EASTENDERS

British Soap Opera

EastEnders is one of Britain's most successful television soap operas. First shown on BBC1 in 1985, it enjoys regular half hour primetime viewing slots, originally twice and more recently three times a week, repeated in an omnibus edition at the weekend. Within eight months of its launch it reached the number one spot in the ratings and has almost consistently remained amongst the top five programmes ever since (average viewing figures per episode are around 16 million). A brief dip in audience numbers in the Summer of 1983 prompted a rescheduling masterstroke by the then BBC1 controller, Michael Grade, in order to avoid the clash with ITV's more established soap, Emmerdale Farm. The brainchild of producer, Julia Smith, and script editor, Tony Holland, EastEnders is significant in terms of both the survival of the BBC and the history of British popular television drama.

In the increasingly competitive struggle with independent television for quality of programmes and appeal to mass audiences, the BBC claimed to have found in EastEnders the answer to both a shrinking audience and criticisms of declining standards. The programme is set in Walford, a fictitious borough of London's East End, and focuses on a number of predominantly working-class, often interrelated, families living in Albert Square. The East End of London was regarded as the ideal location for an alluring and long-running series as its historical significance in Britain renders it instantly recognisable, and as illustrative of modern urban Britain for possessing a mix of individuals who are, according to Smith and Holland, "multi-racial, larger-than-life characters". Much of the action takes place in and around the local pub, the Queen Vic, traditionally run by the Watts--originally villainous Den and his neurotic wife Angie, and later their estranged adoptive daughter, Sharon. The main characters are connected with the closely-knit Fowler/Beale clan, specifically Pauline and Arthur Fowler, their eldest children, Mark--a HIV-positive market trader, and Michelle--a strong-willed, single mother, together with cafe-owner Kathy Beale and the long-suffering Pat Butcher. Additional figures come and go, highlighting the belief that character turnover is essential if a contemporary quality is to be retained. At any one time, around eight families, all living or working in Albert Square, will feature centrally in one or other narrative.

EastEnders exhibits certain formal characteristics common to other successful British soap operas (most notably, its major competitor, Granada's Coronation Street), such as the working-class community setting and the prevalence of strong female characters. In addition, a culturally diverse cast strives to preserve the flavour of the East End, whilst a gender balance is allegedly maintained through the introduction of various "macho" male personalities. The expansion of minority representation signals a move away from the traditional soap opera format, providing more opportunities for audience identification with the characters and hence a wider appeal. Similarly, the programme has recently included more teenagers and successful young adults in a bid to capture the younger television audience. The programme's attraction, however, is also a product of a narrative structure unique to the genre. The soap opera has been described as an "open text", a term relating primarily to the simultaneous development and indeterminate nature of the storylines, and the variety of issue positions presented through the different characters. Such a structure invites viewer involvement in the personal relationships and family lives of the characters without fear of repercussions, through recognition of "realistic" situations or personal dilemmas rather than through identification with a central character. EastEnders is typical of the soap opera in this respect, maintaining at any one time two or more major and several minor intertwining narratives, with cliffhangers at the ends of episodes and (temporary) resolutions within the body of some episodes.

To fulfil its public service remit, the programme aims to both entertain and educate. The mystery surrounding the father of Michelle's baby and the emotionality of the AIDS-related death of Mark's girlfriend, Jill, illustrate how a dramatic representation of social issues in contemporary Britain successfully combines these elements. Throughout its ten year history, issues such as drug addiction, abortion, AIDS, homosexuality, racial and domestic violence, stabbings and teenage pregnancy have graced the programme's social and moral agenda. Eastenders strives to be realistic and relevant rather than issue-led, with the educational element professed as an incidental outcome of its commitment to realism. Such endeavours have been attacked, with criticisms of minority-group tokenism, depressive issue-mongering, and, paradoxically, lapses into Cockney stereotyping. However, over the last few years the number of "overly diagrammatic characters" such as "Colin the gay" (so described by Medhurst in The Observer) appears to have decreased, with new characters being introduced for their dramatic contribution rather than their sociological significance.

