The meaning of EastEnders

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It may be the most downbeat soap on television but EastEnders has lasted a quarter of a century on our screens. To understand its longevity, one must consider it in the context of Classical tragedy, writes long-time viewer Michael Bywater

DIRTY DEN: Cor, stinks in 'ere, dunnit? (MUSIC): Doof, doof ... No. NO! That's not a doof-doof. That's not even the end of an episode, the trademark cliffhanger or the over-the-cliff-entirely or the bloody-hell-call-that-a-doof-doof-it's pathetic, or an anyone-could-have-seen-that-coming-even-granddad-saw-that-coming-dincha-granddad-hello-granddad-GRANDDAD-mum-it's-granddad-he's-not breaving ... DOOF, doof-doof, doof-doof-doof-doof-doof-doof ...

Oh, come on, int it. Don't get on your igh orse, You know what I'm talking about. I'm talking about Albert Square. I'm talking about the Mitchell brothers, I'm talking about Peggy, I'm talking about Frank Butcher oughtn't to been driving, the silly old fool, I'm talking dahn the Vic (mine's a rum'n'black), I'm talking Tiff no better than what she oughter, talking Ian Beale, Chelsea, Zainab, the Mitchell sisters now Grant and Phil is gone. Talking young Tiff, Fat Boy, Danny, Dot Cotton, the Karims (Shireen, Sohail, Ashraf, Sufia) and the Osmans (Ali, Sue, Mehmet, Guizin and Little Ali and all them other Osmans), Ernie Mears and Alan Grout, Spotty and Reg and Uncle and Dr Samuels and Sergeant Jimmy. Doof doof. Doof doof!

And Dirty Den.

"Cor, stinks in ere, dunnit?" Den Watts. Dirty Den.

That's how it all began, a quarter of a century ago. Boot kicks in a door, basement flat int it, bit iffy, bit on the nose, what you got's a stiff, int it, bleedin Reg, narmean?, Reg Cox, only brown bread in the, first episode and he's dead, dead dead, tosser, Reg, well moody, cantankerous git, except ...

Except ... he's not dead, is he, doc? "No. We're going to need some space." DOOF doof doof ...

No. There weren't (best of my recollection) doof doofs in them days. Not yet. Not doof doofs. Simon May's original theme tune – played over a murky pre-CGI Thames with a year still to run before London City airport – features the famous RotoToms, first quietly in the background, then playing the real, yer actual, doof doof figure linking the end of an inexplicable sub-Chas & Dave honky-tonk middle eight to the recap of the original theme (whose words, it seems, are "Anyone can fall in love". Lord). But they're still not the doof doofs, a dramatic as much as a musical gesture and the defining feature of the series. Say "EastEnders" to anyone – any sentient being with a telly, at any rate – and they'll reply "Doof doof."

They'll probably get it wrong, too.

"Bit off-thread but I'm desperate!" wrote BeatNick on the Digital Spy forum recently; "I'm a sub writing a headline and I need to know how many doof-doofs there are at the end of each episode of EastEnders! I've tried counting them off YouTube but I can't be sure I'm right! I think it's eight or nine. Can anyone help?"

Well of course they could help. "Eight," they declared. This was, after all, a fan site. These people knew. Britain's most instantly-recognised piece of music after God Save the Queen, int it?

And they got it wrong. There are nine doof doofs. I transcribed them for you myself and if you don't believe me I'd like to point out that the URL for the Bournemouth Echo's recent story on the show's silver jubilee is http://www. bournemouthecho.co.uk/news/4868687.25_years_of_doof__doof__doof__doof__doof__doof__doof_doof_doof_/, which, I think, settles the argument for good. (I wonder whether it was the same sub who had second thoughts, or a different sub with a musical training.)

***



Reg Cox wasn't dead. He died in the next episode. Galling, perhaps, for Johnnie Clayton, the actor who played him, but scene-setting for what would follow. EastEnders began as it meant to go on. These weren't the thigh-slapping, Knees-up-Mother-Brown, apples-and-pears mockney whelk-gobblers of popular entertainment. They owed more to Liza of Lambeth than "The Lambeth Walk". Although they were entirely fictive in their endless intersecting and interdependence, although the idea of this "community" was, and remains, an artful dramatic device which makes no attempt to conceal itself from the viewers, their concerns and the infinitely-extendible show itself harked back to a dramatic tradition far older than soaps or melodramas.

