Two weeks ago, for reasons I am yet to fathom, I decided to watch Eastenders for a week. All four episodes. It had been ten or fifteen years since I’d watched it properly and am delighted to report that it is just as wild as I’d remembered. I kept a little diary of each day’s viewing; the results of day one can be seen below. The remaining days you can find in the (sexy) new ‘TV Land’ section of my website. I enjoyed the process so much that I intend to do ‘A Week of…’ pieces for other soap operas as the year goes on. Why? Why not, more like. Yeah?
-Monday June, 12th-
‘And now on BBC One,’ said the announcer, ‘it’s Eastenders…’
An unexpected ripple of excitement passed through me. I’d secretly hoped that the show would win me over, that it would catch me on its hooks and reel me back in.
‘…And Ian’s dreaming,’ the announcer added, doing one of those pretend laughs, ‘of the perfect breakfast.’
The hope was short-lived. I was sighing before it had even started.
I’d forgotten all about Ian Beale. The name hit me with the force of one of those tranquiliser darts they have on veterinary shows when they want an elephant to switch zoos without it realising. If the announcer had mentioned any other of the ‘classic’ characters – Dot, Phil, Sharon, Well’ard – I might have managed to refrain from groaning. But not Ian. In terms of televisual excitement, he’s up there with a live feed of a Springwatch vole nest. The fact that he was dreaming of the ‘perfect breakfast’ did nothing to quicken my pulse. I yearned to grab the remote. But there was no way out. I’d made a commitment. To nobody, in particular. But still.
Sure enough, as the camera twirled the Thames into position and the theme tune’s whistling finale faded, our first shot was of the lad himself: Ian Beale. Dressed like he refused to shop anywhere other than Matalan, he was eating a nutritious breakfast and moaning about it out of the side of his mouth. I couldn’t work out why he was eating healthily. Surely he wasn’t trying to lose weight? He was as gaunt as ever. The healthy eating had to be the result of a heart attack or something, possibly as a build-up of years of stress accrued from living in London’s silliest borough. Whatever the reason, his blimmin orrible meal had been delivered to the breakfast table by his now wheelchair-bound wife. Having missed a decade of storyline, I assumed the disability was the result of her numerous attempts at jumping off the nearest flyover; after all, waking up to Ian Beale each day must take its toll. Imagine his morning breath. I can smell it now. Dairylea and freshly sliced Spam.
Ian wasn’t the only Albert Square stalwart still chained to the BBC pay-wagon. Sharon Mitchell was also there, in her kitchen, flirting with her daughter’s boyfriend. The young actor in question looked genuinely disturbed at her advances, as though they weren’t entirely scripted. He made his excuses and ran off. Like Mr Beale, Sharon was wearing clothing of a distinct Matalan flava, although possibly not from their clothes department. It was more picnic blanket than anything else. As a fellow tubster, I have moral freedom to note that she has put on a tremendous amount of weight since I last saw her. Like me, she appears to have acquired an extra pair of shoulders from somewhere. Perhaps she and I should speak to Ian about breakfast regimes.
The episode soon moved into unfamiliar territory: characters I’d never seen before (not even in those horrible big-budget trailers where plates are thrown in slow motion, and a CGI storm brews above Albert Square, accompanied by a cover of Cher’s Bang Bang). I tried my best to follow the plotlines. They all moved so fast. And I couldn’t help but be drawn to things happening in the background. The extras. Pretending to talk to each other. Pretending to lift something into the back of a van. Pretending to be asking one another what the time was. And then there was good old Albert Square itself. I had to give that the once over. It looked much cleaner than I remembered. And a lot more like an external studio set. Everything was green and flowery. All fixtures and fittings were painted, polished and pristine. Even the little garden area was prim and proper. How things change. There was once a time when you went into that public garden entirely at your own risk. It was deadly. There were fights and stabbings galore. You could get AIDS just by leaning on the railings. Not now. It’s a model of urban regeneration.
