In the first episode of EastEnders (19 February 1985), one of the longest running TV soap operas in the world, Reg Cox is found half-dead and stinking in a filthy garret after languishing there for days. For the next half an hour, the members of the community of Walford – the fictional East London borough where the show is set – are introduced to us one by one: who will take responsibility for this unloved ‘cantankerous’ old man nobody could give a ‘toss about’? Lou Beale, Albert Square’s matriarch and one of its main gossipmongers, insists that charity begins at home: ‘We’ll take care of our own, thank you very much.’ Her friend Ethel Skinner laments the passing of the ‘good ol’ days’, when ‘we might have had a few fleas but at least we knew our neighbours [and] everybody cared for each other.’
The troubling message is that in these changed times no one knows what’s going on behind their neighbours’ locked doors – or even in their own home. The parallel plotline in this first episode – a key structure in all soap operas – is about Lou’s daughter, Pauline, who has been hiding the fact that she’s pregnant from her family. ‘It’s all strangers now,’ Lou complains when she finds out, ‘even the people you know.’ As both these pieces of news – Reg Cox, Pauline Fowler – start to fly around the square, the show’s paradigmatic form of suspense becomes clear, along with the principle that will keep it running for nearly forty years and counting. There will be no secrets – or there will only be secrets – in Albert Square.
Women are the moral barometers of life in Walford – in particular, Lou and Ethel, whose special status stems from their memories of the Second World War. They were the first two characters established by the creators of the show, Tony Holland and Julia Smith (Ethel was based on a woman Holland met in a pub in Hackney). On Boxing Day 1988, seven million people watched ‘Civvy Street’, a prequel to the show that provides a backstory for all the main characters who were alive in 1942. This was where the community had its roots, amid the trauma of war. Reg turns out to have been a petty criminal and would-be seducer, shunned as he tries to use his black-market chocolate to woo Lou (‘Above board, that’s my motto. I don’t believe in cheating’ is her put-down). Ethel emerges with Lou from an air-raid shelter to discover that her entire family has been wiped out by a doodlebug.
In a spin-off novella based on the series – the first of twelve such books by Hugh Miller – Dr Legg, the GP who in the first episode will tend to both the pregnant Pauline and the comatose Reg, is married to a young nurse who is killed by an unexploded bomb in the garden of their newly bought home. Dr Legg, whose last appearance in the series was in 2019, never remarried. At the same time, a fierce optimism – talk of Beveridge and the welfare state – is rising from the ashes (‘a whole new world’, in Lou’s words). Lou’s husband, Albert, returns from the war haunted by what he has suffered and seen in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Trauma makes him impotent for a time, but the novella ends with the birth of Lou’s twins, Pete and Pauline, two days after the German surrender.
The war casts a long shadow, and these people will prove as damaged as they are tenacious. By the end of the first episode, it’s clear that belonging here carries with it the threat of violence, past, present or to come. Nick Cotton starts a fight and is thrown out of the Queen Vic, the pub at the heart of the series, by the landlord, Dennis Watts (later to become famous as ‘Dirty Den’), who looks down appalled at the blood on his white shirt. Cotton will turn out to be an arch-villain, one of the first killers living on the square. A phone call to Dr Legg from the hospital reveals that Reg wasn’t suffering from alcoholic neglect but from a major head injury: someone has assaulted him.
It is 1985, two years after Margaret Thatcher’s second election victory, the beginning of the end of the welfare state in which Lou, like so many in the postwar country, had invested her dreams. Perhaps, EastEnders suggests, this might be the real reason things are going wrong: ‘Community spirit went out the window,’ Pete Beale observes, ‘when the Tories come in.’ Pauline’s husband, Arthur, has just been made redundant – the only thing getting in the way of their happiness at the prospect of a new child. ‘That cow at Number Ten,’ her mother elaborates, is the one to blame. (EastEnders may well have played its part in provoking the Conservative Party’s repeated attempts to revoke the BBC licence fee.) Over the years, such political asides have been a steady accompaniment to the series as it charts the impact of social disadvantage on working lives.