In its endless blurring between comedy and tragedy, as well as its setting, firmly among the working class, EastEnders lies in a line of descent directly from the mediaeval tradition of the miracle and mystery plays: the drama of ordinary people caught up in great events. The guildsmen and navvies of the mystery plays don't bother about matters of patristics or moral theology; they are more interested in slagging off each others' work, trying to find their tools, boasting about their own skills, nattering and arseing about. So, too, the denizens of Albert Square respond to murder, incest, recession, bankruptcy, homosexuality, multiculturalism and all the anguished shibboleths of our times.

The urge to "relevance" is a terrible curse upon any script editor but EastEnders has pulled it off, time and again, without either preaching to the audience or patronising its own characters. Perhaps that's because the main character in the series is the place itself, Albert Square, a sort of malign, cackling but gemütlich exercise in the kind of psychogeography Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair espouse, though on a grander scale. Move into the Square and the Square gets in amongst you and stirs you up with a long pole.

But other soaps have tried the neighbourhood trick and (at least as drama) fail dreadfully. Coronation Street seems oddly detached from any kind of reality, an extended exercise in high camp in which gurning caricatures plod on, do their turn, and plod off again with a sort of knowing wink to the viewers as they go. Neighbours is disengaged from everything, even the neighbourhood; nothing there is ever really at stake, everyone is vouched-for nice-n-friendly, and there is no real jeopardy. The Archers is simply unspeakable, its cosiness as soft and comfy as a pair of nicely-padded incontinence pants, and even its signature tune can throw you into a horrible state of rural despair so that, after a bit, you stop turning the car radio on in case it's The Archers (and it always is). Nobody can hear the news that a cast member has died – whether in the show or in real life – without doing a tiny mental jig of relief. Brookside may have been as grittily engaged with social commentary – lesbian kissing! Incest! Heroin! – as EastEnders, but it was the grit in the sandal rather than the grit in the oyster.

And now is not the time to talk about Crossroads. It is never the time to talk about Crossroads. Watching Crossroads was like being in a motorway lavatory when the paper has run out: a combination of anger, frustration, self-loathing and a profound, almost stupefying sadness.

EastEnders is different. Firstly, it pulls off (and has been doing so since the beginning) an astonishing trick: it gives the impression that the characters are bigger than the show. It's as if they're only in a TV series by accident, or intermittently. Take the cameras away from any other soap and the show's over. The people of Ambridge, Coronation Street or Ramsay Street clearly only exist in order to be on TV. EastEnders' characters seem to keep on going between episodes, although everything possible is done to avoid giving that impression, not least, the doof doofs. The cliffhanger which prompts an episode's doof doof – originally an insider shorthand on the show, which somehow leaked out into the public domain – is taken up without a millisecond's break at the beginning of the next. But the doof doofs themselves are an extraordinarily device.

On the surface of it, they're the antithesis of postmodern irony. Here's the diegesis – the world-within-the-show – and we, the viewers, aren't invited to step out of it for even a moment. Showtime stops with the doof doof and resumes again after the opening titles (with the new, astonishingly blue, possibly digitally-enhanced Thames) of the next. But at the same time the doof doof is postmodernism epitomised (and you could argue that it's a special category of sign, temporarily halting the process of what Derrida called "différance" on a grander scale. You could. But let's not). "What you have just seen," the doof doof says, "is a fictional construct, done by actors. And what's more, we're not just going to have a cliffhanger, we're going to have a special that-was-a-cliffhanger signpost." We may all have inner soundtracks to our daily lives but damn few of us, I bet, have doof doofs. When would we have them? Life doesn't pause for the cliffhanger. In real life, there is no cliffhang. It's just oops, stop, can't, over, down, dead. We don't even get to windmill our legs for a moment. Doof doofs? In real life there just isn't the time. The EastEnders doof doof is a purely theatrical device. It's like the girl with the legs doing the placard at a wrestling match. It's like the boy with the legs doing the scene-card in the old Globe Theatre. It's like the Chorus coming on in Henry V to tell us what we should be imagining. Watching the EastEnders weekend omnibus edition, without the doof doofs, was always oddly dispiriting. Something lacking. Eventually I gave up but what was lacking, of course, was that theatricality.

Perhaps the original doof doof was the ebony stick the old Comédie Française stage manager used to rap three times to mark the beginning of the play. EastEnders raps at the end; and so those RotoToms become more of a Greek chorus, commenting on the action. "Here's a terrible thing," they say; "Here's a turn-up for the books; here's a dilemma; here's a bugger: how'll they get out of this one, eh? Int it? Int it? Narmean?" And we respond instinctively. We nod sagely. We creak out of our chairs. "Int it?" we murmur to each other, going to put the kettle on. "Narmean?" "Int it."

