This review covers the period 1985 to 2001 only
Borne out of the BBC's desire to rival the ratings supremacy of Coronation Street, EastEnders was conceived by producer Julia Smith and scriptwriter Tony Holland, who had previously worked together on Z Cars, Angels and District Nurse. Previous attempts had been made to muscle in on 'The Streets' ground, Compact, The Newcomers and United being prime examples, but none of them had quite the impact of the residents of Walford, London E20, who finally surpassed 'Corrie's' domination of the ratings to become, arguably, the country's best loved drama series.
Preceded by mass publicity and weeks of TV advertisements that introduced each resident individually, the BBC had high hopes for the series even before it hit British TV screens for the first time on 19 February 1985, setting the high dramatic pace that would be its blueprint for success with the death of local resident Reg Cox. Like Coronation Street, Albert Square has a focal point beyond the confines of its decaying residential dwellings in a fictitious part of East London. The Queen Vic public house, where over the years a number of dramatic scenes have been played out, became almost as famous as The Rovers Return right from the off by courtesy of its original tenants, Angie and Den Watts. The first storylines to grab the attention of the media, and a sure sign that the series was making an impact on the viewing nation in those early days, were the pregnancy of unmarried schoolgirl Michelle Fowler and the often turbulent and sometime violent relationship between Angie and Den. The ultimate revelation that he was the father of Michelle's child, earned actor Leslie Grantham the nationally known title of 'Dirty Den'. The Christmas episode in which Den, after discovering that his sometimes alcoholic and neurotic wife had feigned terminal illness in order to stop him leaving home, and retaliated by giving her a yuletide present of divorce papers, won a then record audience of 30.15 million viewers.
EastEnders has never shied away from controversy, covering over the years such touchy issues as prostitution, abortion, homelessness, Alzheimer's Disease, HIV infection, breast cancer, rape and murder. The series was also one of the first to feature a couple in a homosexual relationship. In one of the most tense and dramatic storylines seen in a British TV series viewers watched as Arthur Fowler slowly moved towards a mental breakdown following a long period of unemployment and eventual imprisonment. This particular plot almost caused actor Bill Treacher to suffer the same fate as his character. In fact some of the actors have experienced as many hardships off the screen, with the well-publicised drug addiction of actress Danniella Westbrook and actor David Scarboro's suicide.
Although the show has had its critics down the years because of its exaggerated dramatic content, it has displayed a social conscience on the aforementioned subjects and was also way ahead of 'Coronation Street' in its depiction of a multi-cultural society. Apart from the actors that it has made household names of the series has also had its share of established stars right from the word go, with Wendy Richard (Are You Being Served) as Pauline Fowler, comedian Mike Reid as Frank Butcher, former Doctor Who companion Louise Jameson as Rosa di Marco, On The Buses Olive, actress Anna Karen as Aunt Sal, ex Spandau Ballet singer Martin Kemp as Steve Owen, former Carry On star Barbara Windsor as Peggy Butcher and Michael Boon Elphick.
Some of the stars have even tried their hands at recording careers enjoying modest success -the first of which was Anita Dobson who sang words to the show's theme, 'Anyone Can Fall in Love,' Nick Berry had a hit with 'Every Loser Wins' (before going on to star in the hit series 'Heartbeat'), and a more successful recording career followed for Michelle Gayle, who lived on the Square from 1990 to 1993 as it did for Martine McCutcheon, who also enjoyed chart success.
Initially broadcast twice a week (on different days to Coronation Street) with an omnibus edition on Sundays, EastEnders went thrice weekly in 1994, but by that time creators Smith and Holland had departed to create the disastrously received and short lived Eldorado. In 1988 there was a one-off special called Civvy Street, which went back to the Albert Square of 1942 and featured a young Lou Beale and her friend Ethel. (Karen Meagher and Alison Beetles starred). Latterly 'EastEnders' has continued to tug at the heartstrings and keep viewers on the edge of their seats with storylines such as euthanasia issues, adoption and the burning question of 'Who shot Phil Mitchell?' which was played out in the best tradition of the classic 'whodunnit'.
Many may claim that they know better; that this series is a million miles away from the East End that they grew up in. But it's gripping drama - and for an average audience of 12 million households - compulsive viewing.
Published on December 8th, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus (26 May 2001) for Television Heaven.