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The Independent Culture
Sometimes, as any counsellor will tell you, what looks like a disaster can actually breathe new life into a marriage. Everyone looks at the state of things and says, "What can we do to make it better?". The same can often be said of television programmes. The departure of so many familiar faces from EastEnders (BBC1) prompted Cassandra-like wails of "What's the point without Susan Tully?". And it's true that, for a while, every other episode seemed to end with Fick Rick (Sid Owen) bobbing his head and crying the word "Bee-yanker!", or a close-up of Pat-Swede-art (Pam St Clement) and her ever-changing eyeshadow, looking grim.

But not any more. The script department has risen to the challenge, and the soap is back on the magnificent course on which it started. There was even evidence, in last night's drinking session between Frank (Mike Reid) and Phil (Steve McFadden), that those wonderfully theatrical two-handers might be due for resurrection.

Stars must be replaced. Which means that the lesser personalities have been coming forward with more subtle refinements of character and more sympathetic traits. So the Bruvs, long since simple metaphors for the thug element, have become separate entities: Phil is showing alarming New Man tendencies towards the pregnant Caff ("Now don't forget: feet up. Telly on. And don't move"), and Grant (Ross Kemp), with his inscrutable cat- like smirk and fine line in cynical asides, is rapidly turning into the cast pin-up. Tiff (Martine McCutcheon), out on the street with her bin- liner of belongings on Tuesday, and back on form as a tough little user chez Jackson on Thursday, is rounding out nicely. Meanwhile, Pat's Mr Nice Guy, Roy Evans (Tony Caunter), about whom we know little so far, except that he is an impotent car salesman, has orchestrated such a nasty campaign over his mobile that one begins to suspect that he might actually be a gangland capo di cappi.

Which leads us to the crucifixion of Frank Butcher. I don't know what's happened to Mike Reid in his time out of the serial, but he has turned from an actor whose only expression of emotion was to take his specs off and pinch the top of his nose, into a full-blown thesp. Driven into a corner by the Evans-Butcher campaign to drive him from the Square, he has spent most of the week helping himself from the optics at the Queen Vic, and slipped into another breakdown last night.

Fixated on the death of the drifter in the car-lot fire two years ago ("All 'e wanted was a place to sleep. One minute 'e was alive, the next 'e was dead"), he wept, he stormed, the veins stood out on his face, he puffed like a wino on his fag, and - yes - he took off his glasses. Then he uttered the words they've all been dreading. "I've godda go to the police," he said. "I've got to." The look on Phil's face was pure Joan Crawford.

More tears on Seasiders (C4), the ongoing tale of the Haven Holiday Centres' equivalent of Redcoats, as Cheri discovered that she didn't have a part in the Friday show. "I don't feel part of the team at all," she sniffed, "they don't realise how much they hurt you." On the evidence of what we saw of the show itself - karaoke from voices so weak the band drowned them out, a duet of "Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong" in which both singers sang the same part, and a dee-dee-diddly-dee music-hall routine rendered inaudible by the fact that no one had been trained in use of the microphone - she must have been truly untalented.

Still, Andy had better luck with his magic. "Let's buy him a Big Box Illusion," said entertainments executive Nigel Hudson, "give him a 12-minute slot." He also did well out of the punters: the Stewart family presented him with a fluffy white stuffed seal cub (they had, after all, spent the week clubbing), and wept all over him. Ah, showbusiness.

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