But EastEnders is not, or not only, a slice-of-life drama. Like all soap operas, like all operas, it repeatedly oversteps the limit. The idea of ‘digging the dirt’ is given a whole new meaning, as if the show’s task is to burrow into the community unconscious and come up with truths that are both in your face and impossible to see. As the series clocks up year after year of staying power, every narrative thread becomes the memory of itself. What matters increasingly is what the characters remember of what happened. In innumerable scenes someone summons up, recalls, or tries and mostly fails to flee or deny their own past. Characters leave and return to Walford East all the time (the sounds of the Underground are a frequent and reassuring background hum), but the spoken and unspoken assumption is that no one ever completely escapes from Albert Square.
Cut to today and – at the risk of sounding like Ethel Skinner bemoaning the ‘good ol’ days’ – it’s hard not to feel that everything has got worse. Homophobic violence has returned to London’s streets, and – reflecting the times – some of the once most proud gay characters in EastEnders have been driven back into the closet. When, in November 1987, the show staged the first gay kiss on a British TV soap (on the forehead!), and then the first kiss on the lips in January 1989, many people came out in response, happily undeterred by Piers Morgan who, true to form, described it as a ‘love scene between yuppie poofs’. Being on the side of emancipation hasn’t prevented the recent staging of a gay rape scene (as the contagion of violence spreads across the square, no one, no community is spared). The whiff of racism in the first episode – what is the world coming to, Lou asks, when it is ‘Asians who notice you are missing’? – has now given way to an assault on a local mosque and a plot to blow up a club by a young fascist, Aaron, who so laments what he sees as the loss of the true England that he is willing to entertain the possibility that his own sister will be killed in the blast.
When it emerges that Chantelle Atkins, a mixed-race woman, was murdered by her white solicitor husband, Gray, the Asian shopkeeper, Suki Panesar, doesn’t hesitate to accuse the whole ‘so-called’ community of having turned a blind eye: ‘You may think these people care, but I am under no illusions’ (‘these people’ is shorthand for whites). The community is no longer just negligent, but violently, racially, riven. At the time of his wife’s death, which Gray passed off as an accident, everyone rallied round the murderer. Now, to add insult to injury, the same people are ignoring the fate of Suki’s family: her son, Kheerat, has been arrested and is facing life imprisonment after unmasking Gray and nearly killing him in a fight. But ‘all everyone is doing,’ Suki observes, ‘is standing around gossiping and wringing their hands.’ For Kathy Beale (another of the longest running characters, once married to Pete), something has been irrevocably destroyed: ‘the joy’s gone, the trust.’ Until that moment, she had loved the square ‘because of how different we all are’.
It was two years before Gray was identified as a domestic abuser and serial killer – he murdered two others in that time. Why did it take so long for his crimes to come to light, when soaps tend to dispatch their abusers efficiently? Suki’s description of people standing by gossiping and wringing their hands would be as fair a description of the viewer as of anyone on the square. Which suggests that one of the driving impulses of EastEnders today is to lay bare the potential complicity of every one of us in racial and sexual crimes. It is of course a property of the thriller to let the audience or reader into the deadliest secrets before they are discovered by anyone in the story. To this extent, EastEnders is merely highlighting a formal difficulty inherent in the genre: the more convincingly a killer is portrayed, the less credible it starts to seem that everyone around them didn’t realise. Hence the furious row between Chantelle’s parents about which of them deep down always knew the truth about Gray and, if they knew, why they did nothing to save their own daughter.
