Poor public television channel WLIW21 in New York City didn’t know how to mark the 30th birthday of EastEnders, the BBC soap opera famed for its murders, fights, disastrous wedding days, nervous breakdowns, Cockney geezers, sundry psychopaths, exchanges of ownership of local pub The Queen Vic (the show’s Ewing Oil), and dramatic revelations of maternity.
So, a couple of nights ago, WLIW21 showed a very dreary five episodes of the show from over eight years ago, which is how far behind the station is in showing the drama—a weirdly arid patch, just before Chrissie Watts was unmasked for killing Den Watts—while Britain went nuts over the storyline anchored to the 30th anniversary proper.
I’d warn of spoilers ahead (OK, spoilers ahead), but I think American fans may be dust by the time we get around to these episodes. We’re safe. Just don’t ruin it for your grandchildren.
On WLIW21, regular appeals for money to buy new episodes are made: It’s charming and depressing at the same time, and the episodes appear with less frequency than the show is broadcast in Britain. On-screen days can last real-time weeks.
Meanwhile, back in the U.K., “Who Killed Lucy Beale?” has been such a persistent question in EastEnders this last year it has ceased to be real, and become an almost philosophical question, maybe to be followed by “Why is she?”
There were 77 suspects at the beginning of the storyline last Easter, focusing on the slayer of the show’s bitchy brat. That had whittled itself down to not that many fewer last night.
For its 30th birthday Thursday night, the mystery was solved—after a year, with an added unbearable hour-and-a-half of drama last night featuring so many additional false accusations and red herrings they were left gasping for air around Albert Square, the fictional community in East London where the show is set. A flashback episode was really for the devoted who have played along at home, featuring significant drops of blood and the like.
And the murderer: the rarely seen Bobby Beale, Lucy’s pre-teen half-brother, who seems to have clobbered her with a music box that has turned up this year with such significant regularity it should have come with a sign glowing, “Yes, I am a key part of this storyline.”
Immediately Twitter went nuts, and various memes showing Bobby as Damien from The Omen, and even—in a play on names—as “Bobby Shmurderer.”
But one murderer revelation is never enough in the gleeful catastrophe pile-on that is EastEnders, and so the episode also saw Queen Vic landlord Mick put a boot over the neck of his long-lost villainous brother Dean for threatening his daughter Nancy, and threatening to burn down the Queen Vic, but for really raping his (Mick’s) wife, Linda.
There was a birth, on the floor of the Queen Vic’s women’s toilets. The episode underscored EastEnders belief in (said in East End accent) “fa-amily” above all else.
And there was even a return from the dead, when the much-missed Kathy Beale, presumed dead 15 years ago, turned up very much alive.
It’s not the first time EastEnders has bought back a character from the dead: “Dirty Den” Watts also returned to the show, 15 years after being shot on a canal side by a gun hidden in a bunch of daffodils.
EastEnders has always worked a darker slate than its main rival, ITV’s Coronation Street (born 1960). Both couldn’t be more different than American soaps like The Young and The Restless and The Bold and The Beautiful. Both set in working-class communities, Corrie—set in the north of England—has a recognizable warmth to it, while EastEnders, set in the East End of London, is all rough edges.
It quickly gained a reputation—alongside its high-stakes melodrama—of pioneering storylines around social issues in primetime popular drama, like AIDS, teenage pregnancy, drug addiction, and racism. It notably showed—to disgusting tabloid homophobia—the first gay kiss on a British soap opera back in the late 1980s.
In a nod to its beginnings, the 30th anniversary episode of EastEnders began as the first episode had, with the discovery of a dead body. It was in the same house as poor old Reg Cox was discovered dead on February 19, 1985. And it was the man who killed him, Albert Square’s most pantomime villain, Nick Cotton, who was found dead in a chair this time, from a drug overdose. Soap karma. The episode also began with the same line as the first episode: “Stink a bit in ‘ere, dunnit?”
It’s harder today to make soaps splash as much as they did in their ’80s and ’90s heyday. As critics, and its current producer acknowledge, regular episodes get 7 or 8 million viewers, rather than 17 million. A famous Christmas Day 1986 episode of the show, in which then Queen Vic landlord Den Watts served divorce papers on his wife Angie (think Sue Ellen, same shoulderpads but steeped in even more booze), attracted 30 million viewers.
The fragmentation of channels and people’s viewing habits means the show struggles to make an impact with outlandish storylines alone, which has led both it and Coronation Street to make “live” episodes at anniversary moments to pull in maximum audiences, with the added thrill for viewers of a possibly fluffed line. (This week, one character referred to another by their real name.)
But none of this lessens EastEnders’ dramatic insanity: Its retinue of families and characters are so interlinked historians would weep trying to construct family trees, and geneticists would go mad disentangling chromosomes. Of its memorable baddies, there was crazy Dr. May (a middle-class character and therefore automatically to be suspicious of), drugging, kidnapping, and trying to make Dawn have a baby for her, before blowing up Dawn’s house; and the abusive Trevor, who shoved his wife Mo’s face into her Christmas dinner. Or Stella the solicitor, who tortured her would-be stepson Ben with hot spoons, before falling to her death, in full wedding dress, on to a limousine. Or Janine Butcher, a villainess who watched one husband die after falling from a mountain, and later stabbed herself to frame her love rival for the crime.
There was Christian and Syed’s cross-cultural gay love story, and the redoubtable Peggy and Pat, at war over Frank Butcher, and then united, drunk and giddy one afternoon in an ice cream truck. That’s before the Vic burnt down, and Peggy (whose catchphrase, “Get outta mahh pub” became a hallmark) had to leave the Square of course, to her own theme. There was Pauline Fowler, matriarch turned embittered crone, who died under the Square’s Christmas tree. Pauline presiding over the launderette, with a cup of tea and Dot Cotton to gossip with, was a delicious soap double-act.
As fans know, this is only scratching the surface. There has been hardman Phil Mitchell bug-eyed on crack, and shot—twice. There was the moment his brother Grant found out his wife Sharon had been having sex with Phil, via a tape recording. There was poor Tiffany, lying dead in the street as the New Year’s bells of Big Ben rang out. When Peggy and Pauline clashed, you booked a ringside seat.
And there is poor Dot Cotton, the most memorable character on the show, the longest-suffering, whose burden has been the evil Nick, who watched him die as she considered all his crimes, and who was last seen being driven out of the Square by the cops having confessed to killing him. Which she didn’t. But Dot is a Christian, with a Bible passage to hand as ready as one of her beloved cigarettes—and she now judges herself to be a sinner for overseeing his final death (Nick was another cat-with-nine-lives character).
And dear Ian Beale, played by Adam Woodyatt, the longest serving cast member: a teenager when the show began in 1985, turned fish and chip shop magnate and now restaurant owner, one of whose wives tried to have him killed by a hitman, and who is now facing the outdoes-Greek-tragedy prospect that his daughter was killed by his son, whose mother and Ian’s just-married-for-a-second-time wife (and true love) Jane, helped cover up the crime.
They do like to keep it in the fa-amily in Albert Square.