EastEnders: Realistically portraying fiction

I’m not sure how many Standpoint readers follow EastEnders; I imagine not that many. But the BBC probably considers it the jewel in its crown; even in today’s much diminished television universe it remains the most watched programme in the country, which is why its 25th anniversary has been extensively marked, culminating tonight in a special ‘live’ edition.I was a devotee of EastEnders way back in the 80s and then missed a couple of decades-worth;for various domestic reasons I returned last year and have watched every episode since. The writing can be excellent, and despite the series’ reputation for misery, often very funny, and pretty authentic. The characters of Walford are all recognisable to me, even as a SouthEastEnder.

But it is now pure fiction in the social as well as the narrative sense, and largely an exercise in nostalgia. When it started back in 1985, the kind of community it depicted was still just about there in the East End, although on its last legs. Now, it has completely disappeared. The portrayal of a community where people know intimately not just their neighbours, but their neighbours’ mothers and fathers, and all meet to discuss them in the local pub, is hugely attractive to an audience which no longer recognizes this as being of the real world.

Indeed the Queen Vic itself would probably be long closed; inner city pubs are shutting up shop every minute, not just because of cheap supermarket booze and the smoking ban, but because of the vast demographic changes. Indeed the programme is probably, as Greg Dyke might say, ‘hideously white’; Essex is now the place where you would find most of the white characters.

There’s no mention of Jihad down at the Queen Vic. There are no communities living apart from each other, uneasily side-by-side. When there’s a wedding, such as last night, everybody goes. Young and old still mix freely – despite a big reduction in the number of older characters, doubtless due to the BBC’s preoccupation with getting the youth audience.  Oh, and there are none of the  ’artisans’ or Brit artists who’ve moved in to the real East End – for which we should give thanks I think.

So what of 25 years time? On the present time lag basis, perhaps we can expect a picture of Walford in the year 2010.

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