16 February 2015
EastEnders 30th: How Julia Smith Insisted On The Cast Looking Dowdy Back In 1985...
Thank gawd for Angie, one of the few who brought some fashion reality to Albert Square!
30 years of EastEnders! And, of course, most of us who were there will fondly recall the soap's beginning on 19 February, 1985. But there was a mystery back then which troubled me...
Why did so many of the characters look so dowdy? With the exception of Angie and a few others, the residents of Albert Square looked thoroughly grotty.
And this, slap-bang in the middle of the 1980s, a time of bright colours, big shoulders, huge hair and other marvels.
I thought at the time that they must be having it rough in the old East End, although unlikely as rough as the residents of Albert Square (a newspaper article a couple of years later, contrasted the lives of the residents of a real East End square with our Albert, and found that people were actually rather better off and things were nowhere near as aggro.).
However, the brilliant but somewhat misguided Julia Smith wanted to set the show "uncompromisingly in the 1980s" - and by that, we mean the trendy lefty's view of the 1980s, not the real 1980s. It was unthinkable for these wine bar-frequenting TV types to present anybody as having a good time in the Thatcher/Reagan era.
And so the reality - that many real '80s East Enders were spending lots of dosh on looking posh (in the '80s sense of the word, of course!) and rather enjoying themselves with the credit boom and whatnot had to be ignored.
June Hudson, original costume designer of EastEnders, had done her research. In 1984, she had taken a look at real EastEnders. No lack of bright up-to-date fashions, nor dosh either. An interview with her in the Radio Times this year reveals:
... the two women [June Hudson and producer Julia Smith] clashed over the look of EastEnders. “Julia said, ‘You should be able to get all the clothes from Oxfam.’ But I’d done my homework, weeks of research in the East End, in Ridley Road and Roman Road markets. I noticed how bright and fashionable the people were. I felt I had to make a stand with Julia over the look, the brightness of real East Enders. It was all about pride and image in the East End in the early 80s. I was amazed by the sheer cash, people getting wads of notes out of their pockets as thick as your wrist."
Although the early episodes achieved a careworn, grungy patina, June Hudson stuck to her guns and several characters looked smart and colourfully dressed. And soon she felt vindicated: “The Sunday Mirror ran a story ‘The bright and fashionable East End – will the BBC get it right?’ Somebody stuck it on Julia’s door... and it wasn’t me.”
Several years later, after they’d both moved on from EastEnders, June Hudson had lunch with Julia Smith at BBC Television Centre, and her former boss, the Godmother of EastEnders, finally conceded on the “bright and fashionable” East End: “D’you know, I think you could have been right there, June.”
Michelle tells Den he's the father of the sprog she's expecting. Great storyline. Great characters. Great acting. But where the hell did 'Chelle get that cardie?
What a shame that the wine bar leftie TV execs marred the early 'Enders episodes. Angie and Sharon and a few others were fortunate, but poor old 'Chelle! Never saw a girl her age dressed like that! But then, the "impartial" BBC had it in for Thatcher by the mid-1980s (I couldn't stick her myself, but things were bright and glitzy more than not, it must be said!) and TV execs like Julia Smith were determined to (mis) represent life like wot it was lived. That was all part of the 1980s scene.
However, Albert Square was real in some ways. I lived somewhere very similar, though in a different part of England, and there were loads of characters round my way like Lou Beale and Ethel Skinner and Dot Cotton. The crime rate was nowhere near as high, although my neighbourhood was dog-rough, but hey, EastEnders was leftie "Isn't Thatcher terrible?" soapland, so things had to look grim. And, of course, the 1980s in my poor-as-could-be area were much more dressy than Walford, and there seemed to be a lot more aspiring going on.
EastEnders was still must-watch viewing for me back then. The social issues and abrasive characters were a tremendous breath of fresh air in the world of soap operas, following on the good (similarly leftie) work of Brookside, which had begun in November 1982.
So... happy birthday, EastEnders!
By the way, I've still got my pink linen Miami Vice-style jacket from 1985. Looked so good with a neon blue mesh vest and the sleeves pushed up.
It was £10.99 from my local market.
Too dear for Albert Square's menfolk, of course...
All Thatcher's fault, of course! :)