Built at great expense for a series that was expected to survive just a few months, Albert Square could have become one of those BBC relics - TV Centre, Alan Yentob - that have proved so costly to maintain. Yet, on a half-lit, very English afternoon in January 2015, it is an absolute masterpiece. Representing a London that has given the present the slip. It’s more a testament to the city of the 1950s, an era of smog, lodgers, and rationing; reminiscent of the Nigel Henderson photographs of the east end at the time. Albert Square was an anachronism in the 1980s, rather like that older generation of east end caricatures - that owed a debt to Dickens - found in the Queen Vic sipping stout and spouting malapropisms (Dot Cotton is still with us, as though the 1880s, let alone the 1980s, never happened).
But if the backdrop remains much has changed in the 30 years since Radio Times introduced Albert Square to the world with a cover that announced: The EastEnders are here… Characters have come and gone and the television landscape is transformed – the idea of 30 million tuning in for an episode, as happened at Christmas in 1986, is laughable even though the soap regularly pulls in 6 million viewers.
London is changing almost as fast, where the immigrant population is on course to account for over half the capital’s residents within 16 years and the booming City has turned its neighbour the east end into a prime location: the real square Eastenders was based on – Fassett Square in Hackney – now sees houses change hands for more than a million. The idea of an east end square that remains as recognizable to millions of working class Londoners as it once did those us that grew up in these streets is the stuff of fantasy.
But this is thrice weekly entertainment, a “continuing drama” in television terminology, not documentary. And in the thirty years since Eastenders first pulled into the national consciousness one plot device has been central to its storylines - the sofa cushion. Whether it’s the leatherette lounger at the Brannings, the Masood’s velour settee or the flock three-seater at the Cotton household. This is where every Albert Square resident with a debt or a dirty secret conceals the evidence: a lover’s earring, the letter from a bailiff, a stolen child. No one will ever find it hidden there. At least until the next scene, seconds before the credits roll.
This formulaic approach to plot development was just one of the problems that Dominic Treadwell-Collins needed to improve on, when he became Executive Producer on the series 18 months ago. ‘I’m a soap fan so I know all the formulas’, he says, seated in his Elstree office minutes from the set of Albert Square, down the road from the affluent Hertfordshire village of Radlett where he grew up. ‘I want to break up the formula and surprise the audience so they’ll think - “oh it’s not behind the cushion”.’
He didn’t feel that the show was particularly bad when he took on the role, but it was no longer arresting or challenging. ‘It was at it’s worst when it was bleak’, he adds. ‘It should be a challenging show. It’s about mess, it’s about how life can be pretty terrible but you have to fight back’. He knows the history of Eastenders having been a fan since he was a child, and has returned to the original stories to understand the intention of the show’s creators. ‘That very first episode was dirty and funny. The characters had no sheen, they looked like they’d been frying bacon all day, before getting dressing up to go to the pub in the evening’.
To its viewers Eastenders had fossilised into something beyond cliché: Walford was a utopian multicultural fantasy that existed in the minds of BBC commissioners holed up in Notting Hill town houses. Yet, paradoxically, a dystopian drama where the characters became entangled in convoluted storylines that had little relation to real life. Even though many performances were impeccable, the scripts were making even the meaty stalwarts of Albert Square look jaded and bored. There’s only so many times you can reel out the news that there’s ‘more than one way to skin a cat’, and head the baddie off at the pass with the line: ‘It’s sorted!’
The BBC Trust stepped in with its own laboured ideas of what Eastenders needed to address. Predictably, it’s ‘too white’ and not ‘an authentic portrayal of modern Britain’. (Was it ever?). This is in keeping with the master plan of the BBC generally, and the promise that 15 per cent of on-air staff will be black, Asian or ‘minority ethnic’ by 2017.
It’s therefore refreshing to hear the show’s executive producer has no plans to apply this hackneyed quota approach to his Walford patch. Grafting more minority characters onto the show, defining them by storylines around ethnicity, sexuality, or disability would simply leave you with ‘a blancmange’. He’s adamant about this: ‘As soon as someone starts imposing editorial decisions we fight back because we know what we’re doing. The day I start box-ticking is the day I leave’. Instead he has taken a brilliant, alternate route, which has led to viewers returning, higher ratings and recently, the first National Television Award for a number of years.
