Dire viewing figures, the departure of the executive producer - and Dirty Den living up to his name... Tina Ogle explains how the BBC lost the plot in Albert Square

At the National Television Awards last October, Louise Berridge must have permitted herself a small if rare smile. The beleaguered executive producer of
EastEnders had just watched her show win four awards, including Most Popular Serial Drama. This success surprised critics who had been savaging the soap for some time over its poor plots and lack of direction.

At the National Television Awards last October, Louise Berridge must have permitted herself a small if rare smile. The beleaguered executive producer of EastEnders had just watched her show win four awards, including Most Popular Serial Drama. This success surprised critics who had been savaging the soap for some time over its poor plots and lack of direction.

It proved to be a tiny victory and a fleeting moment of cheer for Berridge, however, as she returned to the nightmare of sex scandals, storylines being stolen, actors' excessive drinking, discipline problems, illness and critical mauling that had dogged her reign as Queen of Walford. No matter how she struggled to put convincing, exciting drama on television screens, the cast's private lives stole the headlines every time.

Despite cries of "crisis, what crisis?" from BBC sources, the nadir was reached last Tuesday night as EastEnders recorded its lowest audience, with 6.3 million tuning in to watch the chip-shop owner Ian Beale confess his love to an employee. On ITV1, an hour-long Emmerdale "special" in which Diane, a pub landlady, married Jack, a farmer, drew 8.1 million and gave ITV1 a 41.5 per cent audience share against BBC1's 30.2 per cent. The commercial channel's rural soap beating EastEnders would have been difficult to imagine a year ago and this is bad news indeed for the BBC flagship.

Berridge had already resigned earlier that day, maintaining that she had loved every minute of her time at EastEnders and adding: "It's been a privilege to lead BBC1's number one show, even when faced with the unexpected." Given the shenanigans that we will detail later, this is understatement of a high order. With strident calls in internet chatrooms for her demise to be more grisly than that of her characters, Berridge cannot have felt loved.

Mal Young, the BBC's head of drama series, did his best to put a positive gloss on her departure, issuing a carefully worded statement: "This must be the toughest programme-making role on British TV. It's a relentless job in a very public spotlight. There aren't many people talented or resilient enough to handle it. Louise has proved herself one of the few."

When Berridge took over from John Yorke as executive producer in May 2002, she cannot have imagined what would follow. Ratings had been healthy with peaks of 11.7 million in December when Martin Fowler ran over Jamie Mitchell and 14.8 million on New Year's Day when Little Mo battered her violent husband Trevor with an iron. Yorke's advice to her at the time was "just remember to enjoy yourself", a statement that must sound hollow now.

There is no doubt that the rot has set in - and very badly. Loyal viewers have been treated in recent months to such dramatic highlights as characters arguing over whether to eat in the living room or the dining room, the development of an entirely ludicrous if ludicrously good-looking gangster character, a giant MDF dragon collapsing onto Albert Square residents, and a suicide that was played out entirely unseen on the end of a mobile phone. For the 6.3 million who still tuned in this week, their patience has already been tested.

To put this decline into context, a phenomenon that could be described as the Curse of Walford should be examined. So extensive is the catalogue of mishaps that has befallen the soap that it's difficult to know where to start - but the drinking habits of some cast members might be as good a place as any.

A linchpin of EastEnders in the past few years, Jessie Wallace is the mouthy, permanently orange-faced Kat Moon, née Slater. The unresolved sexual tension between her character and Shane Richie's Alfie Moon was what held storylines together for much of last year. Her drunken antics at parties have been tabloid fodder since her arrival and in November of last year she was banned for drink-driving for three years. This came just a month after Elaine Lordan, who played her on-screen sister Lynne, was banned for a year for a similar offence. In a development that would have been funnier on screen, Lordan was also reported to have thrown herself on the bonnet of a car belonging to a divorced plasterer from Wigan while making frank sexual suggestions. She has since been sacked, although she denies being forced out. Meanwhile, it is claimed that Wallace had been seen in the toilets of a gay club commenting on the private parts of her fellow revellers.

The headlines that such behaviour generates and the disciplinary actions that had to follow were a major headache for Berridge. Both actresses were suspended, Lordan for three months, Wallace for two, leaving large holes in storylines. Storyliners and writers were forced to improvise, which has inevitably led to a lack of credibility in plots. They must have been thanking the plot-device fairy for the existence of the absent Slater sister, Belinda, whom everyone seems to go and stay with eventually.