Also on the up was the market. It looked less dishevelled, less rat-infested. Hilariously, the show still had a market stall inspector (played by Bonnie Langford, no less). Have you ever in your life seen a market stall inspector? Decades of Eastenders casting would have you believe that they’re a common part of markets. The show has always has one on its roster. They’re all the same, snooping around with clipboards, tightly scrutinising all of Albert Square’s seven stalls and occasionally falling in love or getting murdered (in the public garden).
One wholly new addition to Albert Square was the introduction of a tube line. Predictably, its commuters were mostly white/British. It was the kind of tube journey that Daily Mail readers went to bed fantasising about. In tonight’s episode, a lady flirted with a fellow commuter. She later told Sharon that she was getting her hair done especially in case she sits next to the mysterious gentleman again. What with that and Ian’s quest for the perfect breakfast, I don’t know how I’m going to contain my excitement until tomorrow’s episode.
Because I hadn’t watched Eastenders for so long, it was bewildering to see how ‘current’ it was, or, at least, was trying to be. All these tube stations and clean pavements and perfect breakfasts. It didn’t just end there. One of the characters was using editing software to make a birthday card. Another was looking for dates on Tinder (well, for legal reasons it was called Fishnet, but you get the idea). One character actually used the phrase, ‘I’ve downloaded the app’. Albert Square was firmly in 2017. With just a hint of 1947. This is the BBC, after all. There were some lovely moments demonstrating that the writers weren’t quite as hip and happening as all that. For example, a bus stop argument between two packs of surly teens involved the following shutdown: ‘Shakespeare is out of your league, mate’. It’s a miracle that the youth in question ever recovered from the slur. Later in the episode, a trendy-ish male twenty-something ended a romantic liaison with the line, ‘Anyway, I better get in the bath.’
I’m not ashamed to admit that it warmed me ol’ cockles.
Although the Square itself had moved on, it was still inhabited by tired clichés. The latest obligatory geezer character, whom I shall call Johnny Geezer, put in an appearance. Like all Johnny Geezers, he had square features and moody stubble. Half thug, half gent, he looked like a League One player/manager modelling the Debenhams’ autumn collection. If my knowledge of prior Johnny Geezers is anything to go by, I suspect this latest one has already been caught up in numerous affairs, punch-ups, bloke-offs, and dodgy deals (whilst also having quieter periods where he’s started running a nearby nightclub or managing a gym). He’s the sort of guy you see photoshopped onto the front cover of TV Quick (Still Only 35p!!) accompanied by the headline, ‘Don’t Do It, Johnny’.
I shouldn’t mock poor Johnny too much. His wife, I gathered, had recently died. He’s been left with two kids and is having to raise them alone (no doubt causing mums to swoon nationwide in the process). It’s not going well for him, though. Their attractive young schoolteacher wants to have a private word about their behaviour. I tell you, if Ian Beale thinks his breakfast storyline is going to dominate proceedings, he’s got another thing coming. There’s romance brewing here.
The stars of the show, though, are Johnny Geezer’s kids. Both wonderfully, wonderfully, awful child actors of the calibre that only Great British soap operas are willing to produce. They were a joy to watch. They plodded around the interior set of his flat (decorated as though owned by a millionaire who’s only allowed to spend his money at Argos) like their brains had been removed and replaced with Play-Doh. How do these kids get cast? It’s as if the production team just go to the nearest park and offer the showbusiness chance of a lifetime to the first children they find. If nothing else, I look forward to seeing more of these little treasures as the week goes by.
Shit. Remember the lady on the tube? The one who got her hair done to impress the stranger? Well, I hate to tell you this, but that stranger is now standing outside her house. And he’s scrolling through surreptitiously taken photographs of her. He’s zooming in. He’s breathing heavily. He’s going to kill her. Good God. But – There’s the iconic drumroll! The show’s over. It can’t be!
But it’s on again tomorrow…