BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

24 September 2014
Press Office
Search the BBC and Web
Search BBC Press Office

BBC Homepage

Contact Us


John Yorke

Head of Drama Serials
(former Executive Producer of EastEnders)

EastEnders: Faith, Morality and Hope in the Community

Wednesday 4 September 2002
Printable version

Speech given at the Bishops' Conference for clergy and other ministers in the Diocese of St Albans


"The sex and violence of EastEnders is undermining a generation."

So began a full page article in The Mail On Sunday this January last.

"We are all tainted by this sick soap" it proceeded, "If you wanted to promote a society in which sexual morals were based upon what you could get away with, in which the married family was vilified as a nest of violence and sinister secrets, in which the educated middle-class and religious believers were dismissed as victims, idiots or crooks, you might well ensure that a programme such as EastEnders was transmitted seven times a week."

Only last month I was asked to take part in a radio discussion. The topic once again was "EastEnders is undermining morality".

Defending was a member of a secular society, but the prosecutors were avowedly Christian.

So why am I here today, in the heart of a Christian Community, talking to you about faith, morality and hope in Soap Opera? Why am I, charlatan, philistine, atheist, corrupter of the nation's morals, poking my head tentatively into the lion's den?

Possibly because I'm stupid, certainly because the Bishop was kind enough to ask me, but most of all because the subject of morality on television is I believe, central to our idea of society.

On a good week EastEnders is watched by 16 million people, on special occasions that can rise to 23 million: on one unique occasion 30.15 million have watched the show.

If you can imagine the biggest traffic jam you've ever seen, then imagine that traffic jam repeated over and over again all over Britain, you get some idea of the scale of the show.

There are 23 million cars in Great Britain; so on a particularly good week every single car owner in the whole of the British Isles is watching us.

Both we - and Coronation Street - have the kind of reach and power to captivate people's imaginations that others can only dream about.

One of the reasons I was asked here today was because of this.

As I discussed what I might talk about with the Archdeacon, he asked me whether the Church could learn anything from EastEnders about communicating with a mass audience - and perhaps more importantly, the fundamental question facing the religious leaders in the 21st Century and put so eloquently in the programme to this event:

"How does the church communicate good news so that it is heard by people where they are, rather than struggling to change people so that they are able to hear good news in the form we insist on communicating it?"

If I claimed EastEnders could teach the church anything I would be guilty of unacceptable arrogance.

A doctrine that has formed our entire world view for two thousand years can almost certainly teach a 17 year old soap opera, big in only one country, a thing or two about staying power, reach and success.

However, some commentators tend to disagree….

The Mail On Sunday article with which I began certainly did: " A dictator who wanted to control the minds of modern Britons would use soap operas.

"Nobody listens to speeches any more, and 50 years of peace have made us immune to orders barked in commanding voices.

"Yet millions of us willingly submit our minds to television, allowing it to invade and colonise our imaginations, undermine our morals, and rob us of our individuality".

EastEnders, clearly, is good at communicating with people. But what are we communicating? Are we really - in the words of one social commentator - "a morally void cess pit"?

As I took part in the radio discussion I mentioned earlier the secular woman started berating the clerical man: "there's far more gratuitous violence in the bible - and when people aren't busy plucking each others eyes out, they're either bestowing each other with boils or constantly begetting..."

As the clerical man argued back, cogently and coherently, I sat back, scratched my head and began to muse on the subject.

Are we immoral? Are we a bad thing? If so, why do so many people watch us? Is that why they watch us?

Are we cynically propelling a diet of sex, violence and brutalism in return for commercial gain? Or does the overwhelming popularity of soap in this country say something deeper and more profound about what we hunger for in society?

And what are the implications of that, both for us and the Church?

The conclusions I came to surprised myself... I hope they will at the very least provoke discussion and provide you with food for thought.

EastEnders is rarely described as a force for moral good. In a recent report Lord Dubs, the Chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council, said the chase for ratings had influenced the content of soaps, making them more sensational than ever before.

A few weeks ago, The Independent, running a full-page piece on page three of its main paper, came to the same conclusion; lurid plots were taking over our screens.

