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“Stinks in ‘ere.”
When it comes to the soaps, daytime dramas, whatever you want to call them, I’ve had a long love/hate relationship. According to my inchoate highbrow aesthetics, these programs were the real opiates of the masses: badly written, badly acted middle-class morality plays about perfidy and lust, one nearly indistinguishable from another, all punctuated by ridiculously overwrought organ music, and melodramatic pauses of Pinteresque proportion.
It wasn’t until some years later when, during a lengthy bout of unemployment, I developed a jones for ABC’s three-headed monster All My Children, One Life to Live, and General Hospital and for a time I willingly suspended disbelief and luxuriated in the campy plots.
But it wasn’t long before I lost the buzz. Partly this was due to the Ed Wood-styled plot contrivances the soaps were forced into in order to reclaim a rapidly dwindling audience that preferred the “real” grotesqueries appearing on daytime talk shows. Not helping was the decision made by soap producers that only very young, very beautiful people could inhabit these fictional locales, thereby glutting Pine Valley, Llanview, and Port Charles with a virtual Village of the Damned of gorgeous teens whose acting skills, echoing Dorothy Parker’s often quoted observation, covered the range of emotion from A to B.
It was during my period of withdrawal and recovery from American soaps that I was introduced to the British soap EastEnders, which made its US debut on a handful of PBS affiliates in 1988 (it debuted in the UK in 1985). At the time, Tracey Ullman (one of show’s numerous celebrity fans) provided us ex-colonists with a cockney primer that included tips on language (e.g., “wotcha” = “what’s up,” “old bill” = “police,” “toe-rag” = “toe-rag”) and the travails of the British working class (more entertainingly rendered then had been done previously by Frederic Engels).
Despite initial misgivings about getting hooked on another soap, my inner anglophile encouraged me to check it out. Episode one opened with the image of an elderly man slumped in a chair in his filthy, ransacked flat. Suddenly the front door burst open, three men entered and stared at the lifeless body. One of them, Dennis Watts (played with cruel, cool grace by Leslie Grantham) spat out the show’s first line: “Stinks in ‘ere.” No way was I ever going back to Port Charles.
For the conflicted soap fan longing for a simulacrum of realism, EastEnders is an addictive slice of heaven. Set in the fictional Albert Square in the fictional London borough of Walford, the series not only offers soap opera haters a soap opera they can love but, with the imprimatur of PBS and the BBC, allows snobs who would never admit publicly to enjoying soaps the opportunity to uncloset themselves and revel in middlebrow, Masterpiece Theater cultural superiority. You can discuss EastEnders‘ connection to a tradition of British popular entertainment that includes serialized Dickens novels, or rough and tumble film noir realism like Karel Reisz’ Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Mike Hodges’ Get Carter.
While such rationalizations may be intellectually satisfying, they’re not nearly as much fun as gossiping about whether Steve Owen (Martin Kemp) will get the money he needs to pay back the criminals he cheated (and who now want him dead), or if teenage prostitute Janine Butcher (Charlie Brooks) will continue blackmailing fish and chip merchant Ian Beale (Adam Woodyatt) who slept with her behind his wife’s back. These entertaining pro forma soap plot points (and hundreds of others the show has produced over the last 17 years) have contributed to its overwhelming popularity in Britain where EastEnders is routinely watched by tens of millions of viewers. (During the recent jury’s verdict in the attempted murder case of battered wife Little Mo [Kacey Ainsworth] — who cracked her abusive husband Trevor Morgan’s [Alex Ferns] skull with an iron — so many viewers tuned in that they brought on a nationwide 1,400-megawatt power surge, the equivalent of 500,000 people simultaneously turning on their electric teapots.) In the U.S., the series’ affiliation with PBS created a small but rabid cult following, growing due to the show’s availability in 28 million homes on BBC America.
Part of the program’s appeal is its speedy efficiency, there’s precious little wasted space per episode. While American soaps need to fill 5 hours of programming a week, EastEnders needs only 2. (In the UK, the show airs in the early evening four times a week; BBC America combines the episodes into one long omnibus edition.) Each episode is a briskly paced, tightly edited 30 minutes, full of bluntly descriptive and economical writing that is mostly bereft of soliloquizing and self-aggrandizing melodrama.
Also, it’s relentlessly working-class in a way that American soaps are not. No one save the Square’s physician has a university education or anything that passes for a high paying white-collar job. The residents of Albert Square drive cabs, work in the local convenience store, manage the launderette, or eke out a modest living running a market stall. Their class affiliation is not romanticized, nor is Albert Square, which is rundown and in a near constant state of neglect. While they would all love to make more money, many of the Square’s residents are openly disdainful of those with middle and upper class aspirations. Threatened by this kind of social mobility, they are, almost to a person, defensively proud of their relative lack of education and economically circumscribed existences, something I’ve always interpreted as the show’s implicit critique of these sedimented class biases.
For US viewers annoyed by US soaps’ resistance to showing the slightest physical imperfection, EastEnders‘ characters are, with a handful of exceptions, gloriously average looking folk. There are plenty of protruding midsections (male and female), acne scars, receding hairlines, and crooked teeth in Albert Square. Not only that, but the characters eat poorly, smoke too much, and drink a lot, which makes perfect sense considering that the show’s hub of activity is the local boozer, the Queen Victoria.
