Where and when?
British soap opera since 1985, now shown on BBC1 4 times a week, with an omnibus edition every Sunday afternoon. It is set on Albert Square in the fictional London borough of Walford which is supposably in the east end of London (hence the name). It is one of the best things on tv; indeed I believe it to be worth a good slice of the license fee.
It consistently gets some of the highest ratings figures in the UK, and has recently been trouncing its main rival on ITV, Coronation Street. Unlike their American cousins, British soap operas are usually set in working class areas, and feature ordinary people - this is a strong reason for their wide appeal. Eastenders upholds these traditions, and is frequently criticised for being 'depressing', and it's true that the characters usually face far more downs then ups. The Christmas Day episodes of Eastenders are notorious for always ending in heart break and disaster, usually accompanied by death or at the very least a nervous breakdown.
The action in Eastenders predominately features in the public house, the Queen Vic a quintessential east end boozer, and the open air market of Albert Square. The main storylines usually involve some conflict between the landlord(s) of the Queen Vic (the Watts and Mitchells), and the families of market traders (the Fowlers and Beales). The acting is generally of a high quality although they are the odd exception to the rule. Eastenders has never been afraid to deal with controversial storylines; Mark Fowler became the first soap opera character to have to deal with HIV, a gay couple have been featured living together, and a euthansia storyline was carefully played out involving Dot Cotton. Of course there has been the normal soap diet of murder, marriage, teenage pregnancies, adultery and rape.
Many of the most prominent characters in Eastenders have links to a rarely seen criminal underworld, and the Walford police and various lawyers feature heavily enough to become likeably recurring characters themselves when they are called on to the stage. These presences reinforce the claims that have made by some that Eastenders is the modern day Charles Dickens, and while this may seem like a ridiculous statement at first, it should be remember that Dickens wrote in serials that were published at regular interval and was a geninuely popular writer.
Some of Eastenders recent storylines have captured the public imagination. When Steve Owen (played by ex Spandau Ballet bassist Martin Kemp) escaped punishment for murdering his wife, there was an assumption that he would get his comeuppance, though to date this has yet to occur (though as Kemp has announced he is soon to leave the soap, it might be advisable to keep watching). Similary the 'who shot Phil Mitchell?' storyline got one of the highest UK tv audiences tuned in ever, and the revelation of his ex-girlfriend Lisa Shaw being the culprit caught most viewers on the hop.
However what has really set Eastenders above the competition recently is the trials and tribulations of the Slater family. The family were introduced and allowed to simmer in the background as glimpses of secrets from the families past were subtly hinted and implied. Then after about a year, the relevations came out and a flurry of incest, child abuse, attempted suicides, prostitution and domestic violence hit our screens. The acting was top notch and in the wake of September 11 the emotional impact was both draining and exhilarating.
My brilliant career
Like most soaps, Eastenders has suffered from the desire of soap stars to leave, usually to attempt to launch a film or music career, but many of them have returned to the roles that made them famous. The only ex-Eastender actor I can think of who has gone onto surpass what they achieved on the soap, is Nick Berry and even he has stuck to appearing in traditonal tv dramas. On the other hand Eastenders has helped to rejuvenate many well known actors careers, most notably Barbara Windsor and Wendy Richard - well known faces to British viewers who are now competing in their roles as dominating matriarchs Peggy Mitchell and Pauline Fowler. Many of the younger actors have graduated from the childrens BBC drama, Grange Hill, the most notably of these being Todd Carthy who plays Mark Fowler.
Eastenders has managed to get some notable past stars of British film and stage to appear in guest in cameo roles, last year alone, Michael Elphick, Susan George, Cherie Lunghi, Sheila Hancock have made their way to Albert Square, while jungle pioneer Goldie also made an appearance.
A great irony about Eastenders success is that the set is actually in Elstree Studios in leafy Hertfordshire, where a number of BBC shows are produced such as Top of the Pops. When Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian was appearing on the latter he nearly found himself manhandled by an irate secrurity guard when he decided to have a wander round Albert Square.
Why I watch it
Eastenders certainly has an addictive quality and this is not helped by the fact that if you miss an episode it is easy to catch up with the omnibus on Sunday afternoon. Another reason why I prefer it to Coronation Street is that you are not interrupted by adverts after ten minutes. But its gritty realism is the main reason for its popularity amongst all sections of the UK population, the only major error that I can think that has been made on Eastenders was when Pauline Fowler went to Ireland and an over-zealous set designer went overboard woth the sheep and goats, resulting in scores of complaints from irate viewers accusing the programme of promoting Irish stereotypes. However asides from that the only major gaffes are when the actors occasionally betray their non-Cockney roots by misprouncing some London placename (Plaistow is a particular favourite), or the fact that none of the characters ever seem to watch soaps, unlike you or I. But still I guess I will be watching on Sunday.