Drawing attention to EastEnders, it pointed to three incidents in the last year - a shooting, an exploding car and an attempted murder.

It went on: "No wonder Charlie Slater's had a heart attack. His daughter Zoë isn't his daughter, but was conceived when brother Harry raped another of his girls, Kat. Another daughter, Little Mo is in jail for trying to kill her husband. Oh, and he's lost his Cab Licence. Still by Albert Square standards his life is a sea of tranquility".

So ARE these stories controversial? Probably. Sensationalist?

Nothing more than you'd find in one week in the East London Advertiser.

Immoral? I would argue absolutely not.


The story of Kat's sexual abuse by her uncle is one of the biggest EastEnders has told in recent times.

When EastEnders decided to tell it, it was not an issue we embarked on lightly.

Our immediate reaction when we came up with the idea was actually that no one would want to watch it. Ironically, this confirmed our belief it was the right story to tell.

If EastEnders, with its huge public profile, its ability to reach millions who don't read books, don't read newspapers, didn't tell this story, we reasoned, then we were not fulfilling our obligations as programme makers.

Our job, we reasoned, was to reflect society.

Before we plotted the story out, we talked to The Samaritans, to child psychiatrists and to the NSPCC.

All of them said the same thing - this story needs telling - will you please let people know that this goes on.

So it wasn't a question of trying to shock or titillate that motivated us, but rather - on top of telling what we believed was a powerful story - the desire to explore and inform.

Twenty million viewers watched the episodes go out. Afterwards - as we often do when we tackle controversial issues - we ran an audience helpline, with a free phone number where people could be referred to further advice.

In the 24 hours after the show was broadcast we received four hundred phone calls. And when you look at those calls in detail, they tell an extraordinary story.

The majority of callers who were brave enough to share their experiences were abused by a family member or close family friend.

In many cases other members of their families did not believe their stories.

One person rang to say they'd been a victim of a paedophile ring ran by their grandfather, another that they'd been forced into child prostitution by their parents.

Tales of childhood pregnancy vied with those of fear, guilt and suicidal despair as all told how the most profound bond - that of trust between adult and child - had been shattered.

By turns the stories were harrowing, emotional and deeply, deeply distressing.

Many people rang in to thank the BBC for highlighting an issue that is normally seen as taboo, and for some the Action Line agent was the first person they had ever spoken to about their experiences.

Others who had never told anyone that they had been abused as a child wanted to know whether there was a time limit for reporting a crime.

Some viewers called wanting to know how to support friends or relatives who were in abusive relationships or were abused as a child.

A few survivors of abuse were concerned that they too may become an abuser and were also looking for help.

Perhaps however, three quotes from callers sum what the show achieved up:

We informed:

"It's amazing how this programme has made me look back at my life and address what happened. This programme will make a lot of difference to many people's lives. It certainly has made a difference to mine."

We educated:

"I am calling to enquire how widespread this issue actually is, as I have never heard of anyone I know being affected by such an issue. I am overwhelmed by this and would like to know how many calls you have taken."

And we entertained:

"I have never been so moved by a piece of drama before. (Kat) was absolutely brilliant and she should be congratulated. I just want to applaud the programme, the producers, the cast and anyone else that was involved. Thank you."

Three quotes - out of nearly four hundred calls - embodying all the traditional Reithian values - and making everything we do at EastEnders worthwhile.

True, our primary purpose is to entertain - it's absolutely NOT to embark on any kind of social engineering.

But commendations in recent years from groups as varied as The Meningitis Trust, Mental Health in the Media, the NSPCC, the Police, the National Schizophrenia Fellowship and the Terence Higgins Trust, seem to show that this is entertainment that is more than aware of its responsibilities.

EastEnders, like any truly successful programme, is not born of cynicism; its heart - even if it has sounded a little preachy at times - has always been in the right place.

So I suppose in one sense, if we are to define morality as helping others, in exposing evil, and in giving a voice to the voiceless, I have no hesitation in defending the show

Undermining morals by example

But how about EastEnders as an example?

The basis of much of the criticism of soap is that it creates a false portrayal of life in exaggerating the "bad" and ignoring the undramatic "good", that it passes off extremes as norms and eulogises darkness and deceit at the expense of the less exciting and mundane.

