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EastEnders: Social realism or out of step with modern Britain?

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Will Gompertz | 14:00 UK time, Wednesday, 17 February 2010

It started back in 1975 with one of Hilda Ogden's fags. Then her Stan drew me in with his dodgy trash. And by the time of the needle incident in Mike Baldwin's factory, I was hooked. Before long I had moved on from Corrie to EastEnders; the newer, harder stuff. It took me 18 years to get clean again without having to resort to soaps.

Colin Firth and Julianne MooreThat was until three weeks ago, when I went to see Tom Ford's debut movie, A Single Man. Some have enthused about Colin Firth's performance, but I couldn't get past what a dead ringer he was for Ken Barlow. In some shots he was quite clearly Ken. And that upset me. Why was Firth/Barlow making merry with Julianne Moore? What about Deirdre?

I tried to put it out of my mind, but work didn't help. All around the BBC there are posters promoting EastEnders' 25th anniversary. It was all too much; I buckled.

Last night I watched EastEnders for the first time in years. It's billed as social-realist drama; aimed to reflect the truth of modern living, albeit in a condensed and dramatic manner. And it is clearly a successful formula, if your measurement for success is audience figures. But has it been a true reflection of London's East End over the past quarter-century?

Sign for Albert SquareIt has dealt with some very big issues such as Aids and breast cancer but, as Mark Lawson asks, writing in the Guardian yesterday, has it tackled the big issues of modern life? He points specifically towards multi-racialism, but what about the growing gap between rich and poor, the gentrification of London and soaring house prices, the obsession with fame, gang culture and poor schools? And is there enough humour? Does it have a lightness of touch, a quick wit and a warmth that is a prominent part of a close knit community?

I can't judge after just one episode, but I'd be interested to know your thoughts. Is EastEnders a worn-out soap or compelling contemporary drama?

What surprised me was how little the programme appears to have moved on. Last night's show didn't feel any different to the last one I saw some years ago. The script, set, editing, actors, tone-of-voice were all very similar. But maybe that's the secret of its huge success; that the audience enjoys the familiarity and formula and that's what makes it so addictive.


  • Comment number 1.

    It is the human condition....a sense of security and the familiar in an ever changing world. Prespective is more comfortable from someone else.

  • Comment number 2.

    I'm the sort of person who occasionally catches an episode or sit through the omnibus edition on a cold wet Sunday afternoon.
    As for reality!
    I either see it as a comedy or something that is vaguely bizzar and wonder who thought up the story lines.
    I don't think that this soap could be any further from reality than a Star Trek episode.
    Personally I blame them having Barbara Windsor together with Wendy Richards playing grumpy old women.
    Talk about suspending disbelief!

  • Comment number 3.

    I don't think showing 30 minutes of people staring and typing at computers and/or mobile phones would be interesting television. It has to be stuck in the 80's.

  • Comment number 4.

    My problem with Eastenders and soaps of the ilk is that while characters come and go, they all seem to repeat the same behaviour pattern. A baddie from 5 years ago, is the same as today's baddie. After a while and I think we've come to that point, the same plots are repeated. I've also noticed that the only happy people are those who have left the place.
    I don't think there's any mileage left in Eastenders and if it was my choice, I'd end it today. Of course it's not going to happen...but I can still dream !!!

  • Comment number 5.

    Too many people seem to see EastEnders as a template for their own lives. It's unrelentingly bleak and is aimed squarely at the nation's dimmest. I have heard regular viewers discussing EastEnders as if it is some kind of fly-on-the-wall reality show.

    To paraphrase PT Barnum: No one has ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the people.

    No wonder EastEnders appeals to so many Britons.

  • Comment number 6.

    Eastenders is wonderful. It is the most unintentionally funny programme on the telly! It is sheer, unaldulterated escapism, and for that it should be lauded.
    Over the years it has occasionally lost it's way, but on the whole it has provided me with much mirth and hours of nonsensical 'water cooler' moments with colleagues and friends. Personally I'm not a great soaps fan (Corrie just doesn't quite work for me and Emmerdale has not been the same without Amos Brierley!)but Eastenders has always kept my attention. Keep up the good work and Phil Mitchell to be Knighted!!

