Tony Holland: Co-creator of 'EastEnders'

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The Independent Online

Tony Holland, writer and script editor: born Shoeburyness, Essex 18 January 1940; registered civil partnership 2007 with Paul Wade; died London 28 November 2007.

The task was immense: create a BBC soap opera that would, for the first time, compete with Coronation Street, ITV's national institution, which had been running since 1960 and frequently attracted more viewers than any other programme in Britain. Tony Holland rose to the challenge after being invited to become script editor of the new serial, which he would devise with its producer, Julia Smith.

It was 1983 and two decades since the BBC had made ill-fated attempts to find soap-opera success, with serials such as Compact, set in the offices of a women's magazine, United!, about a football team's antics on and off the pitch, and The Newcomers, following life in an East Anglian rural community. (Smith worked as a director on both Compact and The Newcomers.) But none of these captured the public imagination in the way that Coronation Street did, with its gritty Northern air and increasing dose of comedy. This was partly because of the BBC's slightly scoffing attitude towards "soap".

However, the corporation decided to step into the ring again following the 1982 launch of Channel 4 and Brookside, which broke down boundaries with its uncompromising dedication to tackling relevant, modern-day issues. It also led to claims that the Street was out of touch with Britain in the 1980s.It was the decade of Margaret Thatcher, union-bashing, the death of manufacturing industry, the rise of unemployment and the chance for some to make obscenely large amounts of money. Brookside was quick to take up all these issues.

Then, in March 1983, Holland and Smith with whom he had previously worked on Z Cars, Angels and The District Nurse were asked to mastermind a new, twice-weekly serial that would run every week of the year. Two ideas were suggested to them: one set in a shopping arcade, the other in a mobile-home park. After months of research, both were rejected.

The following February, two weeks after the BBC had bought the old ATV studios at Elstree, in Hertfordshire which would become the home of the new programme Holland and Smith sat down in a Shepherd's Bush wine bar and read a report based on drama-department research about the appeal of a soap set in the south of England. In under an hour, they wrote a 300-word format for a serial based in the East End of London, and it was accepted.

The Victorian Albert Square, with its cockney residents and market traders, would be dominated by two families, the Fowlers and the Beales. Holland drew on his own family background to flesh these out himself on a two-week "holiday" in Lanzarote with Smith, who concentrated on the others in the original, 23-character cast.

Holland's mother, Ethel, was the youngest of four sisters from Walthamstow who had seen the area change over the years. Her eldest sister, his Aunt Lou, married an Albert Beale, and the character of Lou Beale, mother of the twins Pauline Fowler and Pete Beale, became the soap's matriarchal figure. In planning storylines, Holland also recalled family events, such as weddings, funerals and Christmas celebrations.

After title ideas such as Round the Square and London Pride were ditched, East 8 was decided on, with E8 being the postal district of Hackney. By the time it came to the screen, at 7pm on 19 February 1985, the soap was called EastEnders and the first scene set the tone. Den Watts, landlord of the Queen Vic pub, broke down the door of Reg Cox's flat to find the old man slumped in his armchair, dead. "Stinks in here," were Den's first words.

Although EastEnders was initially beaten in the ratings by ITV's Emmerdale, a change of time to 7.30pm saw it soar, to the point where it challenged Coronation Street. The method of combining audience figures for both the original screenings and the Sunday omnibus meant that it was even beating its rival. Even though this was an unfair comparison, EastEnders became so popular with storylines featuring teenage pregnancy, homosexuality, drug addiction and abortion that it did sometimes win the battle, episode for episode.

Its crowning glory came with the 1986 Christmas Day episode, written by Holland himself and watched by a record 30.1 million viewers, who witnessed Arthur Fowler having a nervous breakdown and Den Watts both telling his wife Angie that he had filed for divorce and giving Pauline Fowler's teenaged daughter, Michelle, money for the baby he had fathered with her.

Holland, who was born in Essex in 1940 and spent some time in the Royal Army Medical Corps, became an actor before switching to scriptwriting after coming up with the idea for a BBC "Thirty Minute Theatre" production, The Isle Is Full of Noises (1967), about a woman who takes steps to combat her hatred of noise.

His acting agent, Jimmy Fraser of Fraser & Dunlop, recommended him to Richard Wakeley after the agency set up a division to represent writers, producers and directors. He then landed the job of script editor (1970-73) on the police series Z Cars, where he met Julia Smith, a director on the programme which had switched to a twice-weekly format and began a working partnership that lasted, on and off, for more than 20 years.

However, Holland went off on his own to the ITV company Thames Television to work as story editor on four series, Marked Personal (set in the personnel department of a Northern factory, 1973-4), Rooms (following the lives of residents in a boarding-house, 1974-5), The Life and Death of Penelope (a thriller, 1976) and Killers (a courtroom drama, 1976). But he then experienced a fallow period during which he found employment as a barman in a pub.

When Smith became producer of the BBC nursing drama Angels in 1979, after directing the programme for four years, she switched it from one weekly, 50-minute episode to two half-hours, as had happened to Z Cars. She brought Holland in as script editor and, together, they turned it into a serial with 34 programmes a year.

Both were keen to make television that confronted modern-day social issues but, after feeling the strain of the demanding schedule on Angels (1979-83), they aimed to have an easier time with a period drama. Together, in 1984, they created The District Nurse, starring Nerys Hughes as Megan Roberts and set in the South Wales villages of the 1920s. However, it proved just as exhausting, as they switched the action between the mountains and valleys.

They left it to launch EastEnders, which gave them another punishing schedule and both eventually left in 1989. Although they teamed up again, Holland and Smith failed to recreate their soap success when they devised Eldorado (1992-3), the BBC serial set on the Costa del Sol, with a cocktail of "sun, sand, sangria and sex", which famously flopped. (Smith died in 1997.)

Holland subsequently did little work for British television but created, with Louise Boije af Gennäs, the Swedish series Snoken (1993-7), about a private detective, and Hotel for a German channel.

Anthony Hayward