It's been bleedin' marvellous

It began with a door being kicked in and has been a tale of misanthropy and woes ever since. Mark Lawson celebrates 10 years of `EastEnders'
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Behind every creative decision, there is a creative rejection: thus the BBC spent some time in the early 1980s planning a soap opera about life on a mobile home park. Even when this developed into a saga of contemporary Cockneys, the title for a long time was East 8. Even after this was changed for the now-famous name, there were lengthy debates over whether it should be spelt East-Enders or East Enders, before the graphics- friendly but grammar-hostile EastEnders was accepted. The pub was always the Queen Vic, but the sparring husband and wife who ran it were, in the beginning, Jack and Pearl Watts rather than Den and Angie, while their adopted daughter Sharon started life as - a less dramatic distinction - Tracey.

Were these switches irrelevant whims or strokes of genius? We can imagine saying "Did you see East 8 last night?" but would Dirty Den have made the same impact in the guise of Jailbird Jack? Our hunch tells us that a series about mobile home-owners would not be celebrating its 10th birthday this week. But why did a show set in an East End square become a famous hit while the same production team's subsequent series about Spanish expatriates - Eldorado - became a celebrated failure?

For every soap opera that gets to eat 10th birthday cake, there are several for whom the christening cake did duty at the funeral tea. Why "popular drama" - the genre to which such series belong, even when disliked - actually becomes popular is one of television's biggest mysteries. And EastEnders is one of the strangest stories of all, because the BBC was a virgin to this world.

It was on 14 March 1983 that producer Julia Smith and script editor Tony Holland were - as they record in their seminal work EastEnders: The Inside Story (BBC Books, 1987) - summoned to meet the then head of serials at the corporation, David Reid. They were told that the BBC was keen to produce its first "popular bi-weekly serial". At that stage, no one in the BBC was prepared to be caught using the word "soap".

In 1995, EastEnders seems such an inevitable part of the BBC schedules that it is necessary to underline what a contentious venture it originally seemed. It was not the case that the public-service channels had never made a soap opera. The Grove Family - a weekly saga of post-war suburban domesticity - was shown as early as 1954. From 1962 to 1965, the BBC screened the twice-weekly Compact, set on a women's magazine. And that earth-mother of all soaps, the Archers, was a child of Reithean BBC Radio. But with the spread of commercial television, the corporation stiffened its intentions and, after the 1960s, multi-episode, year-round soap was left to ITV.

The BBC's resistance to a Coronation Street-style serial had been political - snobbery about purely popular forms - but its espousal of the idea in 1983 was also political. Thatcherites, about to win their second election, were increasingly pushing the view that the BBC, as an "unpopular" service (that is, commanding less viewer enthusiasm than ITV), could no longer justify funding by a licence fee levied from the entire viewing population. The then managing director of BBC Television, Bill Cotton, and the then controller of BBC 1, Alan Hart, hoped to relieve the pressure by producing a general must-watch of the kind in which ITV specialised.

Smith and Holland considered without much excitement the two ideas the BBC already had, with initial scripts commissioned: the mobile homes soap and another set in a shopping arcade. It was not until 1984 that a new head of serials, Jonathan Powell, suggested a soap about "London today". Smith and Holland, according to their record, responded with talk of a "Victorian Square" and "the East End where that bend in the river occurs". BBC management, paralysed by the model of Coronation Street, had assumed a northern setting and insisted on market research - at that time the new shibboleth of an uncertain BBC - on the plausibility of a southern one. The focus groups showed no specific resistance to London fiction, so the project went ahead.

On 1 February 1984, Smith and Holland wrote a memo for Powell, which explained: "The bi-weekly is an on-going serial about the life of a community in the East End of London. Being part of British history, the `East-End' location is instantly recognisable, and populated by a healthy mix of multi-racial, larger-than-life characters."

There were many slips - of title, character and casting - between memo and hit, but within eight months (or 67 episodes) of its February 1985 launch EastEnders reached number one in the ratings. In 1986 and 1987, the show won several awards. On Christmas Day 1986, 30.15 million viewers, one of the highest audiences in history, watched Angie walk out on Den and the depressed, unemployed Arthur Fowler tear his festive home apart. The BBC's great gamble was, as they say in Albert Square, "sorted". Since then, the series has scarcely left the top five of the television ratings.

