Going to EastEnders was "the best decision I ever made in my life". Not me - though I'd happily say it too - but Oscar winning film director Tom Hooper, who between 1999 and 2000 directed a series of brilliant episodes of the BBC's most consistently popular drama.

As the National Audit Office (NAO) publishes its study into the affairs of Continuing Drama it seems a good idea to reflect on its role in both the industry, and a substantial part of the nation's life. Why would an Oscar winning director say that? What's the genre ever done for us?

To which I would answer:

Without EastEnders, Casualty and Holby, there would be no Life On Mars, no Hustle, no Occupation, no Toast, no Eric And Ernie, no King's Speech - at least not as we know them. There'd be no early breaks for Kate Winslet, Aaron Johnson or Orlando Bloom. The simple fact is that around 30% of the drama industry - writers, directors, producers, designers and commissioners - have learnt their craft on these shows.

Whether you're the Head of Drama at ITV, a former head of BBC Fiction or an Oscar nominated writer or director for best short film, the one thing you have in common is that you served your apprenticeship on the most demanding form of drama work in Britain. Continuing Drama has - and still does - employ a lot of people, and very economically as the NAO attests. It's a vaguely scary thought that without Continuing Drama series there simply wouldn't be either enough jobs in the UK drama industry to sustain it, nor enough trained people to man it. These shows are the Amazon rainforest of drama; without them, the ecosystem would simply collapse.

But it's not just within the industry that their importance lies. Though little acknowledged these shows simply are, over time, some of the most popular and most loved programmes on television - an astonishing 71% of the UK population watched at least one episode of EastEnders last year.

It is the nature of us all perhaps to create class systems with serious and weighty (art-house) at the top and popular (airport novel) at the bottom. And of course there is some truth that a lovingly nurtured four-part drama on a minority channel might provoke debate and feeling that an hour of Holby at its worst might not. But it is equally true that some of those views are forged by social snobbery, by a desire to be elite and above the common fray.

Difficult, challenging and genre-busting work is vital to the health of our industry, and only a fool would argue against it, but it's important to understand that's not how the vast majority of people in this country experience - or want to experience - drama. Melodramatic or simplistic as our large audience shows can occasionally be, they can be equally brave and as profoundly moving in discussing the way we live now.

If you've ever questioned the power and efficacy of popular drama then I invite you to read the feedback from both medical professionals and viewers garnered by Casualty's recent mental health storyline. EastEnders didn't just win five out of the last six National TV Awards for best Serial Drama, it also won the Mental Health in the Media Award for its portrayal of bipolar disorder. BBC Continuing Drama didn't just win nine out of the last fifteen Baftas and eight out of twelve Best British Soap Awards - it has a much deeper economic and social function as well.

Not content with pioneering diverse lead casting (Holby and Casualty were the first to embrace diversity in drama anywhere), EastEnders attracts an extraordinary 39% of the non-white audience in the UK. You will almost certainly be aware of some of the shared experiences that form part of our cultural heritage (Dot or Frank, anyone?), but you may not have heard of the girls who, inspired by EastEnders, gained the courage to confront their sexual abuse, or the parents who recognised the symptoms of life threatening diseases from watching our medical shows (writer Peter Bowker being one of them).

From its pioneering use of new technology to its writer, director and producer training programmes, these shows are major economic drivers. They have led the way in the development of internet and red button spin-offs too. E20, built entirely by first time writers, is now in its third series, and is the most watched red-button drama on the BBC. This year is none other than the 25th anniversary of Casualty - a show that, as the RTS recently acknowledged, has been pivotal to the development of the Bristol television industry.

But that's not Continuing Drama series' main function - its main function is to provide high quality British drama for a massive audience, some of whom are the under-represented, the marginalised and the disempowered, all of whom pay their licence fee and all of whom deserve the right to indulge themselves in stories they really love.

Anyone doubting that love and passion should follow a live Twitter feed of Holby to see just how extraordinarily important to people these programmes are. It's genuinely humbling to see just how much these shows mean to such a complete cross-section of society.

The battle of British television is won on the playing fields of Continuing Drama series. Orlando Bloom, Kate Winslet, Brenda Fricker, Tom Hooper, Tony Jordan, Ashley Pharoah, Peter Bowker, Bryan Elsley, Jim Loach, Jane Tranter. Skins, Occupation, Kudos Film and TV, directors of Entourage, Lost, Heroes, CSI and hundreds more all owe something of their success to these shows that nurtured their talent.

Continuing Drama series sustain an industry and bring joy and entertainment to millions of licence fee payers - last year alone EastEnders' audience peaked at 20 million viewers and is currently enjoying its best ever AI (appreciation index) scores, Continuing Drama is training the next generation as we speak. In nascent form these shows are full of brilliant writers, directors and actors - some of whom won't make it, some of whom will make bad episodes, but the vast majority of whom will become the backbone of the drama industry both here and across the world.

All of this, as the NAO have found, managed well and run efficiently. And all for the cost of as little as just over three pence per viewer hour.

John Yorke is BBC Controller of Drama Production and New Talent


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