If the doof doof is a sort of chorus, it's appropriate, because the overriding plot device in EastEnders – and perhaps another reason for its characters' seeming persistence outside the broadcast episodes – is what Aristotle identified as the most successful structure of classical Athenian tragedy. The Greek tragedies, too, were curiously given to relevance, and you can read the vast sweep of Aeschylus's prototypical (and only surviving) trilogy, the Oresteia, as an extended argument about an impersonal, capricious life at the mercy of the gods versus a rational human justice. Tragedy, though one of the greatest of arts, tends only to spring up when societies are threatened with great change. In the 5th century BC, Athens was under military and economic threat. In the 16th century, England was yoked under religious controversy and intolerance, monarchical despotism, overseas conflict and adventurism, and the rise of the new merchant classes; nothing was safe or to be counted upon. And again in the 19th century, in northern Europe, a new financial, moral and social order was growing without restraint. These times gave us Sophocles and Euripides, Shakespeare and Marlowe, Ibsen and Chekhov.

Now we have telly.

But the underlying structure remains spookily the same. Aristotle, in his Poetics, noted down what he saw as as the best structure to engage audiences in the action of a tragedy. The hero had to be someone we could identify with: not too great or too low. He had to have some sort of hubris – a flaw or failing or even just a sort of misunderstanding about his abilities or his place in the scheme of things. This hubris led him to make a mistake, the hamartia, which originally meant, simply, missing the target. As a result, what he (and we) thought was a run of good luck turned out (peripeteia) to actually be carrying him to destruction. Eventually we, and he, recognise (anagnorisis) things for what they really are, and fate (nemesis) brings him down. The result is katharsis – either a "purging" or, if you prefer, a "rebalancing" of the world. Watch EastEnders through Aristotle's eye and it's unmissable. And anything that's been a recipe for well-structured, audience-engaging drama for over 2,500 years has got to have something.

The thing that Aristotle didn't quite say was that, in a tragedy, the downfall seems both inexorable and disproportionate. "But ... but ... did he really have to ... " DOOF doof doof.

And that, too, is the secret of the doof doofs. Oh blimey NOW there's going to be ... but what? What is there going to be? Not necessarily, not by any means always, bad, but big. Big. One of the best – perhaps the best – would have been, in lesser hands than the EastEnders' team's, been a recipe for sentimentality. But not here:

ZOE: You ain't my mother.

(PAUSE)

KAT: Yes I am.

Doof doof.

It's one among many, of course. Canvas the viewers and everyone's got their favourite.

The firemen going into the Slaters' house to save Trev and the whole house goes up, leaving Sharon weeping in the street. The day Robbie Jackson leaves. Phil and Grant Mitchell leaping out of the car to save their mother from thugs. "I've done something terrible, Dad ... " (DOOF doof doof). Tiffany's death. Melanie walking out on Ian. Dot and Ethel's deathbed hug. Grant's return. And, of course, the evening when Alfie spent half an hour running round London looking for a condom and by the time he got back Kat had passed out into a drunken slumber ...

Some of them Aeschylus would have written. Some of them he'd have died rather than. But all grew from the interaction of wider fates upon flawed and personal lives.

***

We all have our moments. For me, it was that golden period when Peggy was still not entirely disenchanted with the Vic ("Get OUT of my PUB!"), Phil was blootered 24/7 but in glorious slurred lurching denial, and Grant in full truculent ("I'll SORT it, oKAY?") geezer mode. But then ... doof doof.

Some say that it was never the same after Dirty Den went. Some lament Frank Butcher's death in France (throat cancer). Viewers pass through just as residents of Albert Square pass through. But EastEnders keeps going. Personally, I'd give it top marks just for introducing a new and universally appropriate greeting whenever one resident opens the front door to another: "What YOU want?" Bravo, and to hell with limp-wristed continental courtesies. EastEnders is the king of soaps. Long may it reign. And if you don't agree, you know where you can stick it ...

Doof doof.



A special live anniversary episode of EastEnders airs on Friday 19 February on BBC One



A guide to Albert Square's best characters

Ethel Skinner - Gretchen Franklin

Second of the original 23 characters to be conceived by the show's inventors Tony Holland and Julia Smith, Ethel quickly became a well-loved character. Her two enduring relationships were with Dot Cotton and Willy, her pet pug. In 2000 Ethel became seriously ill and in one of the show's most controversial storylines asked Dot to help her die; her funeral was accorded the rare honour of an alternative to the signature ending drums (wartime orchestral music was played instead). In May 2005 Franklin was to be presented with the Lifetime Soap Achievement Award at the British Soap Awards but died in July, four days after her 94th birthday.

