One of EastEnders most controversial issue based storylines climaxes this week as evil paedophile Tony King is arrested for abusing his step daughter Whitney. Here we take a look back at some of the other often controversial issues the London based series has covered…
In June 1985, only a few months into the series, viewers were shocked by the death of toddler Hassan Osman who died in his sleep. The hard-pitting plot initiated the long decline of the tot’s mother Sue who eventually ended up detained in a secure mental hospital.
When Michelle Fowler fell pregnant at the tender age of 16 in 1985, an ‘whodunit’ over the father gave the fledgling soap opera a much-needed foothold in the ratings. The storyline earnt the man eventually revealed as being responsible for her predicament – Den Watts, the father of her best friend Sharon – the moniker ‘Dirty Den’ in the popular press.
In the lead up to the revelation that it was Den viewers saw Michelle interact with several of the male characters in Walford. This was done in order for viewers to be kept in the dark until it was revealed on-screen who’d got Michelle up the duff… duff …. duff. Other men in the frame included: Andy O’Brien, Tony Carpenter and Ali Osman. There was even a shocking rumour that her own brother Mark could be a suspect for paternity!
Michelle became a gym slip mum giving birth to baby Vicky in 1986. The storyline is widely credited with turning around EastEnders’ early fortunes.
The show first covered rape in 1988 when Kathy Beale was raped by her boss James Wilmott-Brown. Wilmott-Brown had taken a keen interest in Kathy much to the ire of her husband Pete. She, however, was less suspicious of his motives.
The rape took place at Willmott-Brown’s upmarket boozer, The Dagmar when he suggested barmaid Kath lag behind for an after-hours tipple. Kathy was too polite to decline. Wilmott-Brown then forced himself on poor Kathy who tried in vain to fight him off. Den Watts later found a tearful Kathy cowering in the deserted building and – with the help of his friends in The Firm – took revenge on Wilmott-Brown, reducing the interior of The Dagmar to a pile of ashes.
Kathy’s marriage to barrowboy Pete disintegrated as a result of the attack which saw Wilmott-Brown imprisoned for three years in 1989.
The serial had already touched upon the issue of murder with Nick Cotton killing Reg Cox in 1985 and Den seemingly meeting a watery end in the canal at the hands of The Firm in 1989 but in 1991 viewers were to be treated to another murder when pub landlord Eddie Royle was stabbed in the square gardens.
The main suspects in the case were Grant Mitchell and Clyde Tavernier. Grant hated Eddie with a passion and had previously beaten him up after Sharon revealed that Eddie had tried it on with her while Clyde had just had a furious argument with Eddie after Eddie offered him a backhander to lose a boxing match.
One of the main witnesses in the case was Nick Cotton who claimed that he saw Clyde standing over Eddie’s body holding the knife. This part of Nick’s statement was uncharacteristically true but it soon became clear that he was hiding something. Clyde went on the run with Michelle Fowler but the police intercepted their bid for freedom.
Eventually Dot wheedled the awful truth out of son Nick who admitted that he’d killed Eddie while on a wild comedown from heroin. Clyde was released and allowed to return home to his family while Nick was arrested for murder. Viewers were in for a later shock when in 1993 at the trial for the murder the jury found Nick not guilty.
Another controversial issue was touched upon in 1991 when the character of Mark Fowler revealed his status as HIV positive. At the time a lot of prejudice and ignorance surrounded the condition which perhaps makes this – for the time – the most controversial topic the show has covered.
In 1990 viewers saw Mark return to the Square but something seemed to be playing on his mind. There was a shock in store when he eventually confided in his then girlfriend Diane Butcher that he was HIV positive. Mark struggled to break the news to his parents, Pauline and Arthur, but eventually dropped the bombshell on boxing day 1991.
After Diane had left Walford Mark started visiting his ex-girlfriend Gill who was also suffering from HIV. He grew close to Gill and married her in 1992 but tragedy struck and Gill died not long after they were married.
Mark’s HIV remained a recurring story source in EastEnders, including the issue of fertility being touched on with his second wife Ruth and the character being outed publicly by an ignorant Peggy Mitchell, until Todd Carty was written out of the programme in 2003. Aware his health was deteriorating Mark headed off to travel and died off-screen of an aids related illness in 2004.
Before Tony King was even heard of, EastEnders tackled a similar storyline in 1991 when Disa O’Brien revealed she had been abused by her stepfather Ken. The seeds were sown for the storyline when Diane Butcher encountered a pregnant Disa whilst living rough in 1990. When a baby was dumped on her doorstep that xmas it didn’t take Diane long to realise who the mother was. Diane eventually located Disa who didn’t want to know at first, but relented and came to stay in the Square.
