born when EastEnders began to appreciate how refreshing it was at the start.

Brash, confident and comparatively realistic, it shook Coronation Street, which had grown dreary, complacent and divorced from reality, to the foundations of its cobbles.

Warring couple Den and Angie Watts (Leslie Grantham and Anita Dobson), the Burton and Taylor of Walford, and Den’s teenage conquest Michelle Fowler (Susan Tully), who was pregnant with his baby, immediately became the stars of the show, but they were backed up by an ensemble of well-drawn characters that accurately reflected the multiracial, multicultural make-up of London in a way no other drama, let alone a soap, did at the time.

If I had to pinpoint exactly when EastEnders started to decline, it would be the moment the Mitchell brothers arrived in 1990. While it’s unlikely it can ever go back to being what it was, 30 is the perfect age for a fresh start. Happy birthday, you miserable gits.

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