Also, where American soaps tend to marginalize actors (especially women) over the age of 50, EastEnders‘ writers make old age pensioners central to major plot developments. A recent story line involved the complicated courtship, marriage, and sexual dysfunction of elderly couple Jim (John Bardon) and Dot (June Brown). Most likely, septuagenarian American stud Asa Buchanan (Philip Carey) won’t be facing this on an upcoming episode of One Life to Live.
EastEnders is further separated from its U.S. counterparts in that it doesn’t try to pass off credulity-straining nonsense as creative daring. There are no evil twins, cloned humans on growth hormones, or secret experimental clinics in Switzerland that have perfected cryonic freezing and reanimation of human tissue. And if the stories unfold somewhat predictably, the series succeeds in spite of format limitations, in part because it effectively interpolates new characters and talented actors into a strong veteran cast — principal among them being Wendy Richard as Fowler family matriarch Pauline, and June Brown as the longsuffering Dot Cotton.
Best known to American audiences from her stint as cockney sexpot Miss Brahms on the endlessly rerun and wildly overrated ’70s Britcom, Are You Being Served?, Richard was, back in the day, all legs, exaggerated eye-makeup, teased blonde hair, and salacious double entendres. Now in her 50s, Richard plays Pauline (who seems light years removed from Miss Brahms) without trying to be eternally desirous like Susan Lucci’s Erica Kane; rather, Pauline is a fiercely proud middle-aged woman fully cognizant of the effect that time has had on her once considerable beauty.
With grim single-mindedness, Pauline vigorously fights for a decent life in a world that continually beats her down. Although she’s honorable, she’s not always endearing. In fact, she can be a downright miserable old cow. She believes that family loyalty, even when blind, is a virtue, something she preaches despite the fact that her family (as is nearly every family in the Square) is scattered, and to some degree damaged.
Her husband Arthur (Bill Treacher) died after being wrongfully imprisoned for theft. Her twin brother Pete (Peter Dean) was murdered by gangsters, and daughter Michelle (Susan Tully) has had two out-of-wedlock children by two men Pauline hates, and now lives in America. Eldest son Mark (Todd Carty), after years of teenage delinquency, has finally settled down to a relatively stable life. Still, he’s HIV-positive, has been married three times, and the father of his current wife Lisa’s (Lucy Benjamin) child is his nemesis Phil Mitchell (Steve McFadden). Oh, and there’s Pauline’s youngest son Martin (James Alexandrou), who barely finished school, has given up the idea of furthering his education, works at Mark’s fruit and vegetable stall, and at 16, fathered a child with his schoolmate Sonia Jackson (Natalie Cassidy).
As gossipy, judgmental Dot, 75-year-old Brown is disturbingly thin, chain-smoking, and often spouting biblical passages to anyone within earshot. Dot has a conflicted, fearful relationship with the world, even after recently finding love with widower Jim Branning (marvelously played by rubber-faced, Andy Capp look-alike John Bardon). Her first marriage to alcoholic ne’er do well (and now dead) Charlie (Christopher Hancock) left her on her own to raise abusive, drug-addicted, ne’er do well son Nick (the magnificently creepy John Altman); at one point, he pretended to have AIDS in order to wheedle money out of her to support his escalating heroin habit. Brown, who inhabits her character as well as any television actor I’ve ever seen, has over time achieved the impossible by making Dot sympathetic and likeable, even when she’s insufferably sanctimonious and rudely dismissive of others.
Isolating two characters out of a formidable cast of 40 is unfair, and more than a little disingenuous after watching routinely excellent work turned in by Steve McFadden as local hard-man Phil Mitchell, Kacey Ainsworth as the abused Little Mo Slater, Charlie Brooks as troubled-teen-turned-hooker Janine Butcher, Alex Ferns as the sadistic Trevor Morgan, and Gary Oldman’s older sister Laila Morse as the blustery, foul-mouthed and ill-tempered Slater family matriarch Mo Harris. Recent viewers who could use a comprehensive history lesson are advised to consult the program’s website), which offers a mother lode of video >clips, detailed biographies, and message boards — everything you’d expect and want from a soap website. (Do, however, resist the temptation to peek into the future. Due to licensing agreements, episodes currently broadcast on PBS are around three years old. Episodes airing on BBC America, though more current, are still three weeks behind.)
As consistently good as it is, EastEnders is not immune from plots that go nowhere, hysterical overacting, or being too focused on a group of characters. The recent Slater family-centered plot has detracted from the simmering affair between Lisa and Phil, and Ian’s comical attempts to keep his recent vasectomy a secret from his keen-to-be-pregnant wife. Caveats aside, EastEnders‘ popularity shows little sign of waning.
Recently, the program swept virtually every major category, including Best Soap, at the British Soap Awards. Representatives from the show’s fiercest competitor, Coronation Street (a fixture on British television for nearly 40 years), in a classic bit of sour grapes, accused EastEnders of ratcheting up the “mayhem and violence” in an attempt to attract viewers (imagine a television program doing that!). I prefer to think that the program is remaining true to its gritty beginnings, rather than turning into a mawkish facsimile of itself. It was precisely this edgy toughness, in both its characters and stories that made EastEnders such a welcome alternative to American soaps. We wouldn’t want it any other way.