  • Comment number 7.

    I never watched a soap until I got married. In deference to my wife's televisual expertise, we started watching EastEnders as a manual to making the most of matrimony and understanding real life.

    You have to shout a lot, that was obvious. When you're not shouting you have to whisper, almost inaudibly. I don't know which was harder to master but the continual shouting helped immensly with the inaudible whispering afterwards. The wanton spite and cruelty, verging on insane misanthropy, was even more difficult to master but the thing I couldn't stand was, no matter how successful I became in business I could never move to a decent house in leafy Essex.

    Eventually, I began to harbour nostalgia for Bert out of Mary Poppins, gor-blimey, guv'nor, and no mistake. A jorly 'olliday were needed. We Nigel'd the linens, closed the drum and hit the frog. We went to Weatherfield. It's a much nicer place; there's humour for a start, real nuclear families - actual working-class people! - they're smoking cigarettes!! And it's in full technicolour, rather than the twilight sepia we'd been used to dan saff. Sometimes I have difficulty believing they're just actors like you and me. And it's almost on everyday now - just like real life is!

  • Comment number 8.

    I have never watched a 'soap' and I have never experienced any 'need' or 'desire' to do so. What is wrong with me? Real life is interesting, complicate, inexplicable and time-consuming enough for me. You may well ask how this makes me competent to talk about such things that are entirely beyond my experience? And you may well be right!

    I am also not at all interested in watching any sport having been quite satiated with sport whilst at school ('playing 5 or 6 days a week during terms). I grew to see all sport as a waste of time.

    I also see most things that are strident, loud and repetitive (including music - including opera and dance) as a similar waste of time and wholly without attraction or interest. I am only interested in, and attracted by language, words and ideas - to keep fit I garden and walk (and do not play golf as I see it as a 'good walk ruined').

    There is nothing in the promotional material generated by either soaps or sport that rings any bells with me at all. If the content of a soap is as you describe I can't think of a bigger waste of time - even sport or religion would be better (but see the above.)

    My only possible interest in soaps is the commercial aspect of manipulating the consumer to buy things that they do not want, or to create a political sentiment and manipulate how other people will act and vote. I could however be persuaded of the utility of soaps - as indeed was their original basis when they originated in the USA - as things to space out adverts for 'soap'!

  • Comment number 9.

    It's of social interest to those of us unfamiliar with the home life of the lower orders.

  • Comment number 10.

    i was once a massive eastenders fan, and much more a fan of soap operas generally. nowadays, i watch only one and it is not eastenders. however, i do get ot se it occasionally (when visiting family) and working in the business of show, i hear what is going on.
    let me explain one major thing about eastenders - it is probably one of the worst written programmes on television. every piece of dialogue is rehashed, given to someone else in another storyline but then delivered in exactly the same way (i.e. snarled, growled and just before someone flounces out) And that is not just my view but the view of many, many people in the show business world. All soaps rehash plots - of course they do - but they usually leave a few years between major ones and usually paint them over to disguise them a little. Not Eastenders! Try playing a game - check how long it is after reading this before a) someone pretends to forget someone's birthday/anniversary/special event only to surprise them with a big gesture later b) someone desperately needs to tell someone somefink but people/events/doors/cars etc etc prevent them (god the list goes on and i really can't be bovvered).
    Unfortunately, it has become a joke and the only people i know who do still enjoy it, say the same thing - we know it's rubbish but we kind of enjoy rubbish (usually followed by 'remember dynasty, footballers wives, el dorado????)
    solution - get decent scriptwriters with imagination and inspiration.

  • Comment number 11.

    I love Eastenders.I think it touches on the emotions and struggles of Londerners.Eastenders protrays the madness and sometimes caouse of living in the city.Friday reflects just what happens every weekend in innercity London.

  • Comment number 12.

    I am still struggling to attempt an understanding of how Eastenders has anything to do with art or the arts. If this blog is to be of any value to the arts it has to raise its horizons somewhat

  • Comment number 13.

    "EastEnders: Social realism or out of step with modern Britain?"

    I dunno, but I hope most people in the UK are considerably better actors than the wooden-tops we see on EastEnders.

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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