Underrated / Gloomy, perhaps, but lifelike

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EastEnders is great television, mixing passion and grit in hugely popular style.

Unlike Coronation Street (newly-minted faux nostalgia), EastEnders continues to derive drama from contemporary issues in a way that others have copied ruthlessly. It hasn't always managed to transcend its own worthiness, (gloom, of which it is often accused, can descend upon it when the producers aren't looking) but its handling of themes like teenage pregnancy, unemployment and gay relationships has been hugely impressive. The Colin / Barry gay plotline had massive problems, not the least of which was why a gay man would spend his entire social life in a homophobic pub, (answer: because it's the only location where all the characters meet) but it was still streets ahead of Brookside's lily-livered handling of gay Gordon.

More to the point, EastEnders has provided some simply gripping drama. The famous two-handers between alcoholic Angie and Dirty Den offered a classic combination of sharp scripting, great acting and daring production decisions. It was like Armchair Theatre meets the electric chair.

The series was set up around the matriarchal Fowler household, but Anita Dobson stole the show from under Wendy Richard's nose and some argue it never recovered from her departure. But this ignores the best reason for tuning in: the actress Susan Tully. Michelle Fowler has been at the centre of most of the programme's key storylines. Tully has never won a BAFTA award, but she can lift a poor script and with a good one she's dynamite. Her confrontation with her on- screen father after she learned of his adultery was shocking and truly upsetting; the parallel scene between husband and wife had merely advanced the plot.

Recent improvements include turning Pat Butcher from termagant to earth-mother and the writing out of Pete Beale. (Everyone on screen looked miserable. We viewers were throwing parties.)

It's still recovering from going thrice-weekly. Plotlines have become laboured and the storyliners are still uncertain how to handle some of the newer characters. Dot Cotton's exit from the programme is a grievous loss. June Brown's performance had real wit, which has been in short supply since Dirty Den's departure. But Barbara Windsor's impending arrival could be a lifeline. She is, after all, the genuine article. EastEnders has always had unusually strong male characters. (Who watched Dynasty for Blake Carrington?) Maybe Windsor will return it to the women.