There was a fake news story ricocheting around the internet this week that suggested that the flagship BBC soap opera Eastenders was being axed at Christmas after 29 years. Now, nobody seriously believed this was actually happening for longer than ten seconds (apart from anything else, even if you were going to pull the plug on Albert Square, it’s a fair bet you’d at least have the decency to let them reach their thirtieth anniversary before doing so) but the damage had already been done. By which, of course, I mean, hopes had already been raised.
What was remarkable in the initial reactions was the general air of grim relief voiced by people, as if the show was a patient in the last few stages of a terminal decline of a inevitable disease, one that everyone’s known about already for a good few years now, but never had the courage to talk about openly until now. Actually, that analogy might be pretty close to the truth.
For just a moment, it seemed like we could allow ourselves to hope for a couple of hours of primetime that didn’t have to involve actors pushing narrative by the medium of SHOUTING A LOT AT EACH OTHER, and it appeared the door had been opened, just a crack, to let in a whiff of fresh air. Sure, we already knew that the story was fake, but now the idea had been planted in our heads, and we allowed ourselves to dream of another world, one with quality TV. One without OzCabs. (Hang on; they do still have OzCabs, don’t they? It’s been a while since I last tuned in).
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t entirely snobbish forcing of a TV menu. Well, it is a bit. And lets be clear, I’m fully aware that writing (or acting, or directing) for Eastenders is somewhat beyond me. But I’m not advocating a return to a non-existent halcyon day of silver age BBC television. It’s not as if the BBC never did soaps before Eastenders. They had The Groves, and indeed, The Archers is one of the world’s longest running soaps. It was just that they never really had one that struck it big until Eastenders (and then it struck really big; panicking ITV, who already had Corrie. That’s why we flirted briefly withAlbion Market. Oh, yeah, you’d wiped Albion Market out of your mind, hadn’t you? Well, that’s OK, you can probably find the opening credits on youtube. We’ll wait.
But the fact of the matter is that soaps have never really looked all that comfortable on the BBC schedule. Yes, I know they get huge viewing figures, but that’s not really the point of the BBC. It shouldn’t be chasing audiences with a programme that simply doesn’t work in any real dramatic way. This is not to devalue the talents of writers, actors and directors producing a show 52 weeks a year, but that’s just the point: it’s 52 weeks a year. With a storyline that, by definition, simply can never be resolved. Not only that, but it’s hardwired into the DNA of the show that it has to stop every 28 minutes for a cliffhanger. That theme music doesn’t help, meaning that you are forced to contrive some very tenuous dialouge or dark looks (that are often just reaffirmations of the three previous cliffhangers).
TV has changed so much in the last 15 years, and we’re arguably at the latter end of the third silver age of TV. The first two, since you didn’t ask, are generally the 50s and 70s, although that’s really about US TV. But that’s instructive too, since it proves thatEastenders really has no place in primetime evening television. We consume our TV so differently now, binging on Netflix and the like. Indeed, a lot of the BBC ratings now comes from iplayer. We don’t really watch TV as a nation together anymore, unless it’s the World Cup Final or the Christmas Day episode of Doctor Who. And, yeah, OK, the ChristmasEastenders, just so that you can catch up on the year you’ve missed (someone will be mourning whoever died last year, and the couple who got married the previous Christmas will finally open that letter / tape / DVD that reveals they’ve been having an affair. Or something.)
Indeed, Eastenders could be flipped back to daytime TV – since, with all due respect, a daytime soap is exactly what it is, and leap those prime slots for something else. I’m not arguing for a return to Play For Today, since those days are likely long gone (although Sky, of all people, seem to be having a good crack at it). Certainly, it seems impossible now to end Eastenders even if they wanted to, ironically because it isn’t quite good enough. Nowadays, the drama we engage most with is shorter dramas with a smaller cast:Orange Is The New Black, Breaking Bad and the like. We know, someday, these stories will end. There is no such hope with Eastenders; the cast is too large, the stories continually evolving. IT CAN NEVER END. Even Corrie is restricted to a single street, more or less: if they needed to, they could engineer a finale where the entire road was knocked down to build a Lidl. With Eastenders, they’d need to blow up an entire postcode. It’s just too vast, too nebulous. When the programme begun, it was – at least in part – about two warring families (the Fowlers and the Beales). That was soon dispensed as we investigated the neighbourhood. Another reason that it would be difficult to call time on the Queen Victoria is another essential difference between the underlying ethos of our two top soap: whereas Coronation Street has always played up the importance of families and friends (bolstered by the less abrasive theme tune), Eastenders has had Albert Square as an inescapable and seductive rotten cancer that has its claws embedded deep into you. This was laid down by punk Mary’s V sign as she finally escaped (pretty sure that was scandal enough to make the front page of The Sun back in the day), and cemented by every character who finally returned five years after they’d fled. Even after dying.
In the era of iplayer and watching digital boxsets all in one go, there’s really no need for a half hour soap to be still taking up prime location on a BBC lineup. Again, that’s not to denigrate the show. It could be perfectly respectable on a online platform, and become a programme that we could fall in love with again.
And, of course: ‘Anyone can fall in love. It’s not hard to do .. ‘.
No? Anyone? Maybe another thing to check out on youtube, then.