“This my sweet is a letter from my solicitor…” The words of Den Watts as he hands his wife Angie divorce papers on Christmas Day 1986. This was the highlight of BBC Ones Christmas day programing. It was also the ending of the only episode of ‘Eastenders’ that that I have ever watched.
In fact I didn’t really watch it all that intently. Earlier in the day I had received a radio controlled model of KITT from the series ‘Knight Rider’. While all of the misery of an Albert Square Christmas played out I was busy recreating scenes from my favorite episodes of ‘Knight Rider’.
This week ‘Eastenders’ turns 30. But so to does ‘The Breakfast Club’. It is the latter that has had more of a cultural impact on my life. Yet in the UK at the moment you cannot escape ‘Eastenders’.
Thirty years ago soaps were on their last legs. At least the British soaps were. ‘Dallas’, ‘Dynasty’ and ‘Knotts Landing’ were pulling in viewers. ‘Coronation Street’, ‘Emmerdale Farm’ and ‘Brookside’ had a loyal but small viewership. ‘Crossroads’ was inspiring Victoria Wood to create ‘Acorn Antiques’.
Each of the British soaps had their own little section of the viewership. ‘Corrie’ by the mid 80s was basically a light comedy, ‘Brookie’ was for the professional Northerner ‘Emmerdale’ for those who liked the view and ‘Crossroads’ was a joke.
‘Eastenders’ was different. It was meaner, grittier and it had the might of Auntie Beeb behind it. It would take the dying format round the back of the pub and kick new life into it weather it wanted it or not.
Yet initially ‘Eastenders’ played second fiddle in the schedule, the same week that it launched the BBC launched ‘Wogan’. A flagship chat-show presented by Terry Wogan. ‘Wogan’ would air on Monday, Wednesday and Friday while ‘Eastenders’ would air in the same slot on Tuesday and Thursday. While ‘Eastenders’ did get a lot of pre-promotion ‘Wogan’ got even more.
It took almost a decade for ‘Eastenders’ and the British soap to really hit their stride. By the mid 1990s ‘Eastenders’ was on almost every day, ‘Coronation Street’ had dropped the light farce and become just as gritty while ‘Brookside’ was biting at their heels. ‘Emmerdale’ not to be outdone in 1993 had a plane crash culling a lot of the cast and setting the scene for its more gritty future.
But while all of this was going on I wasn’t watching. Soaps are not aimed at me.
I’ve seen the odd bit of ‘Eastenders’ episodes in the last 30 years. But not all that much. I’ve watched the cast do their thing for ‘Comic Relief’ or ‘Children in Need’ normally without knowing who half of them are. I’ve even seen some of them on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ but I never know who they are. Most recently Jake Wood took to the dance floor. I recognized him as Rodney Trotters assistant in ‘Only Fools…’ a one line part from 25 years ago.
Soaps are no longer the ratings powerhouses they once were. They are stuck in a sort of negative equity. It would cost more to buy out the long contracts the stars were given in the glory days than to make the program. So they roll on. Getting more and more implausible, a cross over between ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Eastenders’ now would not need to be confined to a ‘Children in Need’ special.
In ten years time ‘Eastenders’ will be 40, and the only episode I will have seen was that one on Christmas Day 1986.