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East End magic shines through despite the hype

So, after all that palaver it was Stacey Slater wot done in evil Archie. A slight let-down, I thought; a little bit predictable. Me, I'd had Max Branning pegged all along.

In the end, the only thing Max was guilty of was stumbling over a couple of his lines just moments into this special live episode, which was a triumph of logistics over logic (it doesn't do to ponder why every suspect tried to hide from the cops when only one of them could be guilty).

For the most part, though, things were alright on the night. The script focused tightly on a dozen or so characters, meaning that potential magnets for disaster, such as the wooden Ricky Butcher, were kept out of harm's way and given only the odd line to deliver.

At one point, mind you, it appeared that Phil Mitchell had gone crashing through some scenery, so loud was the din of destruction. Alas, no: it was just Phil being his usual, charming self as he ransacked Ian Beale's house and smashed up his possessions.

Actually, things were better than alright. Leaving aside the damp-squib revelation of Archie's killer, this was a surprisingly enjoyable episode, even for a committed 'Endersphobe like myself.

There's absolutely no practical or creative reason for transmitting a TV drama live, even if that's how all of them used to go out. For a start, it requires about 10 times more cameras than usual. Still, it added a tangible layer of tension as tight as Pat Butcher's knicker elastic.

It was mad, frantic stuff, bursting with energy. I don't think the EastEnders have moved so fast in 25 years. Technicians must have been pushing the normally static Peggy Mitchell around on castors. As for Dot Cotton . . . suspended from wires, surely?

Speaking of Dot, there was one lovely, self-referential scene where she and Ian watched a battered home video from 1985 -- in reality, brief clips from old episodes, scratched up to look amateurish -- featuring faces long departed and mostly forgotten. But then the tape got snagged in the machine, which is a fitting metaphor for the gradual unravelling of EastEnders itself in recent years.

The best was saved for last when the only guilty-of-nothing character in the Square, Bradley, was pursued across a rooftop by the cops and then plunged spectacularly to his death. Or rather a stuntman did. It was an ambitious, brilliantly executed piece of trickery without a single visible join. If only EastEnders was this exciting all the time.

Over on BBC3, the buzz was still being felt on after-show knees-up The Aftermath, which offered the surreal prospect of Larry Lamb, the actor who played the late Archie, being interviewed by his own son, George Lamb, who sounds exactly like him.

More bizarre still, however, was the sight of gaggles of cast members, still juiced up after the evening's exertions, laughing and joking and being nice to one another. Maybe this is the key to why EastEnders remains so popular despite everything: the prevailing atmosphere of misery is so convincing it seeps into your pores, making you forget you're watching an elaborate pretence.