A senior BBC source, commenting anonymously on the stories at the time, suggested that such things happen because of the closeness between an actor's personality and that of the character: " East-Enders deliberately looked for larger-than-life actors who would bring a lot of themselves to the characters they played. They were cast because they were a bit "out there" so you can't be too surprised when this sort of thing happens."

This comment must have been ringing in Berridge's ears earlier this year when the "Dirty Den" scandal broke. After deciding to bring back Leslie Grantham, despite his character having been conclusively killed off some 14 years previously, things went horribly wrong. His return to Albert Square had been triumphal, drawing 17 million viewers last autumn, but things took a seedier turn in May when it was revealed that he'd been sending naked pictures of himself to a woman from his BBC dressing room. He was forced to apologise for his "deplorable" behaviour and was suspended for two months, causing more plotting inconveniences. Viewers are led to believe that he is now at a mystery location "finding himself", a prospect that is too gruesome to contemplate.

With a dwindling cast of characters to play with and upcoming storylines blown out of the water, the atmosphere at the set in Elstree worsened. Throw bouts of illness into this already tricky situation and chaos really does reign. The veteran actress Barbara Windsor, who plays the much-loved Mitchell matriarch Peggy, contracted the Epstein-Barr virus and had to be written out suddenly and for more than a year. The teenage actress Michelle Ryan took five months off suffering from "exhaustion" and her marriage to Doctor Anthony Trueman had to be scrapped in place of some vague and implausible tale about her running away. Add to this the pregnancies of Kacey Ainsworth (Little Mo) and Jessie Wallace and the abrupt disappearance of the Dan Ferreira character because of Dalip Tahil's work-permit problems and what you have is one big mess.

Given the circumstances, it's not hard to see why EastEnders is a pale imitation of its former self. It has never been particularly strong on humour, except when the experienced writer Tony Jordan is involved, but it's been worse of late. As writers battle to produce four episodes a week under taxing conditions, they're probably finding it none too easy to focus on the lighter side of life. But there is one thing for which there can be no excuses and that is the Ferreira family.

The "F" word will no doubt dominate Berridge's nightmares for years to come. She introduced this Asian family in June of last year and nothing but howls of derision have followed from critics and public. Possibly the most boring family to stalk a soap, they've also been criticised by Asian groups as being unrealistic and just terrible. A storyline involving a kidney donation dragged on for months and is one of the most derided plots in soap history.

Berridge, though she consistently resisted calls to get rid of them, did admit in June: "I have to concede that not all the storylines have sparkled this year. I hold my hands up that the long storyline with the Ferreira's didn't work out exactly as we planned and it was rather more spun out and angst-ridden than it should have been."

Even the controller of BBC1, Lorraine Heggessey, was forced to comment on the issue at last month's Edinburgh International Television Festival, saying: "When you have a cast where one is ill, one is pregnant and another in a car crash, that's when you end up being over-dependent on a storyline about a kidney transplant."

So what does the future hold for this BBC behemoth that is struggling to hold its own in an increasingly competitive and fragmented market? Someone who might know is the person who broke into the home of a scriptwriter in August this year and made off with several months of storylines. The joke, of course, being that the haul was worthless as there were no decent plots in the pipeline.

The BBC needs its top soap to return to form, as it is the glue that holds the rest of the evening's schedule together. Without a strong following for EastEnders, ratings for the shows that follow drop alarmingly. It is not inconceivable that the show could be axed. Channel 4 didn't hesitate long before killing off Brookside last year because of falling ratings and the revamped Crossroads hardly lasted five minutes before it was dealt a humane blow by ITV1. But the BBC would have to have something spectacular to replace it with and there are no reports of such a thing being in development.

Berridge has been replaced by Kathleen Hutchison, the woman formerly in charge of the popular Holby City. She will have a difficult job to turn the show around and viewers will have to wait several months to see the results of a new regime. Whether she can restore morale to a fractured band of actors, producers, writers and crew remains to be seen but it does seem an uphill task.

It is just as well that she sounds so chipper as she takes up what may well be a poisoned chalice. "This is my dream job," she said earlier this week, "Soap reaches the hearts of the nation with iconic characters and stories. I can't wait to get stuck in and create a few more on EastEnders."

We can only hope that she has a sense of humour and can inject the lightness of touch that continues to make Coronation Street and Emmerdale such successes. And that she ignores the comments made by her boss, Mal Young, two weeks ago: "We have always been good at creating great kitchen-sink drama," Young claimed, "that's why people watch it. They want to wallow in the misery with us. You can come home from work and think: 'Well at least my life is better than this lot'."

No, Mr Young, EastEnders viewers are a more discerning bunch than that and we need a lot more than unreconstituted gloom to keep us tuning in.

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