Why did EastEnders work? The answer is a combination of artistic and practical reasons: content and context. Artistically, successful British soap operas have been set in working-class communities. (The disastrous Triangle and Eldorado were both more middle class.) The most memorable characters have generally been female: Sheila Grant in Brookside; Meg Richardson in Crossroads; Elsie Tanner and Ena Sharples in Coronation Street. EastEnders, located in London's most famous working-class territory, has been built around the stories of Angie and Sharon Watts, Pauline and Michelle Fowler, and Kathy Beale.

However Smith, Holland and Powell understood, in the preparation of their new "bi-weekly" for 1985, that the Coronation Street model - of soap as a soft dream of a lost and kinder England - was inappropriate in a rougher modern culture. Advertising the show's intended edge, the first episode began with a door being kicked in and ended with a window being smashed. By episode two, a murder investigation was in process. Where Coronation Street's baddies had been mildly unpleasant men like Mike Baldwin, EastEnders, with Dirty Den and Nick Cotton, and more recently Grant Mitchell, admitted to the genre for the first time actual psychopaths. The injection of issues - such as teenage pregnancy and Aids - was partly an attempt to appease the BBC conscience about this "down-market" project, but it also gave the programme credibility with a younger, trendier audience untapped by Coronation Street.

Critics of EastEnders have griped about its relentless misery. The emotional weather in Albert Square has been, for 10 years, constant depression with spasmodic outbreaks of torrential violence. Detractors assume that the show succeeds in spite of its gloom. It is just as likely that misanthropy is what made it a winner. The three most watched new television fiction series since 1980 have been - in the genres of soap, comedy and drama respectively - EastEnders, One Foot in the Grave and Inspector Morse. These differ in most respects except one: the central characters were miserable sods. The prevailing wisdom has been that mass entertainment is escapism for a worn-down audience. These hits suggest that British viewers in a period of economic recession and political desperation derived some form of perverse comfort from watching people as cheerless as themselves.

EastEnders succeeded because its characters, particularly Den and Angie, caught the public imagination from the start. But this accomplished fiction was aided by the fact that the tabloid press needed a new soap opera as much as the BBC did. The cast of Coronation Street was largely old and lived quiet lives. Pat Phoenix, whose flamboyant life had made her a headline queen, had died. It was somehow typical that the one really big tabloid story produced by that show in recent years was the actor William Roach suing over the allegation that he was "boring". It was equally typical that when an EastEnders star came to sue the Sun - Gillian Taylforth - it should be over the allegation that she gave her boyfriend a blow job on a motorway hard shoulder.

Although presumably none of them was cast for that reason, the actors in EastEnders have provided an astonishing flow of free front-page publicity for the show. This started with the early revelation that Leslie Grantham, who played Dirty Den, had served time for murder. That the tabloids should learn of Grantham's past was the show's biggest early stroke of luck, but there were many more. Anita Dobson, who played Angie, was involved with the rock star Brian May. Nick Berry, who played Wicksy, himself became a chart-topping pop star. Lizzie Power, who played Arthur Fowler's mistress, was in real life the wife of Michael Aspel, who was himself revealed to have a mistress in a parallel to make the tabloids pant. Then there was Gillian Taylforth.

No other television show better understood - or exploited - the parasitic relationship between popular programmes and popular press that has become such a feature of modern mass journalism.

So, after 10 years, should an uninterrupted chorus of "Happy Birthday" come from Television Centre to its unexpected child? It is sobering to imagine what the BBC's audience share and ratings performance might look like in 1995 without the 16 to 18 million contributed by each episode of EastEnders; and, therefore, how vulnerable the BBC might have been to the charge from the political right that it took money from the general audience without giving anything back. It can be seriously argued that the renewal of the BBC's charter by the Government last year was, to some extent, "sorted" by the residents of Albert Square.

Yet it was the success of EastEnders that led the BBC to get greedy and try for a quick repeat trick from the team of Smith and Holland with Eldorado. The collapse of that series remains a shadow over the BBC's reputation. And amid the increasingly frantic catalogue of shoot-outs and seductions in Albert Square, there is little remaining sense of the original promise of EastEnders as a soap opera different in tone and approach. It has been coarsened by the ratings war. Once admired for its lively writing, the show now often seems to form conversations solely from the elements "sorted", "innit" and "out of order".

But the video libraries are littered with soaps that took on Coronation Street and lost. EastEnders has survived 10 years on equal terms, and not to acknowledge the scale of that achievement is, well, out of order, innit?