Much has been made of the supposed ‘woes’ facing Coronation Street with falling ratings and poorly recieved characters and storylines but just a few months ago it was EastEnders that was at the end of bad press. Justin Mason writes for ATV Today about why he thinks the BBC soap is in still in trouble.
All soap operas have their low periods, its acceptable when a show such as EastEnders is played out four times a week and with a wide variety of characters and situations it is no doubt very difficult to produce continual high quality programming. A programme that is currently in its 26th year and with numerous awards for individuals as well as the show itself, it has become hard to stomach the complete dip in quality and talent not only on-screen but behind the scenes also, in particular the writing and producing. Good strong characters, who are the heart and soul of Walford are getting less and less and slowly being replaced with newer, younger and in my opinion less talented actors. Where did it all go wrong?
The beginnings of the downfall was the loss of Diedrick Santer as executive producer, he seemed to know the characters old and new. He was instrumental in bringing back such greats as Carol and Billie Jackson, Bianca, Ricky and Janine Butcher and Sam Mitchell to name but a few, he also brought us new characters such as the Masood Family, Christian Clarke and Lucas Johnson. His big hit came from introducing further Mitchells to the already established clan. Archie Mitchell was a force and the vision that Diedrick had that through this one man it would ultimately lead to the destruction of the entire Mitchell dynasty. It was great viewing! A family who had spent the best part of 20 years on top in Walford were broken apart by one man. The show was at its best again, winning most awards and building in ratings as Archie’s rampage not only happened while he was alive but continued in his death, it showed true realistic elements that a small community such as Walford would remain devastated by emotional destruction for some time after.
After the special live episode in 2010, Diedrick quit his job and was replaced with Bryan Kirkwood of Hollyoaks fame. I must admit I was a fan and excited about the prospect, he had taken Hollyoaks from strength to strength and I had no doubt that he would continue this at EastEnders. The bitter blow of Barbara Windsor quitting her role as Peggy Mitchell would be hard for any new producer to cope with but he fought back bringing Kat and Alfie Moon back to our screens who were audience favourites. However Peggy’s departure may have been a bigger deal than first thought, after losing Pauline a few years earlier I thought the show wouldn’t have the same edge but it did, however as Peggy looked up at the Queen Vic took a deep breath and walked off, I feel she took the show and its true essence with her. Kat and Alfie came back with a blast and instead of bring them in strong and ready to take on the Queen Vic and become the next generations of historic landlords, they were weaker, with repeated storylines – they fall out of love, they fall back in love, I hate you, I love you etc. We had seen all this before!
There were reports at the time Bryan was going to “sex up” the show, these reports were denied but the evidence suggests otherwise. He axed older characters, such favourites as Charlie Slater and Minty Peterson and has introduced younger, attractive men in the form of the new Moon’s, already we have seen episodes where they are unnecessarily shirtless, a vice he used often on Hollyoaks to promote tanned rippling muscles for the younger viewers, which is acceptable on a show like Hollyoaks, but EastEnders to me has always been a family show, particularly being a Londoner, I see elements of my own family and friends in different characters. It appeals to all generations and has always up to now remained balanced, it has always had attractive men young and older but has never felt the need to turn them into meat to be ogled. Perhaps it is a distraction from the appalling writing?
The depth is not there in the writing, this is clear in the lazy attempts at reusing storylines such as Kat and Alfie on and off relationship and having Max and Tanya begin an affair, lets not forget this is the woman who buried him alive. Would she really just bend so easily? It’s becoming less and less believeable the more I watch.
It has not all been bad. There have been glimmers of hope, which in some cases have been dashed such as introducing Lydia, Janine’s grandmother. A wonderful character with true battleaxe potential, something EastEnders has missed since Pauline’s departure. Audiences were warming to her, despite a sudden unexpected cast change, she was good, and she was believeable. Echoes of the past in the form of Lou Beale sprang to mind. I do not know the reason behind the character being killed off but I do not feel such a cruel end to a character that had so much potential was necessary, if the actress did not want to continue or the show felt she was not needed, pack her off somewhere, a care home or abroad that always leaves the audience with a sense of hope the character may come back. To kill off such a brilliant character so soon to me seemed pointless introducing her in the first place.
The controversial baby swap storyline I felt was acceptable. Finally a good, strong different storyline! I didn’t think it was beyond the realms of realism considering Ronnie Mitchell at that point had all her three children die, Danielle, her miscarriage and then James Branning, I found it perfectly acceptable that a woman under those circumstances may very well do something as drastic as swap a baby. The reveal however was so quick and there was no dramatic build up like so many big storyline reveals of the past, which EastEnders have become famous for. Such reveals as Den’s Christmas Day Divorce Papers for Angie, Max and Stacey’s affair revealed in front of the whole family at Christmas, Danielle’s Identity at Peggy’s Wedding. It just seemed to happen without much thought and the conclusion of having Kat forgive her just seemed lazy once again, a brazen character such as Kat, I feel would not easily forgive. I understand the storyline had to be rewritten at a quick pace due to audience backlash but when picking a storyline as controversial as that, measures should be put into place to deal with the viewers. Did he really think people would not complain? If you are going to be brave, bold and daring you must have a back up plan for when the audience doesn’t respond the way you want.
With news that another old favourite, Pat Evans alias Pam St Clement is to leave the show at the end of the year is another bitter blow to the show. I am finding it more and more difficult to entertain the idea of watching all four episodes a week, the content is lacking. I don’t hold the answer, perhaps EastEnders is too bigger a show for Bryan’s shoulders, perhaps he should stick to teenage-based television but EastEnders needs help. Perhaps a different sort of producer, one that knows and feels the characters of the East End, knows their past inside out. Laying the blame totally at Bryan Kirkwood’s feet might be considered harsh but he is executive producer and ultimately the buck stops with him. Perhaps it is the recession and cutbacks, budgets are tighter and sometimes that can mean things do not remain at a high standard. Fans are being alienated every day, I find myself having it on as background to whatever I am doing, rather than actually sitting and watching it.
So what does the future hold for EastEnders? Well in my opinion it is looking very bleak and if something isn’t done soon I fear the show may never fully recover, which would be a shame as for me EastEnders is very much a British Institution.