It creates heroes of the bad, and laughs at acts of the good.

I'd like to show you a clip from the programme that goes to the heart of this, which itself illustrates a dilemma we often face.


This isn't a pretty scene - even now I find it hard to watch.

I show it, not only because it makes me uneasy, but also because the Broadcasting Standards Council recently upheld a complaint against it; and since their ruling I have struggled myself to work out whether they were right or wrong.

We approached the story of domestic violence with the same research-based zeal as we had approached the subject of child abuse.

The more research we did, the more insidious and distressing we found the facts.

We wanted to tell the story, but at the same time we didn't want to tell a story that we knew would profoundly upset a large section of our audience.

But we were in a double bind. If we DID tell the story, then we couldn't sanitise it, we couldn't actually tell people that domestic violence was alright.

The scene I showed you was our compromise.

Watching it now, I'm still ambiguous as to whether we did the right thing - is it more egregious and offensive to sanitise a husband beating his wife, or to upset viewers when they're eating their tea?

All I can offer to you is the fact that our intent was genuine.

After talking to women who suffered far far worse than this - we just felt this story needed to be told.

Our helpline after this episode attracted two and a half thousand calls.

Although some were critical of the show, a significant number were from people who had never spoken of being abused before, and to whom we were the first point of contact in seeking help.

Erin Pizzey herself said we had done more to raise the issue of violence against women in one story than she had done in twenty-five years.

However - It's interesting to reflect that we could have got much greater viewing figures for this than we did.

If the charge is that EastEnders continually parades sex, violence and gratuitous sadism in order to grab ratings; it's founded I think on erroneous logic, for I'm not actually convinced that these stories increase your audience figures at all.

There's a famous Hollywood vignette, about a boxing movie called The Champ.

Legend has it that everybody working on the film knew they were making something special. The only problem was that when they previewed the movie, the audience hated it.

Irving Thalberg - then Head Of Production at MGM - watched the movie and knew immediately what was wrong.

In the original cut, the hero not only loses his final boxing match, he dies in the process too.

Thalberg reshot the ending; the Champ remained the Champ to the very end and the 1931 Oscar winner became one of the most successful movies of its time.

The moral of the story is, of course, that everybody loves a happy ending.

If EastEnders was really as depressing as people say it is then no one would watch it -after all, who wants to be depressed?

People watch drama by and large because they want to be uplifted, they want to feel better about themselves, about life. They want to feel joy.

If EastEnders is about one thing, it's about that. It's about the Blitz Spirit, it's about however bad life gets, however terrible things are, you don't give in, you don't feel sorry for yourself, you fight back - you support those around you, you come together as a community and you shout from the roof tops, life IS worth living, it IS worth fighting for.

Yes of course people get depressed in EastEnders - terrible things happen to them, but they don't wallow - they don't feel sorry for themselves, they fight back.

The problem we faced with the Little Mo storyline was actually we couldn't say this and the ratings - for a time at least - suffered.

Domestic violence does not have any easy solutions - it's a grim, harsh subject.

Many women find it impossible to leave abusive husbands, blaming themselves; victims of their own lack of self-esteem.

Happy endings, if we were to be truthful, were not really an option.

Even when Mo did fight back and hit her husband over the head with an iron we found ourselves with problems.

No doubt the audience cheered when she did this, but we knew she'd broken the law.

At her trial for attempted murder, we had to find her guilty.

The audience didn't want this, we didn't want this, but we knew we had to show that however great the torture she endured, she just couldn't take the law into her own hands.

However, we also knew that we would lose a huge potential audience who would be furious that the programme had done such a thing.

And that's exactly what happened. We chose to be true to our research, AND truthful to the law, and the ratings remained no more than average; for we had denied them the happy ending they craved.

EastEnders as morality play

What this all points too is one inescapable fact. Like it or not, the audience love morality plays.

Yes of course they like to see people being malevolent, just as they revel in the Satan of Paradise Lost, but they love even more watching the villain get his just desserts - to see him hurled into his pit of fire.

Our love of heroes is just the same - we want to see good triumph, we need to believe it, for if it doesn't - what's the point?