Things took a sinister turn when Ken relieved babysitter Dot of the baby, horrifying Disa who then admitted the awful truth about her stepfather’s actions and that he’s the baby’s father. Eventually mother and baby were reunited after a terrifying hostage showdown in a car park, while Disa thrashed out Ken’s deeply immoral behaviour with her own mum.
Affairs and cheating are of course a staple of soap operas, and EastEnders is no different in that regard. There’s plenty of cases of infidelity to select from over the years but the most famous one has to be Sharon cheating on Grant Mitchell with his brother Phil. Dubbed Sharongate the storyline is one of the most memorable affair storylines in the history of British soap, with the episode where Grant discovered the truth attracting north of 20 million viewers.
The affair began in 1992… Whilst Grant was out sinking jars with best friend Nigel, Sharon was at home pouring her heart out to Phil. One thing led to another and it wasn’t long before Sharon was doing the horizontal hokey cokey with her brother-in-law… the dirty cah! The affair continued intermittently until 1994 when it was finally outed in the Queen Vic via an unwittingly-made tape recording featuring Sharon and her bessie Michelle.
In 1996 the show shone a light on breast cancer when Peggy Mitchell discovered a lump on her breast. Daughter-in-law Tiffany acted as her confidante before she eventually told the rest of the family. Peggy underwent treatment for the cancer and was eventually given the all clear but she would later face a devastating blow when the disease recurred in 1999, forcing her to undergo a mastectomy.
The powerful storyline, which earnt Barbara Windsor a ‘Best Actress’ win at the British Soap Awards in 1999, touched upon themes of self-confidence and struck a chord with many viewers. The initial diagnosis also saw Peggy reflect on her awful reaction to neighbour Mark Fowler’s HIV.
The issue of Euthanasia was explored in 2000 when Ethel Skinner returned to Walford after a 3 year absence following a terminal cancer diagnosis. As Ethel grew weaker she put best friend Dot in a terrible predicament when she called on her to help end her suffering – an undertaking that would be massively at odds with Dot’s faith.
Dot refused point blank to even entertain the idea at first, but later wavered and voiced the dilemma to the vicar at her church who of course steered her away from the idea. On the night of Ethel’s birthday, however, Dot found her loyalty to her friend and her faith being tested once more and chose to help Ethel. Dot’s subsequent guilt led to her suffering a mental breakdown.
First touched upon in 2001 Kat when revealed to her shocked sister Zoe that she was her mother before going on to reveal that she’d been abused as a child by their paternal uncle. The dramatic week of episodes led to growth in the number of sex abuse cases being reported.
The current paedophilia based storyline the show is running has also helped victims with Chris Coghill who plays Tony King commenting: “We had a call from police saying a child realised the same thing was happening to her. We even had an email from a 60-year-old woman who said her life suddenly made sense after she realised what had happened to her as a child. Several viewers watching this have realised they have been the victims of abuse.”
Although Domestic violence was first covered in the series in 1989 when social worker Carmel Robert’s homelife became like one of her case studies, it most came to prominence with the Little Mo and Trevor storyline in the early 2000s.
Trevor made Little Mo’s life a misery, from burning her with an iron on one occasion (ironically she later knocked him out with one) to raping her on the bathroom floor to shoving her face into her christmas dinner. The storyline culminated in 2002 when Trevor kidnapped Little Mo and held her hostage at the Slaters. Trevor threatened to set the house alight but Little Mo called his bluff and in doing so actually managed to start a blaze herself. Little Mo got out alive, but the fire claimed Trevor and heroic firefighter Tom.
The storyline led to a spike in the number of cases of domestic violence being reported and even bought about a change in the law when the police were given powers to prosecute domestic abusers without the victim’s cooperation.
In 2006 Honey gave birth to daughter Janet who was diagnosed with the condition shortly afterwards. Honey struggled to accept her daughter and even contemplated having her adopted but when the threat of losing Janet was made real after she fell ill that Christmas, Honey had a change of heart.
Speaking about the storyline at the time, Carol Boys CE of the Down Syndrome Association commented: “We are delighted that such a high-profile series as EastEnders should choose to tackle head-on the issue of disability. Much of our work focuses on relaying the message that having a baby with Down’s syndrome is not the end of the world, and can indeed eventually be a positive experience for a family. We look forward to seeing the story unravel, and believe it will be a source of hope and inspiration for other parents in the same position as Billy and Honey.”