"Nasty" Nick Cotton - John Altman

Nick has enraged audiences since 1985 with his continual and calculated cruelty towards his God-fearing mother Dot. (The debut episode of EastEnders opens with the discovery of Reg Cox's body, who Nick has murdered.) In his time Nick has committed murder twice, been addicted to heroin, tried to poison his mother and performed countless other transgressions. Frequently named as one of soap's best villains, Cotton's reputation has meant that Altman has never been short of pantomime roles.

Tiffany Mitchell - Martine McCutcheon

The gutsy barmaid at the Queen Vic for three years, "Tiff" was Bianca's BF, and spent most of her time torn between Grant Mitchell (who cheated on her with her mother) and Tony Hills (who slept with her brother). Her tragic end – she was hit by a car while trying to rescue her daughter Courtney from Grant – was witnessed by over 20 million viewers. Not long afterwards McCutcheon upgraded Ross Kemp for Hugh Grant in the movie Love, Actually, and, like any self-respecting celeb, now calls herself an author: The Mistress was published last November.

Frank Butcher - Mike Reid

Former stuntman and stand-up comedian Reid became Frank in 1987, reappearing off and on until 2005. Frank was a charming but selfish man, and often scarpered from Walford leaving his loved ones to pick up the pieces. Caught between the two matriarchs of the square, Pat Butcher (Pam St Clement) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor), his affair with Pat led to one of the most comedic love scenes Walford has ever seen when he turned up on her doorstep, naked save for a comedy twirling bowtie. After leaving the soap in 2005 Reid appeared in The Bill, filmed the reality show The Baron, as well as the feature film Jack Says, which he completed four days before his death in July 2007.



Simon "Wicksy" Wicks - Nick Berry

Dreamy-looking Wicksy (all quiff and doe eyes) moved to Walford in 1985 in search of his father, Pete Beale, and stayed five years. After dating Sharon, he fell for Cindy Williams (Michelle Collins), the soon-to-be wife of his best mate Ian Beale. The resulting feud would eventually force both Wicksy and Cindy to leave the Square. Berry has since appeared in Heartbeat for eight years, as well as starring in the self-written, produced and directed BBC1 series Harbour Lights.

Ian Beale - Adam Woodyatt

The only character to have been in the show continuously since its first episode, Ian was just a teenager when he first appeared on screen. Reluctant to follow his father Pete Beale into the fruit and veg trade, Ian has been the victim of his own ambition for most of his adult life. A weasel and a sneak, Ian has attracted the approbation of many co-characters, including his ex-wife Cindy (one of four spouses he's had in his time), who tried to murder him. Woodyatt, a genuine East Ender in real life, is also an accomplished photographer and avid Trekkie.

George "Lofty" Holloway - Tom Watt

Chivalrous but nerdy, Lofty appeared in the show between 1985-1988, offering to marry the newly-pregnant Michelle Fowler (the dad was Den). However theirs was not a marriage of true minds, and when Michelle (Susan Tully) aborted the baby he had wished for, Lofty was a broken man. Watt left EastEnders for a successful second career as a sports journalist, presenting on radio and television; he also ghost-wrote the fastest-selling autobiography of all time, David Beckham's My Side.

Sharon Watts - Letitia Dean

Blonde, husky-voiced barmaid Sharon has been in and out of the Square from 1985 until 2006. The daughter of Den and Angie, Sharon's love life has been predictably ill-fated. She married Grant Mitchell only to have an affair with his brother Phil; later she turned her charms on her own brother (by adoption) Dennis, whom she also married. After his death, Dean waltzed onto the 5th series of Strictly Come Dancing, followed by stage appearances in High School Musical and Calendar Girls.

Dennis "Dirty Den" Watts - Leslie Grantham

Originally the landlord of the Queen Vic, Dirty Den first made an appearance in Walford in 1985 before disappearing under suspicious circumstances in 1989 – only to rise like Lazarus in 2003. His spectacularly bad marriage to Angie (Anita Dobson) culminated in the Christmas Day 1986 episode, recently voted one of the soap's most popular, in which Den served his alcoholic spouse divorce papers. Grantham himself has had a dramatic personal life, including time in prison and an online sex scandal.

Barry Evans - Shawn Williamson

For 10 years, between 1994 to 2004, Barry, a second-hand car dealer, was a cuckolded buffoon. Incredibly, his marriage to Natalie Price was seen by 20.89 million viewers in the millennium eve special, and broadcast to revelers on huge screens in Trafalgar Square; his lowest point was a fall off a cliff which lead to his ultimate demise at the hands of Janine. Williamson went on to play himself in Extra, a man even referred to by his agent as 'Barry from EastEnders'. Miranda Porter

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