What is life for? Ironically it seems soap operas are successful because of their morality - because good triumphs over evil.

When soaps forget this as they do on occasions; when they fall into the trap of telling you how bad life is; they tend to flounder in the ratings.

For the job of all story telling from the Bible to Brookside, is finally I believe, to be life-affirming.

The importance of self sacrifice

Having said that, heroes need to EARN their happy ending.

Can you imagine if when Moses led his people to the Promised Land, he had a half hour stroll through verdant fields past bubbling springs on a bright and clear summer's day?

We might feel guilty for the ease of his passage, further we might actually resent him his unjust reward, his easy ride.

The reason we love the story of Moses is that he ENDURES.

He suffers trials, plagues and famine; his follower's doubt him, he is thrown back on his own resources and every inch of his character is tested.

The joy of the story of Moses is that he suffers yet he survives.

Let me tell you a classic EastEnders story.

A character, on the run from the authorities for something he hasn't done, seeks shelter with a stranger.

As the two get to know each other in hiding a bond starts to grow between them.

Finally, the authorities track the hiding place down.

The house owner, believing it important for his guest to stay free, falsely admits to the crime, and takes the man's place in prison.

It's a great story, isn't it? We told a version of it with Paul and Anthony Trueman, but it's certainly not original.

Not only does it echo the classic narrative structure of Casablanca, it's also, as many of you will have noticed, a blueprint for the story of St Alban and Amphibilus.

And it taps into one of most profound and classic story-structures of all - that of self-sacrifice.

Lofty marrying Michelle for the sake of her child with another man; Steve Owen putting a baby's fate before his own; Andy throwing himself in front of a speeding car to save another child; Kat getting Trevor to hit her for the sake of Little Mo.

EastEnders tells the story year in, year out.

Indeed, any degree of rational analysis soon reveals that the story structure at the root of almost all popular drama - not just in Britain but worldwide - is that of self-sacrifice.

The quality we most like to see and observe in others is the eternal biblical truth: ""Greater love has no-one than this,
that he lay down his life for his friends."

Time and again in popular drama we see this motif played out.

Why does almost every police hero have a tortuous personal life? Because he is suffering for us; because it's a more attractive and appealing trait than if he was deliriously happy at home.

If he or she were deliriously happy, we'd almost certainly like them less, if not possibly distrust them.

From Jane Tennyson in Prime Suspect to Jack Regan in The Sweeney; from Dickens' "far far better thing I do.." to Inspector Morse, via Kat and Little Mo in EastEnders; self-sacrifice is at the heart of every enduring story in our civilisation.

Let us take a small digression for a second and look at two icons who bestride popular culture - who have infringed and colonised our consciousness for better or worse in two unique periods in the last century: Elvis Presley and Princess Diana.

Many ludicrous religious analogies have been appended to the Presley phenomenon, my favourite among them being that Elvis' song Don't Be Cruel is analogous to The Sermon On The Mount.

However, there are a number of inescapable conclusions to be drawn from the story of the boy born in poverty and wrapped in swaddling clothes who rose to become the most famous icon of the last century.

The American journalist Ron Rosenbaum has written that fetishising Elvis' death is a way for "all kinds of Americans to come to terms with pain and loss".

In a recent essay to mark the 25th anniversary of Elvis' death writer Nik Cohn observed that the thousands of pilgrims, who had gone to pay their respects at the gates of Graceland, "were not cool or hip.

"Like Elvis himself, they come from the great amorphous white millions, who scuffle to get by, who blunder through lives filled with mess and waste and odd moments of joy, untouched by changing fashion.

"Small wonder Elvis is their once and future king".

He concluded: "They love him, not in spite of his excesses and his grotesque end, but in large part because of them. He suffered so much. He is their very own martyr."

Isn't it interesting that the closest the Western World has come to creating a secular idol, is in aping the story of the crucifixion?

And of course, I'm sure none of you are a stranger to the "Elvis lives" phenomenon, the various sightings of "the King" from American shopping malls to supermarkets in Bradford.

After the death, the Resurrection. Isn't it fascinating that the accretion of stories around Elvis lend themselves so readily to religious form?