The worst moment in EastEnders that we can remember is the scene, screened on 8 September 2020, the second episode after lockdown, when Gray demands that in order to ‘save their marriage’ Chantelle must enact their favourite marital ‘game’. She has to submerge herself completely in the bath for two full minutes while he stands by timing her, snapping his fingers when the two minutes are done. (The risk to life starts, apparently, after two minutes underwater; it takes four minutes without oxygen for brain cells to die.) As well as being a vile display of male domination and of a woman at the end of her tether, the scene was playing with the pandemic requirement that for months dictated the actors’ every move: they couldn’t come within striking or touching distance of one another. The same rule determined the course of the murder: Gray lunges towards Chantelle when she says she is leaving him – after threatening to make her watch him strangle their children in their beds – and she crashes onto the open dishwasher, landing on a sharp knife that pierces the back of her neck. She is not dead yet, but Gray, on the verge of calling for help, instead flees into the street, flings her phone into a bin, creates an alibi by dropping in for her bedtime milk at Suki’s store – ‘she can’t get to sleep without it,’ he carefully informs Suki – before heading to the Queen Vic for a bit of banter about married life. He goes back home only when it is more or less safely too late. It’s a meticulous piece of choreography, all the more disturbing because the whole rigmarole is in the service of social distancing on the set. A fabricated murder pays its perverse tribute to those dying in real life off-screen.
It is a commonplace today to talk of the lasting impact of trauma. But in this context soap opera, precisely because it runs through the generations, can be seen as the perfect platform for exploring the longevity and depth of trauma’s effects. Over the years, and long before #MeToo or the dramatic upsurge of abuse during lockdown, EastEnders has provided a study of sexual and domestic violence. Too much for some: one critic, Mark Lawson, complained that the prevalence of rape was making the programme ‘impossible to write or to act’, and that the series, by exploiting the topic in the service of ratings, was therefore a form of violence in itself.
For others, the stories of Kathy Beale and of Whitney Dean, to take two of the square’s most famous repeat victims, have unlocked another door. Again, you could argue that this is an issue intrinsic to the form, that uncovering domestic abuse follows logically from the ability of soap opera to get inside people’s homes. Alfred Hitchcock praised TV for putting ‘murder back into the home where it belongs’. It is behind closed doors that violence takes place: the majority of victims are known to their abusers, and assault on the streets by a stranger, though it makes the headlines, is comparatively rare. (‘Abusers always work from home’ in the words of a poster that appeared all over London during the pandemic.) At a time when cases of domestic violence are soaring – the new femicide – this is another reality that needs to be identified.
When she was fourteen Kathy Beale was raped, resulting in a child she gave up for adoption. Later she was raped again, by James Willmott-Brown, a slick entrepreneur who had given her a job at his wine bar, and who will return decades later to stalk her. The scene in which she confronts him has become legendary – not just because she grabs him by the balls, and threatens to serve them up to him in a sandwich. As the actress who plays Kathy, Gillian Taylforth, has pointed out, more than ten of the fifteen pages of the dialogue in the scene were hers. Having announced he is terminally ill, then repeating the original offence by insisting that the sex was consensual and, as a final insult, asking her to join him in his dying days, Willmott-Brown spends most of the scene pinned to his chair by her torrent of words. He dies soon afterwards of a heart attack.
Like Kathy, Whitney was abused as a child. Aged twelve, she was groomed and ‘seduced’ by Tony King, her guardian’s fiancé, who is eventually sent to jail and kills himself in his cell. It was the first time the theme of underage abuse had been broached in a British soap opera, with the Daily Mirror calling it ‘one of the darkest and most disturbing storylines’ the series had ever attempted (there were more than two hundred complaints). But the story was carefully developed with advice from the NSPCC, and it won EastEnders a Royal Television Society Award in 2009. This, too, is violence transmitted down the generations: in episodes broadcast in 2019, King’s son, Leo, appears on the square and, without revealing his identity, seduces Whitney to avenge his father’s death. After realising the truth, she confronts him in another extraordinary scene, in which she recounts her abuse while saying almost in the same breath that she loved her abuser. All this is at considerable risk to herself: she is locked in a hotel room with Leo. And it is certainly a risk to any future legal case, since the merest hint of attachment to an alleged abuser is enough to get a rape case thrown out of court, if it even gets that far. Later, Leo stalks her and attacks, at which point she stabs him fatally.
The only good rapist is a dead rapist. Killing an abuser – though the writers took care to make Whitney’s stabbing of Leo an act of self-defence – is a legitimate response to sexual crime. Such a proposition may once have seemed outrageous, but it’s an argument now being made by the campaigners challenging the courts to overturn the convictions of women imprisoned for killing their violent partners. Sally Challen, released on appeal in 2019 after nine years in jail for killing her coercive husband, is only the most famous UK example. In a bizarre twist, Gray defends Whitney in court, offering a speech that voices the slow burn of dread in the life of an abused woman. He is brilliant – after all, he knows exactly what he is talking about. By ventriloquising his own murdered wife, Gray is performing his only true gesture of contrition.
