06 February 2010

EastEnders 25th Anniversary - Post 3

EastEnders 1980s gay couple, Colin and Barry. Colin was a middle class professional man, at home with his sexuality, Barry was a working class East-end lad, who felt pressure to conform to the "norm". The characters were criticised by some for being disgusting, and by others for not being allowed to show much warmth towards each other. But they were very much part of the brave beginnings of bringing gays out of the closet in UK TV soapland.

What made EastEnders different? Why did it originally outrage and delight to such a degree?

In my opinion, this was due to the show's uncompromising grimness - the setting of Albert Square, a few scandals involving early cast members, and the show's intense portrayal of social issues.

The show's left-wing sub text helped, too.

Soaps had "done" social issues before. Coronation Street had its moments right from the beginning, and Crossroads had bravely waded in in the mid-1960s. But it must be said that the issues were handled in a way that was thought to be suitable for the times. For instance, alcoholism could come about in the blink of an eye and could rapidly be overcome.

Were all viewers so much more "enlightened" in the 1980s that they could happily watch uncompromising portrayals of social issues in soaps? No, of course not, but what EastEnders seemed to be saying was: "Up yours, darlin', we're doin' it anyway!"

The thinking behind Producer Julia Smith's attitude to the social realism portrayed in the Albert Square saga can be found in our EastEnders 25th anniversary post 2.

Let's look at the portrayal of gay men in UK soaps from the 1960s to 1980...

The BBC radio soap, The Dales, apparently briefly featured a gay character in the late 1960s, and its successor, Waggoners' Walk (1969-1980), also approached the gay theme in the 1970s. But the character concerned "reformed" after he fathered a child with a local woman (who didn't know he was gay at the time) and got married. I've never known a gay man to "reform" - and why on earth should they?

Waggoners' Walk returned to the gay theme shortly before its axing was announced in 1980, with restaurant waiter Rob Pengelly announcing: "Girls don't turn me on at all!"

Little old working class me, brought up in a tightly bigoted atmosphere, thought: "There's going to be trouble now!" Nobody would have dared to make such an announcement where I lived!

But Waggoners' Walk was set in Hampstead, and the majority of the sophisticated, well-heeled characters took the news in their stride. Only brash, self-made businessman Matt Prior expressed any bigotry, and he soon got over it.

I seem to recall that Southern Television's early afternoon "drama series" (note: not soap!) Together (1980-1981) introduced a gay character - perhaps even a gay couple - circa 1981, not long before the series ended. Together had got off to a somewhat dowdy start in 1980, and it seemed to me at the time of the gay story-line that the writers were inspired more than somewhat by Rob Pengelly of Waggoners' Walk - and had decided to be more up-to-date.

But it's all very hazy, and the show, running only to two series and tucked away in the afternoon schedules, attracted little attention and soon disappeared - as did Southern TV.

And as for Rob of Waggoners' Walk, he got involved with Rocky Rowlands, an American who was internationally famous as a fashion designer.

Not something I could easily relate to.

EastEnders was different in that the characters were mainly working class and issues tended to explode, rather than be carefully discussed by people who would never have dreamt of dropping an aitch, as in Waggoners' Walk.

This was something that I, as a working class man from a thoroughly grotty back street, could identify with. There were sauce bottles and plates of mash on Albert Square tables, not Peter Tyson's latest experiment with herbs and spices. Lou Beale went to bingo - not to dinner with the editor of the Hampstead Herald.

EastEnders also went further than the Walk in the issues covered, shocking many in the process, and "infecting" other soaps.

And its gay men did not "reform", although poor Barry was under pressure to.

I do wonder if EastEnders would have come into existence without Brookside, another soap which sought '80s reality.

But whatever the truth of that, Albert Square's original groundbreaking impact, its thirst for social issues and "in your face" attitude, should not be ignored.

1 comment:

Mick said...

Even a conservatiove like me thinks Mary Whitehouse could be a little prudish sometimes. But she was also so right on so much that I think some kind of standards panel should have been made for her and other people of various opinions.

I also thought it was a bit of an excuse to say 'we believe in showing life as it is' to justify producers showing storylines on TV which seem to have become ever more sensational over the years. Nice things happen too but they seem more marginalised, even on Emmerdale.