Earlier this year I wrote an essay for Demos in which I noted how readily the majority of the British public chose to impose a fairy tale like structure around the story of Princess Diana; about how we wanted to believe that she was a tragic heroine who at the moment she found true love was brutally cut down by a hyena-like mob.

I argued that the truth was actually likely to be more grey and complex than this - but that the truth became irrelevant when pitted against popular will.

The shape in which the Diana story has entered our consciousness is exactly that of a fairy tale because that's what people want to believe.

So it is with Elvis. Elvis clearly isn't the Son of God. But that truth too is irrelevant; for a significant part of the population want to impose a biblical story structure upon him.

So what is it in our nature that makes us want to believe mythical stories? Why do we need to ignore grey reality for the far more powerful world of story? And in particular when the backbone of that story is self-sacrifice?

The growth of story structure

The reason so many biblical stories emerge again and again in popular culture is partly, I believe, because of the way the Bible grew into a coherent narrative whole.

As the scientist and author Steven Rose has cogently summarised the books of the Old Testament are "accretions of early Mesopotamian and Egyptian myths and sagas, read into a single and reasonably coherent narrative in order to provide a history for a particular group of initially nomadic, later sedentary shepherds and pastoralists."

The author Louis de Bernieres writes that the "The Book of Job itself has literary parallels in Persian, Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylonian - and in the biblical version there also appear to be several allusions to Ugaritic myth. - the Story is an ancient variant on ancient folk tale."

The New Testament, though easier to trace in form, stems partly from an older oral form, with antecedents in Jewish and Hellenistic tradition.

And in this I believe, is the key to everything I have to say.

For, if anything, the Bible is the central repository of all the great stories of all our combined cultures and civilizations; it's an elision of all the myths and stories that are important to us as people, and consequently the cornerstone of everything that, as a race, we hold dear.

Whether the nature of God as revealed through the life of Jesus contains universal truths because it is the life of Jesus, or simply just embodies those universal truths is a legitimate subject for discussion, but does nothing to diminish the power of the book itself.

There are, it is often said, only seven stories: Orpheus, Achilles, Cinderella, Tristan and Isolde, Circe, Romeo and Juliet, and Faust.

All of them are to be found in the Bible, be it in the Faustian nature of the Tower of Babel, or in Samson's own "Achilles' Heel".

So as the Bible came into being as a first oral and then written piece over hundreds of years, the life of Jesus evolved - through story telling - into an embodiment and archetype of universal truths.

We hunger for those truths; for we need those stories to re-affirm us in who and what we are.

It is the fact that these stories contain universal truths that they endure; and it is in the Bible that these stories are first codified and pulled together into one whole.

The Bible dominates our culture because it is a book about truths; and truths ENDURE.

EastEnders itself should take notice of this more than it does. It's fascinating to note that as a programme, it's at its most successful when it is at its most truthful.

The sheer volume of stories we tell means that inevitably some stories are more successful than others.

When Phil slept with Grant's wife Sharon (The Tristan and Isolde story) the reason we got 25 million viewers was because it was true.

However, when Grant got his revenge by sleeping with Phil's wife, we had far less success and it reverberated in a much less dramatic way.

Why? Almost certainly because few - and this included much of the writing team - believed it.

So truth is absolutely central to story success. The most often used story structure - and that which is absolutely central to EastEnders - comes from the Book of Job, in which a hero is cruelly and arbitrarily tested, but refuses to give in or surrender.

For what could be more truthful and universal than that?

At the end of his testing God restores Job to health and fortune, but not the life of his children or servants. Which is a very EastEnders' ending indeed.

Who is Arthur Fowler but a modern day Job - as indeed is his long suffering son Mark too?

So the story structures that lie at the heart of EastEnders are based in no small measure on the stories first codified in the Bible.

And consequently it's truth - rather than sensation - that is fundamental to EastEnders success.

It's no accident that the programme's biggest ever storyline was Den serving Angie divorce papers - not a kidnap or an explosion in sight - nor is it any accident that Coronation Street foundered when it tried to introduce murder, mayhem and violence into a much more profound, but ironically domestic setting.