On the Near Pure Evil Wiki, a fan-made database of some of the worst people in fiction, Gray Atkins is listed as a ‘charismatic abuser’, his crimes including assault, domestic abuse, torture, death threats, theft, murder, uxoricide, perverting the course of justice, attempted filicide, incrimination, breaking and entering, and kidnapping his own children. (Those admitted into the halls of ‘Pure Evil’ also include Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, who likes to shoot people in the head with a cattle gun, and Lucifer from the video game Dante’s Inferno.) Strangely, the further Gray slips into caricature – one of the rare characters to do so – the more believable he becomes, another prerogative of soap operas being to inflate horrors no one wants to see.
Men in EastEnders, despite or perhaps because of its uncompromising calling out of the worst abusers, are for the most part given a more sympathetic ride. ‘Psychotic thugs’ and ‘loveable villains’, usually a bit of both, is the show’s enduring and endearing male style. However ghastly or dangerous, most of the men are given some redeeming backstory and/or saving grace, though no character on the square is ever let off the hook completely. After all, in a place where everyone is always sticking their noses into everyone else’s business, everyone is morally implicated in – and therefore morally accountable for – everyone else’s life. EastEnders endlessly works to re-create the community whose loss has been repeatedly lamented ever since that first episode.
One regular pattern is for men to be pushed to the edge of a cliff without ever quite going over the top. Phil Mitchell, perhaps the most famous of them, never exactly kills anyone himself, though he repeatedly and casually orders the dispatch of anybody who stands in his way or gets up his nose (in the world of the gangster, the best way to avoid dying is to deal out death). It’s only recently that Phil’s crimes have caught up with him for good, or so it seems. Although he has been jailed many times and the bets are on that he will somehow, as always, get out, he is now in prison for life, his only chance of release being to become a grass. That would be so much at odds with his own sense of criminal honour that it would destroy him – not just in his own eyes, but as a character whose entire credibility rests on it. Grant, his brother, whose ruthlessness made Phil look tame (until he left the series, allowing Phil to step into his shoes), had his cliff-edge moment too: he was, we are told, traumatised by his service in the Falklands war. This was another dig at the warmongering Thatcher, alongside whose crimes – the series almost says – all others fade in comparison.
The episode in which Grant discovers that Phil has slept with his wife, Sharon Watts, was one of the most watched in the history of the series, broadcast to an audience of 25 million in October 1994 and staged at what was meant to be Phil and Kathy’s engagement party. ‘Did I marry the wrong man?’ is the question both Sharon and Kathy found themselves asking as they moved sexually and maritally between the two brothers. It is part of the genius of EastEnders that each character is wholly unique – ‘in soap, character is destiny,’ Allison Pearson wrote in objecting to what she felt was Sharon’s implausible exit in 1995 – and at the same time almost perfectly interchangeable with any number of others, making the series a sort of cross between musical chairs and a Punch and Judy show (‘a Punch and Judy show’ is the way Angie Watts describes her marriage to Dirty Den in the very first episode).
By now, almost everyone has slept with almost everyone else. In Secrets from the Square, a series of revealing cast interviews broadcast in 2020 while EastEnders was suspended during lockdown, several, mainly male, actors competed over whose character had had the most affairs (affairs not being something of which women tend to boast). Max Branning, another of the square’s killers, came top with fifteen, closely followed by his brother, Jack. Incest often seems to be just beneath the surface, occasionally bursting into life: when Sharon fell for and married her half-brother, it wasn’t quite incest since she was the adopted daughter of the father they shared; biological half-siblings having a baby together certainly would have been (‘You haven’t got your sister pregnant, have you?’) if it hadn’t turned out that the suspicion was false.
