Grace Dent on 30 years of Eastenders - here's to never being boring
Accepted wisdom says that while Coronation Street does humour, EastEnders – celebrating its 30th anniversary this week – is all about misery. It’s just people shouting, they say. Thirty long years of shouting in rooms where the net curtains need a boil wash. A punch-up over paternity, a sub-plot on bulimia, then everyone outside the Vic for the end-of-show “doof-doof-doof” and the latest booze-fuelled pedestrian squashing.
This is a vast misrepresentation. EastEnders, to the regular spectator, is wildly funny. We laugh and laugh. We tweet and text and Vine its silliness and its in-jokes. Even at its most unfunny, we still find it funny. We love the impotent rage of Phil Mitchell, the pregnancy fashion of Aunty Kim, the ham-tastic villainy of Nick Cotton and Nancy Carter’s gorgeous deadpan wit. There is deep joy in Tamwar Masood’s perma-bewilderment, the glassy-eyed menace of Aunt Babe and in Sonia’s Fat Buster classes. I love drunk Denise, drowning the memory of repeated sexual congress with Ian Beale. I love road-weary Cora, beehive wilting over a large gin, taking one last crack at Stan before he carks.
I love Kat Slater marking her separation from wet-fart husband Alfie Moon via the opening of her market stall at 9am one February morning wearing thigh-high leather BDSM boots and a micro-sized body-con frock. Spray-tan, smoky eyes, magenta lips, tits perky and needy like two little dogs who have heard the rustle of Rolos. Don’t tell me EastEnders is one-note miserable. These imaginary people regularly light up my life and those of eight million others.
Yet even the most hardline Albert Square apologist has been tested by the Lucy Beale murder plot, which will be solved in live episodes this coming week. The mystery has niggled on, a lot like cystitis, since last April. To my mind, the only character with a solid motive to kill Lucy is the glorious Whitney Dean, who identified many moons ago that Lucy was an insipid, spoilt, boyfriend-stealing bore who coasted along on her daddy’s chip-shop profits.
Whitney, by contrast, is from less cosy stock; sexually abused as a 12-year-old, her father was killed in a motorbike smash, and her teen years spent tagging around after Bianca during her pink neon shellsuit phase. Whitney loves Lee Carter. Lucy shagged Lee Carter. Whitney sent a wreath to Lucy’s funeral with the cheery note: “ROT IN HELL”, ergo Whitney killed Lucy Beale. I rest my case.
In the not unlikely event that I’m wrong, it won’t take away remotely from the extreme joy that live episodes of EastEnders bring. The worst thing that could happen for fans would be for everything to run smoothly. We thrill at the mistimed cues and forgotten lines that fizzle out halfway. We squeak at the sound booms hovering above actors’ heads and the badly disguised stuntmen and the tiny glimpses of our favourite characters suddenly blinded in the headlights of live TV. EastEnders live is foolhardy, unnecessary and downright stressful for everyone involved – including the viewer. I want it every year.
Of course, at this point some clever-arse typically pipes up that soaps are a massive waste of time; a squandering of our brief time on the planet. Time that could have been spent digesting Joyce’s Ulysses, or walking the Camino de Santiago or learning advanced hula-hooping. But EastEnders has given much more to my life than it has ever taken away. I don’t regret getting involved – at the age of 13 – when Mary the Punk, Rod and baby Annie tried to be a family. Or when Kelvin and Sharon started the promising pop combo The Banned. I don’t regret a moment spent with Pat and Peggy conspiring and drinking vin de table in the back room of the Vic.
I was there for Frank Butcher in his birthday suit with a spinning bow tie, and his endless years spent bawling out Ricky for going near the motors. I’m proud to have witnessed Phil busting Sharon for shagging Grant. And minxish Janine pushing fat Barry down a mountain. I still resent James Willmott-Brown and his time at the Dagmar winebar, and it irks me that Ronnie only realised Danielle was her daughter 10 minutes before she was killed by a car. (For the love of god, Walford council, put down speed bumps).
I miss the days of Pete Beale demanding his “mug of splosh” down the caff. I miss Pauline Fowler – the full-time fun-Hoover – sucking the festivity from any room. We shall not forget Sonia’s awful attempt at being a lesbian, or the week that rave-worn Ronnie and Roxy first arrived from Ibiza, or Vicki Fowler’s wonky accent or the helter-skelter disaster.
Thank you for the drab Tuesday nights livened up by Fatboy shagging Denise in the Vic loos, Skype calls from Aunty Kim’s cruise ship, by little Willy, silly Wellard and Roly the poodle. Thank you for Angie Watts in three-tone blue eyeshadow, a pussy-bow polyester shirt and a bubble perm, serving pints and flashing shark eyes at her husband Dirty Den. Happy 30th Birthday, EastEnders: here’s to many, many more years of shouting, laughter and daftness – and to never, ever being boring.