Bizarrely, it's not sensation that gets soap its biggest ratings, it's truth.

The Den and Angie story is of course a variation on the Faust story, and it's in these fundamental archetypes that the success of soaps lie: David and Goliath; Daniel In the Lions Den; Samson and Delilah; Sodom and Gomorrah; The Fall: the same story shapes, all of them present in the Bible occur again and again and again; and they occur again and again because they're true, and because they're universal.

Writing about The Gospel of Luke, Bishop Richard Holloway says "We do not really know who wrote Genesis or many of the other ancient writings and we need not care, because these great texts communicate truth to us at a level that goes beyond the artistry of any particular individual.

"They create archetypes that express the general condition of humanity, and its sorrow and loss, heroism and betrayal.

"This is also why the gospels go on touching us long after we have abandoned the orthodoxies that have been built on them.

"We do not know who wrote them or when, but they still have power to connect with our lives today, so that, reading them, we sometimes have to put them down and look into the distance as their words strike ancient chords within us."

I hadn't read the Bible until I was asked to talk to you today. I stand here amazed, bewitched and enchanted by its poetic power, its profundity, it ability to inspire, teach and touch.

Though I'm no more religious than I was before, I'm much more aware of an extraordinary heritage of which EastEnders is a tiny and fairly minor modern part.

I make no great artistic claims for soap opera. What can't be denied however is just how much a part of our culture they have become, and only the patronising would write that off as insignificant.

Why do people watch EastEnders and Coronation Street?

Though superficially yes of course because of voyeurism, or because they can't wait to find out who did shoot Phil, but it's also for much deeper reasons than that.

It's because people need stories; people demand narratives that make sense of the world they live in.

In a fractured incoherent world, where community no longer means what it did, people hunger for drama and for universal truths that give them something to aspire to; something to make them feel better about humanity and about themselves.

Just as Richard Holloway writes about Luke, so all drama aspires through its archetypes to express the general condition of humanity.

And what is EastEnders but a weekly portrayal of heroism, of loss, of betrayal, and also finally, of hope?

This is why, I believe, biblical stories re-appear endlessly in our culture; and this is why we impose biblical structures on characters such as Elvis.

Because we want to believe these eternal archetypes, but communicated in a manner we understand and which is easily digestible and relevant to us.

When I first met up with the Archdeacon he spoke to me of a crisis of belief in European civilisation and half-smiling described Western Europe as the most Godless place in the world.

When I asked him what he felt the basic functions of Christianity were in this day and age when so many don't believe, he replied "to tell the story of Christ and its implications for the way we live."

In our own little way soap opera's job is to spell out the implications of the way we live.

I hope I've conveyed to you my belief that EastEnders is watched largely because of its morality, largely because of its ability to reflect life in all its complexity, and because it explores ethical problems.

It is part of a universal story-telling tradition that helps us to understand our lives and reflect on the human condition - it works because it connects with real people's concerns.

True it departs from real life - as most popular fiction does - in imposing value judgements on its material.

Like the Parables it offers a hope and a morality where the good are rewarded and the bad punished - either by death, rapid exit, or Karmically, bound forever on a wheel of fire.

Despite the twists and turns of the plot all our conclusions are essentially moral. Good triumphs, evil is punished and the value of human life is asserted.

So now I must answer the question posed by you, which I quoted at the beginning of this talk - "how does the Church communicate to people where they are?"

My simple answer to this is "you already are".

The archetypal Bible stories are as relevant today - and as popular today - as they always have been, and they are still the values to which our people aspire.

True - they may be hidden in secular form. When John Donne argued, "No man is an Island" he was making a religious argument for the sake of community.

Where is that argument most recently expressed and dramatised?

In last year's most successful British film - Hugh Grant's About A Boy.

As for other stories: the power of the resurrection? ET; Moses in the Bulrushes? Batman and The Penguin...

Everywhere you look in culture, both high and low, you will see evidence of the Judaeo-Christian doctrine. As a race it is at the very core of our being.

In EastEnders alone the biblical parallels are manifold and too numerous to mention.

The saga of Albert Square is a saga of free will - where the individuals choose to be either good or bad, but all within have knowledge of the Serpent.

