05 February 2010

EastEnders 25th Anniversary - Post 2

Julia Smith and Tony Holland - creators of EastEnders.

On 14 March 1983, Julia Smith and Tony Holland were summoned to the office of David Reid, then head of the BBC's Series/Serials Department. Mr Reid had a proposition for the pair: the BBC had decided to start a popular bi-weekly serial (note: not "soap opera" - the BBC - and other programme producers - then frowned upon the phrase). Julia and Tony, who had previously worked together on Z Cars, Angels and District Nurse, were offered the roles of Producer and Script Editor.

The planned bi-weekly was intended to run every week of the year.

Initially, the show was to be set in a mobile home park. Julia and Tony did not like the idea at all.

They favoured a serial set in modern day London, a view later echoed by the new head of Series/Serials, Jonathan Powell.

And that led Julia and Tony to the East-end.

Filming in the real East-end presented various problems, but finally the vacant "Lot" at the Elstree Studios, previously used for the hugely successful first series of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, was decided upon as the setting for the new soap, er, sorry, bi-weekly, then provisionally titled E 8.

A purpose built East-end square would be erected on the Lot.

Julia and Tony flew off to Lanzarote in March 1984 to work on creating the characters.

There was to be a crusty old battle axe called Lou Beale; Lou's daughter, Pauline; Pauline's husband, Arthur Fowler; Pauline and Arthur's children, Michelle and Mark; Lou's son, Pete; his wife, Kathy, and son, Ian.

The show was to reflect the multi-ethnic East-end of the 1980s: Saeed and Naima Jeffery, he a quarter English, three-quarters Bengali, and she wholly Bengali, would run the local shop.

A character originally called Alan Carpenter (later changed to Tony) hailed from the Caribbean and would live with his son, Kevin (later changed to Kelvin) in the Square.

Then there was Chris (later changed to Ali) and Sue Osman. Ali was a Turkish Cypriot, Sue was English. They would run the cafe just off the Square.

Dr Harold Legg would be the area's wise, Jewish doctor. He'd lost his wife when a bomb was dropped on Albert Square during the Second World War.

And, as this was the 1980s, what about "upwardly mobile" types? Julia and Tony came up with Debbie Wilkins and Andy O'Brien. They weren't yuppies, Andy was a nurse, Debbie worked in a bank, but they weren't typical Albert Square types by any means.

Back down-to-earth again: Ethel May Skinner was an elderly local woman who doted on her dog, initially intended to be a Yorkie, but, as it turned out, a Pug. This was, of course, "Ethel's little Willy".

Mary Smith was to be a semi-literate young Punk, from the North of England. A single parent, she brought her baby daughter, Annie, to live in the Square.

"Lofty" George Holloway would be the area's misfit, a gawky young man who worked at the local pub, cash in hand.

And what about the family at the pub? Whilst in Lanzarote, Julia and Tony fleshed out the characters of Jack, Pearl and Tracey Watts - Den, Angie and Sharon to you and me. The family was originally intended to have an Alsatian dog called "Prince", but this later morphed into an apricot Standard Poodle called Roly.

A later dreamt-up addition to the original cast of EastEnders characters was Nick Cotton - a thoroughly nasty geezer!

The building of Phase One of the permanent Albert Square set at Elstree in the summer of 1984. It wasn't real. But it sure looked it. The Queen Vic and Lou Beale's house are well on the way, and the gardens in the centre of the Square are looking good.

The first episode of EastEnders was originally intended to be broadcast in January 1985, but this was postponed to February.

And what a shock the show was!

Old Reg Cox was found in his grubby bedsit - close to death, Nick Cotton stuck his fist through one of the Queen Vic's windows, Pauline Fowler was pregnant and her loving mother, Lou, told her to get rid of the kid...

And all in episode one!

Brookside, which began on Channel 4's opening night in November 1982, had already begun the process of de-cosying English soap opera, but EastEnders took things to the next level.

Like Brookside, the show had a left wing sub text ("Don't blame me - it's that cow in No 10!" said Lou Beale to son-in-law Arthur Fowler when he was feeling down because he was unemployed and "Community spirit went out when the Tories came in!" said Pete Beale) but Albert Square was also a place of pot boiling secrets...

Who was Dirty Den Watts' long-term mistress? Who was the father of teenager Michelle Fowler's baby? Who was the terrifying Walford Attacker - was it someone who lived in the Square? Was Pete Beale really Simon Wicks' father?

Often at the centre of the drama, were Den and Angie Watts at the Queen Vic - a married couple who had a spectacularly destructive relationship. and yet, bizarrely, seemed to need the other.

Compelling viewing.

Mrs Mary Whitehouse, clean up TV campaigner, didn't think so:

"It is at our peril that we allow this series. Its verbal aggression and its atmosphere of physical aggression, its homosexuality, its blackmailing pimp and its prostitute, its lies and deceit and its bad language, cannot go unchallenged."

And fancy showing the omnibus on a Sunday!

Julia Smith said:

"I think I'm just as moral as Mrs Whitehouse. And I care possibly more deeply. The difference is she believes in sweeping things under the carpet and pretending they don't exist. I believe in showing what does exist and preparing people for the world they live in. My prime aim is to entertain, my second is to inform. I do not preach. All I do is lead viewers to reach their own conclusions by having different characters representing different points of view. It would be nonsense to portray the East-end without any semblance of violence. It is a very violent place. The people there are not very literate. They express themselves in raucous laughter and hugs, not careful discussion, and it can all turn into anger very quickly. It's a much more physical way of life. I've never been frightened of handling controversial subjects. You can tackle anything, however early in the evening, providing you do it in the right spirit."

Some may criticise that EastEnders did not entirely reflect reality. The lens used was a very trendy left-wing lens indeed, and problems like misandry soon began to pervade on the back of that. I think those uttering such criticisms are right to some degree.

However, the shock waves sent out by Brookside and EastEnders ensured that the 1980s would change English soap opera. Forever.

Soaps today are far less political, far more sensationalised, but the grittiness and the lefty approach to social issues can all be traced back to the Close and the Square. TV soaps did issues before the '80s, but the approach was far less "in your face", far less relentless, and sometimes just plain daft.

Looking in on the action at the Rovers, or at Emmerdale Farm, or at the Crossroads Motel, you could spend lots of time feeling cosy.

But not in Brookside Close - and most certainly not in Albert Square!

Sandy Ratcliff was champion moaner Sue Osman in the early years of EastEnders. And yet somehow I liked the character. I sensed a vulnerability which made me feel for Sue, even before the cot death of her baby son, Hassan, in episode 36, broadcast in June 1985, which was a shattering piece of drama.

Click on the "EASTENDERS" label below for much more '80s Actual Albert Square info.

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