As with other British soaps, EastEnders differs from American soaps by its relentless emphasis on the mundane and nitty-gritty details of working-class life (no middle-class soap has yet succeeded for long in Britain) among ordinary-looking (rather than attractive) and relatively unsuccessful people. This potentially depressing mix is lightened by a dose of British humour and wit, by the dramatic intensity of the emotions and issues portrayed, and by the nostalgic gloss given to the portrayal of solidarity and warmth in a supposedly authentic community. In terms of the image of "ordinary life" conveyed by the programme, EastEnders is again typical of the soap opera for its ambivalences--showing strong women who are nonetheless tied to the home; a community which tries to pull together but a relatively disaffected youth; a romantic faith in love and marriage and yet a series of adulterous affairs and divorces. For its audience, EastEnders is highly pleasurable, for its apparent realism, its honesty in addressing contentious issues, and for its cosy familiarity.

A regular feature of the weekly schedules, EastEnders has become a fundamental and prominent part of British television culture. Public and media interest extends beyond plot and character developments to the extra-curricular activities of cast members. While maintaining the essential soap opera characteristics, it distinguishes itself from the other major British soaps, appearing coarser, faster paced, and more dramatic than Coronation Street yet less controversial and more humourous than Brookside. In the words of Andy Medhurst of The Observer, "EastEnders remains the BBC's most important piece of fiction, a vital sign of its commitment to deliver quality and popularity in the same unmissable package". While in many ways typical of the genre, the obvious quality, cultural prominence and audience success of EastEnders has established the soap opera as a valued centre piece of early primetime broadcasting in Britain.

-Danielle Aron and Sonia Livingston

 

EastEnders
Photo courtesy of the british Film Institute

CAST

Lou Beale.................................................. Anna Wing Pauline Fowler...................................... Wendy Richard Arthur Fowler ............................................Bill Treacher Michelle Fowler.......................................... Susan Tully Mark Fowler.......................................... David Scarboro Pete Beale .................................................Peter Dean Kathy Beale......................................... Gillian Taylforth Ian Beale ............................................Adam Woodyatt Den Watts ..........................................Leslie Grantham Angie Watts........................................... Anita Dobson Sharon Watts............................................ Letitia Dean Ethel Skinner................................... Gretchen Franklin Dr Legg............................................... Leonard Fenton Nick Cotton.............................................. John Altman Sue Osman............................................ Sandy Ratcliff Ali Osman ................................................Najdet Salih Saeed Jeffrey..................................... Andrew Johnson Naima Jeffrey....................................... Shreela Ghesh George Holloway........................................... Tom Watt Mary Smith ...........................................Linda Davidson Tony Carpenter........................................ Oscar James Kelvin Carpenter...................................... Paul Medford Debbie Wilkins................................... Shirley Cheriton Andy O'Brien......................................... Ross Davidson Dot Cotton .................................................June Brown Simon Wicks ..............................................Nick Berry James Wilmott-Brown ..............................William Boyd Colin Russell.................................... Michael Cashman Pat Wicks/Butcher........................... Pam St Clements Rod Norman ...............................Christopher McHallem Carmel Roberts........................................ Judith Jacob Barry Clark ................................................Gary Hailes Frank Butcher.............................................. Mike Reid Cindy ..................................................Michelle Collins Diane Butcher ....................................Sophie Lawrence Grant Mitchell............................................ Ross Kemp Phil Mitchell .......................................Steve McFadden Clyde Tavernier................................ Steven Woodcock Mark Fowler................................................ Todd Carty Eddie Royle............................................ Michael Melia Rachel ..................................................Jacquetta May

PRODUCERS
Julia Smith, Mike Gibbon, Corinne Hollingworth, Richard Bramall, Michael Ferguson, Pat Sandys, Helen Greaves, Leonard Lewis

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

BBC
February 1985-Present

FURTHER READING

Buckingham, D. Public Secrets: EastEnders and its Audience. London: British Film Institute, 1987.

Frentz, S., editor. Staying Tuned: Contemporary Soap Opera Criticism. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1992.

Geraghty, C. Women in Soap Operas. London: Polity Press, 1990.

Livingstone, S. M. Making Sense of Television: The Psychology of Audience Interpretation. Oxford: Pergamon, 1990.

_______________. "Why People Watch Soap Opera: An Analysis of the Explanations of British Viewers." European Journal of Communication (London), 1988.

 

See also British Programming; Brookside; Coronation Street; Soap Opera