EastEnders: Soap bubbles after rewrite

'EastEnders' is 21 this week and executive producer Kate Harwood can claim some credit for restoring the show's punch and popularity. She gives her recipe to Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

Gorblimey, look who it is, come ter see me have yer?", they could be barking at each other, in the style of Nan Taylor from The Catherine Tate Show.

Dot Cotton, Nasty Nick, Mary the Punk and Dr Legg will be getting hugger-mugger with Goldie, the Slaters and new boy Kevin Wicks (Phil Daniels), to celebrate the 21st birthday of EastEnders in a London club this Saturday night.

Kate Harwood, the soap's executive producer, will be there too, along with the scriptwriters and production staff who have made the BBC soap into Britain's most talked-about television programme over the past generation. In the space of a year, Harwood has managed to restore the vitality of a show that, in the eyes of many critics and fans, had badly lost its way.

Of course, many of the EastEnders characters are affluent, formally trained actors who speak with accents that are less Muvva Brown and more the sort of polished BBC tones of Harwood herself. So how representative of east London life is this extraordinary programme, that still grips the imagination of an audience of 11 million?

"It has always been about family, always had a matriarchal presence, always had a sense of the spirit of the Blitz and fighting back against life. But a lot has changed," says Harwood. Such as?

"The amount of episodes has changed hugely," she says.

But what has changed in terms of content, given that east London has altered dramatically since 1985?

"Back in the early days, funnily enough, there was more social diversity. There were more middle-class characters, posh characters, monied characters in the square," says the executive producer.

But surely the story of the East End over the past two decades has been the other way round, with money flowing into the area following the rebirth of Docklands, gentrification, preparations for the Olympic bid?

"In some areas, not all areas," says Harwood.

Perhaps it is an unfair line of questioning, given that Harwood has only been in post for 12 months and that when EastEnders was in its early days she was enjoying "my clubbing years". Besides, as she points out: "It's not a documentary. None of the soaps are. If it was too exclusively east London we would not be as open to the whole nation."

Harwood is gracious enough not to take all the credit for EastEnders' revival, saying that changes introduced by John York, following his return from Channel 4 to be the BBC's controller of continuing drama, had already "stabilised" the show.

But there were ongoing problems in getting a sufficiently fast turnaround of scripts. "We also didn't have enough characters spread across all the episodes, to give the actors the amount of rest they needed," she says.

She has worked hard at bringing together 12 core writers (including Sarah Phelps, James Payne and Gillian Richmond) who "have an enormous passion and commitment" for the show.

Once a quarter, she brings the writers together at an Elstree hotel for three days of intensive discussion called "long-term story conferences". Here, storylines are planned for up to 18 months ahead. On top of this there are monthly short-term story meetings.

"I believe strongly that writers should be at the heart of the creative process on a show like EastEnders, as traditionally they were," says Harwood, noting that some of the long-standing writers had been neglected at points in the show's history.

The first episode of EastEnders was broadcast on 19 February 1985, based on an idea formulated by the Z-Cars script-writing team of Julia Smith and Tony Holland. Launched when Britain had only four television channels, the audience for the first show was 17 million, rising to 23 million later in the year.

For two decades, since the revelation that the lead actor Leslie Grantham (Dirty Den) was a convicted killer, the red-top press has been obsessed, in recognition of the fact that the soap - more than rival Coronation Street - has been a staple of lunch-hour chat in offices and factories.

As the storylines have been splashed across the press, EastEnders has developed a role in informing and educating the public on key social issues, such as domestic violence (Little Mo Slater and husband Trevor) and teenage pregnancy (Sonia Fowler, née Jackson).

This means the show's executives get lobbied by single-issue groups, but Harwood says she won't be railroaded into covering topics. "I read the newspapers and watch television and I know what issues are current and what stories might be right for us," she says. "We are taking on issues and we do research very heavily. We have a lot of contact with groups when we are doing a particular story."

Her researchers have been investigating hot topics in the world of market trading and the launderette business, so that conversation in the soap's scripts are authentic and up to date.

Harwood recently had to face up to the real-life news that the actors who play two high-profile EastEnders characters, Grant Mitchell (played by Ross Kemp) and Phil Mitchell (Steve McFadden), had separately been involved in domestic violence incidents to which the police had been called.

It was front-page news in the tabloids, due to or in spite of Kemp's relationship with Rebekah Wade, editor of the Sun. Asked if the episode caused her logistical difficulties, Harwood denies it. "I feel for the actors and we do our best to protect them from the exposure they get," she says.

Harwood says her most difficult moment has involved making best use of the storyline involving the exhumation of Dirty Den from beneath the Queen Vic. "We had a long discussion about whether we should leave it there and dig him up when the audience really needed a boost or whether we should feng shui the Vic and get him up now."

She was especially proud of the Armistice Day episode, and the role it played in educating younger viewers on the events of the Second World War.

Harwood does not spend her free time immersing herself in East End life, being aware that the soap might end up "patronising" the type of people it portrays. "In the end, people are people, Dickens knew that. He knew there was as much drama in a poor, working-class family as in a rich, bourgeois family.

"It's the interaction of characters that creates a story, the rest is setting. I don't think I have to be journalistic about East End life," says the former producer of such celebrated BBC dramas as David Copperfield and Charles II: The Power and The Passion, which won a Bafta.

In the 21st anniversary episode of EastEnders, shown on Friday, the Queen of the Square, Pauline Fowler (Wendy Richard), gets married and the audience is introduced to Phil Daniels's character for the first time, and his on-screen daughter Carly (Kellie Shirley).

The financial position at the BBC is so difficult that EastEnders, the corporation's highest-rating show, does not have a forum on its website because there is no money available for a moderator. Even so, it is the UK's most searched-for site, with 42 million hits a month.

The critics recognised the show's improvement by awarding it the National Television Award for most popular serial drama last October and the show has expanded into Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Sounds like time for a party.