To the question ‘what is a woman?’ one answer provided by EastEnders would be a fighter. Stacey Dooley, presenting Secrets from the Square, wasn’t completely wrong when she suggested that the women were ‘cheeky and strong’, and the men ‘a bit rubbish’. Never purely, or only, victims, the central women are survivors, not only of abuse, but of life. They are survivors of alcoholism, bulimia, postpartum psychosis: sufferings that pass from generation to generation, giving the endurance on which the series relies another anguished twist. In a current plotline, 11-year-old Lily Slater fears she will be next in line for bipolar disorder, which has already afflicted her mother, Stacey Slater, and her grandmother, Jean Slater, who, hoping to join a dead former lover, recently tried to drown herself. As a young mother, Stacey had stood on a rooftop with her baby and called on God to take them both, her ability to tell this story a sign that she has come out the other side (‘being there to tell the tale’ and all that).
These are women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Like the patterns of soap opera itself, mental illness recurs. It is rarely amenable to definitive treatment. Another of the world’s worst kept secrets, it is something for which women must always be prepared. Not only women, of course: one male character’s recent major schizophrenic episode was partially triggered by racism. Without a hint of idealisation, mental illness is presented as a frightening facet of life but one that can also reveal human mettle.
The answer to the question ‘what is a man?’ may be that he is someone who tries and mostly fails to stay on the right side of the law. (Given the life chances in a struggling working-class community, managing to do so even partly is something of a miracle.) Only criminals and heroes, Freud suggested, are permitted to break the law. The men of EastEnders tend to be a bit of both. But these distinctions don’t quite hold. There are woman villains all over the place. Janine Butcher has killed two of her four husbands to date, and tried to kill a third. One of the most high-risk plotlines involved Mick Carter, landlord of the Queen Vic for close on a decade, who turns out to have conceived a child at the age of twelve when being abused by Katy Lewis, a social worker who wormed her way into his affections after his mother abandoned her family. Such moments shouldn’t be read as EastEnders trying to cover all the options, aiming for balance by showing that women can be abusers too – a fact that is well enough known. Rather, the series is offering a larger lesson which potentially sweeps up everyone. All it takes is one shuffle of the cards for anyone to find themselves in a bad place.
Finally, one refrain runs through the series, mostly when things have come to a terrible pass, and that is the idea of normality. How, given the state of the world, can anyone be expected to build, live, maintain anything that can be seen as approaching a ‘normal’ life? It is a common myth – a myth now in its neoliberal incarnation – that hard times are the exception, that perfection is something everyone can and should aim for, and that not being able to manage your life is a sign of individual failure, rather than, say, of structural inequality, or systematic racism. This is a fantasy of attainment – anyone can make it to the top – that is used to keep people in line. When Chelsea Atkins, Gray’s second wife and the mother of his newborn son, discovers the truth about her husband and plays her part in bringing him to justice, she is at first determined to give up her baby for adoption without trace, so that he will grow up with no idea of the past, will never find himself on the ‘internet searching his dad’s name’. All she wants, she tells her mother, is for him to have a ‘normal’ family. ‘Just so you know,’ her mother responds, ‘there is no such thing.’ Or, as a psychotherapist once said to me, moments of stability where everything seems to fall into place, far from being the ‘norm’ in any life, are more like interruptions.
With the culture wars raging, we are living in a time when racism, misogyny, sexual violence and homophobic prejudice, which have long been staples in EastEnders, are on the rise. Despite the official rhetoric and denials, in the UK pretty much all of this is being nurtured and offered new sanctuary by the forces of state. In the US, the overturning of Roe v. Wade is likely to bring in its wake the downfall of progressive legislation on same-sex marriage and birth control. The ugly phantom of so-called normality – the white heterosexual reproductive family as the foundation of Western ‘civilisation’ – is reasserting itself. For nearly forty years, EastEnders has been having none of it (which makes the appearance of Charles and Camilla on the programme to mark the queen’s Platinum Jubilee a cause – or not a cause – to celebrate). Is the series a bit of a car crash? Somewhat crazy, over the top? Has it been guilty of lapses of taste and judgment? Of course (it’s only human). But by going too far in the opposite direction, it surely continues to be a force for good.