The good are rewarded, the bad are punished and individuals are tested to find out in which camp they belong.

And if sometimes Albert Square seems an arbitrary and cruel place, I would argue no more so than biblical Egypt, Israel and the Garden of Eden.

Why is it that Jacob should become the father of Israel, when he performs such an unjust trick on his brother?

Arbitrary cruelty and bleakness is a biblical speciality.

Lusts, envy, cruelty, malice, plague, famine - all are biblical staples that have their own more modest equivalents in the London Borough of Walford.

Like our biblical equivalents our characters are tested, abandoned, betrayed.

Admittedly this may sound a bit more Old Testament than New, but there are equivalents here too: our characters are also rewarded, and blessed with the ability to not only find love but bestow it selflessly on others too.

And who is Kat, but a modern Mary Magdalene - a repository of goodness and self-sacrifice where it's least expected to be found?

Richard Holloway, concluding his essay on Luke, wrote of the Parables that they "continue to connect with us today.

"They are about our experience of guilt, and our need for forgiveness, they are about the dangers of tribe and religion, and the way they insulate us against the needs of our neighbours."

Likewise EastEnders essentially tells of the age old struggle between good and evil and all that flows from that: heroism, suffering, loss, betrayal, self-sacrifice, the human struggle with moral frailty; the struggle to bind together as a community; comeuppance and redemption.

Like the Bible; in its own modest way, EastEnders is a show in which we look for lessons in how to live.

We may confront the dark side of life - but no more than many of our viewers; and we certainly don't endorse it.

I'd like to end with a clip that I think illustrates that this biblical tradition is alive and well.

Just over two years ago on EastEnders we told a story ostensibly about euthanasia.

Ethel, an elderly stalwart of the square and a confirmed atheist, had contracted cancer and had been given three months to live.

Not believing in the afterlife and of firmly humanistic stance she asked her best friend Dot to help her take her own life.

Dot, as a good Christian, refused to help, until her love for her friend overcame her own fear of damnation.

Riddled with an intolerable burden of guilt, she felt there was only one person she could talk too...


EastEnders never does monologues; indeed the average length of a scene is 40 seconds.

That speech lasts just under four minutes.

The Dot and Ethel storyline played out in over four months with many similar scenes, to an average audience of 16 million viewers.

Dot - the character the Mail on Sunday claimed we made fun off - explored the full panoply of religious belief before coming back to terms with her maker.

As she said to her vicar towards the end of the story, in my favourite line of EastEnders' entire existence, "I couldn't manage without my faith, not with the life I've had".

When Alan Bookbinder took over as head of religious broadcasting at the BBC he described EastEnders for the weeks the Dot and Ethel story ran as "the best religious programme on television" and compared us to Graham Greene.

While we felt a little uncomfortable in such exalted company, what it did show is that handled properly an audience is able to engage in, and relate to profound ethical debate.

There's a possibly apocryphal story about Michael Jackson - a former Controller of BBC ONE and Channel 4 who had two posters on his wall - one of Lord Reith and one of PT Barnum, because he believed it was the duty of his television network to fall in between those two stools.

It will be no surprise to you that I love EastEnders for exactly those reasons.

Of course there is hucksterism when we embark on stories like "Who Shot Phil?" but there is also an essential moral seriousness at its core.

I love the fact that the Police ring us up to ask for tapes of the Little Mo and Trevor story because they want to use it to train their officers in the reality of domestic violence.

I'm immensely proud of the fact that after watching EastEnders victims of child abuse can discover that they need no longer be afraid, guilty and alone.

I love the fact that Dot can make a four minute speech about theology and 16 million people can be riveted by her spiritual journey.

But most of all I love the fact that people want to watch stories that centre around one pivotal question - how do we, as citizens, in a bad and malevolent world, live a good life? How do we love?

And most importantly what should we give up for others?

For as I have said, the notion of Christian self-sacrifice is at the heart of all popular drama, it's what most appeals to us, and fascinates us and makes go back and watch again and again.

Isn't it intriguing that a story born 2000 years ago is still the most potent and fascinating tool in story-telling today?


V W X Y Z    


Printable version top^

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy