A CRITICAL GUIDE / Staying in: Long Runners: No 2: Eastenders

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The Independent Culture
Age: Eight. Born 19 February 1985.

Frequency: Two 30-minute shows a week, on Tuesday and Thursday. Plus a weekend omnibus - ie a repeat. The purpose is to let viewers who missed an episode catch up. Anyone who says it's ratings-inspired is unspeakably cynical.

Conception: March 1983. David Reid, then head of BBC Serials, decided the time was ripe for a soap. The BBC had only 40 per cent of the audience and was under fire from a government that had realised it was the mouthpiece for a global communist conspiracy. Something had to be done.

And so: Julia Smith and Tony Holland, respectively director and script editor of Z Cars, were summoned. A shopping arcade was considered. So was a mobile-home park. So was the East End. Jonathan Powell, the new Reid, smiled.

How did it start? Reg (Johnny Clayton), a pensioner, was found lying unconscious on the ground, and stretchered away. This was to show the community spirit of the square.

And? He died. It was traumatic, sad and grief-laden.

And? Seventeen million people tuned in.

So it made the grade? Absolutely. The Michael Grade, in fact: the new BBC1 Controller inherited a ready-made winner.

Notable absence of: Laughs.

First big break: Occurred in 1966. Three days after Reg's demise, the story broke that Leslie Grantham - aka Dennis Watts, publican of the Queen Vic - had been jailed for murder in 1966 and served 11 years. 'Dirty Den'. It was perfect. Until one day when the ratings sank to 5m.

Second big break: Emmerdale Farm took a summer holiday in 1985. Grade's inside knowledge of ITV schedules paid off. EastEnders moved from 7pm to 7.30pm 'because of the adult storylines'. This might have been true.

Third big break: Mary Whitehouse pronounced: 'It is at our peril that we allow this series . . . Its aggression and lies and deceit cannot go unchallenged.' EE never looked back.

The ratings: Usually 17-18m, currently nearer 19m. The twin peak was Christmas Day, 1986. There were two shows. The first got 29.5m viewers, the second 30.15m. It's fair to assume that the 30.15 included the 29.5, but what if they weren't? And what if Dirty Den had played Steve Davis in the final of the World Snooker Championship?

Formula: Big on trauma - adultery, alcoholism, schoolgirl pregnancy, violence, cot death, suicide, unemployment, racism, homophobia, homelessness, adultery . . .

Any little-known facts? None that aren't known. Since day one, the popular press has been an obsessive fan.

Those who have prospered: Leslie Grantham is a proper actor, Michael Cashman (Gay Colin) has gone from soap opera to soap box as a gay mouthpiece, Nick Berry (Wicksey) is the star of rural cop series Heartbeat.

Favourite villain: Nick Cotton, son of Dot. Nick's the boo- hiss, watch-out-he's-behind-you, Captain Black of EastEnders, lurking around corners, unshaven, dressed in black. Nick's a racist, a would-be pimp. He steals from Dot's purse. Why don't you tell him where to go, Dot? Because audiences rise by about 3m when our Nick enters the fray.

Those who have been there all along: Six of them. The long- suffering Fowlers: Pauline (Wendy Richard, once the blonde starlet inAre You Being Served?), the rock that everyone leans on; her husband Arthur (Bill Treacher), who is essentially grief on legs, the rock that everyone steps on; and their daughter Michelle (Susan Tully), schoolgirl mother of Dirty Den's love-child, born-again student, and the rock that props up Pauline. Also Kathy (Gillian Taylforth), who runs the cafe; her son Ian (Adam Woodyatt), also a caterer; and Sharon (Letitia Dean), daughter of Dirty Den and Angie, and heiress to the Queen Vic.

The bottom line - is it good? Yes. The acting and writing are top-notch. The technical side is very adequate. There's one episode everyone remembers - the dim-lit, tear- stained two-hander between Dot and Ethel. It was on during Wimbledon, 1987. On BBC2, Mikael Pernfors was two sets and 4-1 up against Jimmy Connors. Connors won. Pernfors couldn't believe it. And I couldn't believe I couldn't turn EastEnders off. That's a bottom line.

(Photograph omitted)