It began with a phone call. My earliest memory of EastEnders is convicted murderer Leslie Grantham answering a phone call in the Vic’s boxy kitchen diner. Not very dramatic you may think, but the moment was tense, for Den was talking to Jan, his mistress, and each call she made to his abode turned the atmosphere. It turned it over. The setup resonated with me because a year earlier my Father had left my mother for another woman and like poor Angie, she was trying to hold on to my progenitor anyway she could.
Dad was a similar age to Den, much the same build, and had been elusive enough during my first seven years to retain the same air of mystery as his televisual counterpart. He was, and is, working class, in contrast to my Mum, which gave Den’s aspirant affair some additional weight. In 2015 it’s easy to sneer at EastEnders and label it absurd, so we’ll do that shortly, as it’s long since drank the black blood of the clockwork universe God in order to keep fickle square-eyed attention deficit dunces interested, but in its first years reality was still its patron, and paying well. One could identify with it. Lucky you if you couldn’t, but then you probably had a very dull life.
I must consider the possibility that watching the show for 30 years, enjoying the highs, enduring the lows, and weary of popular characters that the BBC liked, the public liked, but I despised, like Barbara Windsor’s mystifyingly enduring screeching bigot, Peggy Mitchell, has shaped me in some way. It’s a horrifying idea but there’s no shying away from it. I’m talking about what’s innate here. You can’t watch something for two hours a week, every week, without it impressing itself on you in some way. You inhale the particulates. So whereas I’ve never clad my skaz with “will ya”, “do me a favour” or “sling yer ‘ook”, hitherto known as Minder’s building blocks, I’m sure I once channelled Grant Mitchell in a standoff outside a pub, facing down an aggressive soak with wide eyes and a bit of affected psychotic brio, and I know I have a taste for excess (restraint too because we’re all a mass of contradictions, innit) and it’s likely the relentless will to cliffhanging of this miserablist juggernaut put that there.
The typical EastEnders critique paints the show as prolefeed; a lurid penny dreadful that dreadful people enjoy. Much of this is class based and odious. I’m a generous old soul so I never tire of people who try and spend the cultural currency printed on so-called low rent stuff; cult TV, bad movies, terrible books; that they imagine lends them a bit of kook, a certain earthiness. Yet these same people despise EastEnders. For why? Because there’s no currency in tethering your identity to a bunch of love-a-duckers, balls deep in life’s business end. The show doesn’t advertise the viewer’s sense of humour in neon, it doesn’t print a full page ad in What Niche drawing attention to their taste for the absurd. Instead, EastEnders’ people are imagined to be drawn from the same wholly fictitious mass as the show’s characters. We’re low, semi-literate and base, just middle class folk devils. No one wants to join that group. The only thing that makes this prejudice rather wonderful is how useful it is in marking out people your brain’s allergic to. I think it’s always nice of them to warn you.
As a lifer I can lend informed criticism to some of the show’s least palatable elements. Not everything in the series bible should be there. Veterans will share my dislike of proxy conversations, doubling for another character’s vacillating conscience, the show’s perverse inverted snobbery, ensuring middle class characters are nearly always dull, deviant or duplicitous, the fallacy that flamboyant and loud are the same thing, characters forced to hold expressions for abnormal periods (in close up) to facilitate the iconic duff duff moments, ambitious directors who breaks with the established shooting style to feed their thirst for cinematic stylisation (not on this schedule, not with these cameras, would-be Spielbergs), and the tendency for characters to be capricious when the plot demands it, tantamount to insulting the audience’s intelligence. The latter brings us bang up to date with the revelation that sweet, benign Beale child Bobby, son of Ian, smashed his sister’s skull with a music box. Long term viewers cried “fuck you”, content that we’d been told it was so without being shown the necessary build of character and situation to make sense of it.
One can hate all of these things yet still enjoy the satisfaction that comes from watching characters you’ve invested in over long periods go through the emotional wringer, tested against whatever indignity, trauma and moral dilemma the sadistic backroom hacks can devise. This is the pleasure of EastEnders, not pin-sharp dialogue, not characters that inspire us to broaden our minds (you’ll starve before you see a resident of Albert Square take on a great novel, learn a new skill or do anything creative), and not subtlety, which was outlawed sometime in the early-mid ‘90s, but a show that rewards long term viewing with big pay offs and callbacks to the miscellanea established over its monstrous run. You get involved, like you do with the people you’ve known all your life, and God help you, you care.
All of which leads us, finally, inevitably, to this week’s run of 30th anniversary episodes, centred on the Lucy Beale whodunit. Annoyingly elements were live, an unnecessary and potentially ruinous gimmick that ignored the wishes of long term viewers who simply wanted to see the tightest written, best produced episodes possible, in favour of courting pop culture tourists and idiots who cared more about the experience of watching the show than the content. Current series overlord Dominic Treadwell-Collins noted that people would tune in to see the actors make mistakes, neglecting to say why this was in anyway desirable. Perhaps the wholly imaginary justification was that live broadcasts helped maintain secrecy, but here DTC was a hostage to his own success, having managed to keep things back from the audience for an entire year, including the surprise reintroduction of old characters and unpublicised plot twists.
In the end the anniversary shows highlighted the best and worst of the beast. They reminded us that EastEnders can be gripping, disturbing and as dark as an Elizabethan winter, while being simultaneously broad, implausible and ridden with Ben Mitchell. That written, the dedicated, who know that magic is never too far away, will be poised to find out if Dot goes to chokey for extinguishing panto villain Nick, how in Satan’s colon Kathy can be alive, what unhinged Ronnie will do when she’s strong enough to take revenge on her cheating sister and husband, and if this show can do the impossible and find a home for Richard Blackwood. I wouldn’t bet against it because I don’t bet, but I’ll be there when and if it happens.
Happy birthday EastEnders, you’re a bastard like Dirty Den but like Angie I love you and I’m going to take the maltreatment and wash down the pills with booze because after all these years it’s all I know.