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Something for all the family

Ten years ago this week, Mary Whitehouse declared that 'EastEnders' was putting the future of the family in peril. How wrong she was. A decade on, we know that the soap is what keeps a home together
As my elder daughter disappears into the black hole of adolescence, there are some routines, traditions even, that I absolutely insist on. We rarely eat together any more - she eats her rations of Quorn in her own room; we rarely shop together - I leave the pleasures of Gap and Miss Selfridge to her alone; we have just been on separate holidays. yet there is one thing I make her do. She has to come downstairs and watch EastEnders with me.

It has replaced the communal meal, and we keep each other up to speed when we miss episodes. We laugh, we cry, we talk. We slyly monitor each other's reactions to rape, HIV infection, schizophrenia, alcoholism, single- parenthood and whatever crisis of the day is being served up in Albert Square.

She is remarkably fluent in the language of catastrophe, as all true soap fans are, catastrophes that pose moral dilemmas that may never be discussed in philosophy classes but will be pored over in school playgrounds the next day.

It is strange, then, that 10 years ago this week Mary Whitehouse was accusing this series of destroying the concept of family viewing time. "It is at our peril, and at our children's peril, that we allow this series, with its verbal aggression and its atmosphere of physical violence, its homosexuals, its blackmailing pimp and its prostitute, its lies and deceits and its bad language, to go unchallenged." Whitehouse wanted the programme banned, toned down, put out if at all at a later hour.

She might well have settled for a more positive representation of Christianity. Dot Cotton may have been a diva to some, but to Mrs Whitehouse she was "the one and only Christian, and she is made out to be a crackpot, smoking away like mad, the most prejudiced lady you could possibly come across."

Prejudiced lady or not, Mrs Whitehouse may have been right on this one. Faith has not fared well in EastEnders: the new fundamentalist on the block is Alistair, yet another creepy Christian, hypocritical enough even to rival the scary cult leader Simon who took over Brookside Close for a while.

But faith, of a different kind, underpins the series. Albert Square maintains a residue of deeply old-fashioned values about family, community and class that refuse to go away. If Tony Blair could charm the inhabitants of the square he would be a happy man indeed. If he could modernise Walford, he could take the country anywhere he wanted. For Mrs Whitehouse understood something about EastEnders that liberals failed to see. She said that EastEnders was the most dangerous programme on television.

Ten years ago, soaps were not considered dangerous. They were the diazepam of the masses. They were merely light entertainment, they were for old women and young girls and bored housewives; they were not serious, or avant-garde, or political. They were not films and they were not documentaries, and at a time of Dallas and Dynasty they were dismissed as escapist rubbish. They were considered an entirely feminised genre. The only men with whom you could seriously discuss soaps were gay; and even then, they only wanted to talk about how fab Alexis Carrington was.

Something, then, has happened. EastEnders is grimy enough to be almost macho. It has of late been compared to the best of Mike Leigh. The male actors in it have been consistently brilliant. Grant, Phil, David, breaking down in method sobs and gravel voices, snot and tears running down their faces as they struggle with their various demons, have provided some of the best and most compelling television drama of the past few years.

This programme is dangerous because it is so popular. Whether a soap such as EastEnders mirrors or leads the moral agenda is not a question we ask much any more because its existence has become so ingrained in our national fabric. Sure, there are flurries of tabloid prurience about a gay kiss or another infidelity every so often, but nobody gets that worked up any more. We are more liberal than we were 10 years ago. EastEnders works because it has taken it slowly, it has gradually loosened its ties with the past, it has taken its audience with it. It has only occasionally fallen into the gratuitous taboo-busting of Brookside with its wham-bam incest stories and its drugs mania.

The worry that the soaps have somehow become too dramatic, too over-the- top, is a false one. Soaps like EastEnders trade on their authenticity, but they are, of course, a fiction. They work best when the tension between what is real and what is not is heightened. It is their level of emotional realness that grips us, not their relationship to the real world. Would someone really feel like that, we ask of Peggy's hostile reaction to Mark's HIV infection? Would gay lad Tony really want to live with his pregnant ex-girlfriend and lover's sister? Would Grant still want Tiffany when he has that poodle of a girlfriend Lorraine? All of these things taken cold are ludicrous, but the emotional complexity of EastEnders feels real to us because the issues that it deals with are issues that we deal with: fidelity, family, fate.

Our acceptance of these storylines demonstrates, whatever politicians may say, that we are basically a liberal nation, that the moral sophistication required to navigate our way through these confusing times is indeed being learnt somehow. The evidence for this may well lie in the appeal of EastEnders and many other soaps to young people. They act as a primary source of sex education. No, they do not tell you exactly how to put on a condom, but they deal with the messiness of love, sex, the whole shebang, in a way that neither school nor parents can or will.

For Albert Square is a place where all "isms" disappear. It is wrong to be racist, homophobic, woman-hating, it tells us. We have to be good to each other; for whatever happens, at the end of the day we only have each other. Here, in the middle of the schedules, at the top of the ratings, is a yarn about collectivism, a narrative about communal living, a programme that depends for its very life on the notion that there is such a thing as society. Here is a real tale about moral relativism - a story, in other words, about how we live now.

Far from destroying family viewing, EastEnders has shown us that the perfect family viewing is all about pretend family relationships, that the narrative of the nation has indeed shifted over the past 10 years, that the rampant individualism that is supposed to have overtaken our hearts and minds has not in fact taken hold. The values that it promotes are the opposite of the narrowness of much public discussion. This everyday drama, with its open fluid, flexible, moral agenda, is the one we actually want to watch.

Somewhere, somehow, I hope that the right people are watching it too, and taking note. For they might well be interested in some radical populism. Maybe they have better things to do than watch stupid soap operas - but, you know, for the life of me I can't really think what they are