2010: REPORT FROM THE FUTURE
More Powerful Neighbours, Unfamiliar Issues
BY SUZANNE MORINE
2010: GOATSWOLD, ENGLAND Twenty-five years since EastEnders began, Kathy (who returned years ago) has moved in with a middle aged policeman named Gary. This development is causing the tensions one would expect with her son's outlaw father, Phil. That is enough fodder for any soap opera, but now there is more. Last week Kath agreed to help Gary on a case. It is rumoured that we will soon see them working together.
Janine Butcher, who returned to Walford three months ago, is in a rent dispute with her building manager, who is a also a councilman and was once her father Frank's best mate. We last saw Frank heading down to London listening to a boxing match on his car radio: an angry, grim look on his fleshy mug.
It is all very compelling, yet some viewers are wistful for the old days.
EastEnders at the start (1985) aired two new episodes per week. When the BBC started airing three, then four, and then five new episodes a week, viewers welcomed it: more time on the good old square with their loved (and hated) characters. Of course, everyone understood that characters had to be added to keep interest up for such frequent visits.
"[The programme is] still good, mind, but ... It's gotten to be too many people," said Sherry, a fan from Newtshire. Her manner of speaking reminds me of Pauline Fowler. "In any case, it's got just too fast paced for my tastes. [Before,] it just felt more real. There were different 'real life' sorts of exchanges. And there was everyday humour." She said characters used to keep issues "bottled up inside" for long periods, "but it certainly wasn't boring, either. We sort of lived with them and watched the pieces come together slowly over time, like in real life. We got to know people and their problems gradually, but in a quite engaging way.
"Then it became I remember, Kath would come into the cafe, Pat right away would say something like, 'Fess up,' and then Kath immediately told her what she and Phil talked about the night before just instantaneously told her! That seemed so scripted to me."
"Pat, a psychotherapist," said Gale, a fan from Castleshire who reminds me of Marge Green. "We used to be like their neighbours watching. We only knew so much. We'd worry about whether Michelle was going to give her Gran more lip. Oh, we dreaded seeing a blow up from old Lou!"
Gale remembered a day when she, "suddenly stopped in the middle of the day, thinking of Ian in the hospital!" She laughed, "You know, it used to be enough just to worry about them. Now it's just dizzying. It's much more complicated these days."
In a too brief phone call, EastEnders' producer, Leslie Dobson, said, "EastEnders has always been a complex, fast paced show. With any programme, viewers reminisce for the days when the programme was first getting its format worked out. We have stayed true to the basics of the EastEnders format. A lot of the details have changed, but not the basics. That is highly important to everyone. ... Of course we have a wider assortment of story lines and characters but that's because we can: we broadcast five times a week now."
The viewers quoted earlier were in an animated discussion with others in an old fashioned Goatswold pub. There, a tall man named Bruce, bearing more than a passing likeness to Lofty, quietly ventured, "It used to be that 'the Old Bill' was an outsider. Now he lives on the square. People in Albert Square used to be happy to be well shot of the police. Now they can't be rid of him at all," referring to both Kath's live-in lover and Beppe Di Marco.
A roaring voice agreed, "Now we get to see all o' the Old Bill's problems. Who cares?" The speaker was as bald, hefty, and spooky as Grant Mitchell himself.
"And the councilman/building manager's problems, and the market inspector's," Bruce quietly added.
By evening's end, we all agreed that Walford used to be a sort of tight knit village within London. Characters mostly dealt with their families, bosses, friends, and enemies.
The next morning, Bruce found me and said, "It all started with that Susan Rose Michael Rose's wife, with the M.S. She was Irene's social worker. Irene was worried about her benefit amount, set by Susan. But Susan had M.S., so no one really cared about Irene as much. I ended up not caring about either one of them." (Remember that Michelle Fowler was a social worker, too, but we viewers did not know her clients. Ditto Carmel Roberts.)
Over breakfast with Bruce, I ventured that EastEnders has matured so that we see more things from more angles. "Maybe," Bruce allowed, "but then is it still EastEnders? They used to have more stories about blokes like me and my mates." Bruce is a janitor and handyman for the Homeborough primary school.
He continued, "Before, we did see things from a lot of different points of view, but not the people in power, not their point of view. Oh, people's bosses and parents lived there, but not their coppers and their councilmen and their social workers. Susan Rose came and changed that. Or maybe it was Ian running for council. Remember when Debs ran off with the policeman? He was a mystery man, that's all he was to us watching. A mystery."
Things certainly used to be different. The council on EastEnders used to be an unseen force, and the "Old Bill" only showed up when duty called. We didn't know much about Dr. Legg's private life. Eddie Royle had once been a policeman, but not while living on the square.
If Bruce is right, we might be able to mark a point where EastEnders started to include the lives and concerns of people with more power. Around the same time as Ian's growing political influence was the arrival of both Susan Rose and Beppe Di Marco. Before that, we saw the lives of journalists (Polly and especially Tony). But I think that this trend's clear start was much earlier: the arrival of the new market inspector, Richard Cole, a.k.a. "Tricky Dicky."
Tricky lived on the square, people knew him socially, and we glimpsed his life and problems, much like other characters on the programme. When he first arrived as both Sanjay's friend and his market inspector, I wondered if we would learn the lives of every passing person. That was in 1992, seven years into the series.
My new acquaintances and I don't know whether or not Kath will be able to help much with Gary's case, or whether Frank will cause more trouble for Janine than he solves. We're more partial to vicariously sitting in the cafe with Ethel, sharing an unexpected giggle, sipping some tea, and casually wondering why so-and-so seems so touchy lately. We think the series has blurred its focus considerably. It might be amusing to someday see middle aged Gary in a foot chase after the equally pudgy Phil, but that prospect sounds like slapstick compared a good old fashioned EastEnders giggle.
Dobson's opposing view is that it is simply a matter of increased variety of characters, situations, and stories, so we could simply be dealing with growing pains. Power versus familiarity wasn't entirely alien to the original EastEnders, for Michelle Fowler was intimate with the owner of the Vic and friends with her boss at the hair salon.
One thing we all agree on: toasting to the health of the EastEnders spirit in the next twenty-five years!