The change has come with the arrival of the Carter family - white, working class Londoners - at the Queen Vic, and in particular the inspired coupling and pitch-perfect performances of Kellie Bright and Danny Dyer. The latter is actually less of a caricature as Mick Carter than he is on chat shows as Danny Dyer. His language, his accent, his script input has brought not simply the humour that has been absent throughout the history of the series, but something close to authenticity. A word that has replaced the term ‘reality’ when talking about Eastenders.
‘The Carters are my family’, says Treadwell-Collins. (A suggestion that brings to mind the embryonic days of Coronation Street, inspired by the northern upbringing of the show’s creator Tony Warren). ‘My father was an Irish immigrant named Michael Collins. My mother a hairdresser from Kilburn, named Linda. So - Mick and Linda Carter. Stan Carter is my grandad - a former Billingsgate fish porter who was a big powerful man and now sits in his chair still trying to rule the family. There is the difficult brother. I was the other son, like Johnny Carter. The story of him coming out as gay to his mum was my story too’.
In the past three decades television and society has changed, and the digital experience has revolutionised how we watch, what we watch and when. The moment when everyone viewed the same programme at the same time has long gone. Yet this was the climate that TV soap was created for. The domestic fall-outs and bust-ups that once defined the form -
‘the extraordinary world of the ordinary’ as TV scriptwriter Ted Willis described kitchen-sink plays in the 1960s - has since been commandeered by reality TV shows.
In the process soap opera has morphed into ‘serial drama’. The plots are so extreme, so rapid, that you now look for the ordinary within the extraordinary, and it comes from the authenticity of the characters and the tension and interaction between them. Here’s where the Carter family come in. They arrived without the text-book baggage of so many other characters. There were no teenage bottle-blondes here impregnated by their murderous gay step-brother. It was the absence of event that defined them. Mick and Linda Carter are a couple of Londoners that became young parents, stayed together, stayed local, and succeeded in their ambition of owning a pub. Here’s where the similarity between them and the family of their creator differs.
The parents of Treadwell-Collins joined their names, built a successful catering company and dispatched their double-barrelled son to Harrow public school. From here he progressed to Oxbridge, picking up the pedigree and the degree that remains obligatory among the BBC’s editorial class. That’s not to say he doesn’t doesn't have an absolute empathy with certain storylines. ‘I started crying during the meeting where we discussed the episode where Mick Carter has a fear of water . My father drowned when I was fifteen, because he had never learned to swim. So on television, in that storyline it was kind of magical for me. I taught my dad to swim.’
Treadwell-Collins describes himself as a ‘lo-fi’ producer. He sits on buses wearing headphones
but without music on. Instead he tunes into the conversations of other passengers in search of ideas: ‘The dawn of the mobile phone means you get to listen in on the stories of everybody’s life because they broadcast the details in public - loudly’.
Although his family were part of the aspirational working class so evident from the 1980s when the series came to the screen, there have been rare sightings of such a tribe in Walford during these decades. Few have harboured hopes of owning their own homes or businesses, and the children destined for university are always thwarted in their ambitions. Ultimately finding themselves employed in the launderette, at the car lot or on the market.
‘We had planned for Johnny Carter to finish university’, says Treadwell-Collins of his fictional self, ‘but unfortunately the actor decided to leave. But this aspiration thing is something we are about to address in a big way.’
Another aspect that remains amiss is the styling of the female characters and the homes they live in. The look of the women largely falls into that of drag queen or dominatrix. The parrot wallpaper, the porn film bedroom at the Carters, is a form of shorthand for conveying that the working class are without taste or style, as well as aspiration. Despite the manner in which consumption and consumerism has opened up the outlook and the lifestyles of the masses in recent years.
It’s a charge that Dominic Treadwell-Collins is quick to disagree with. ‘My mother is an aspirational working class woman. I bought her pink high heels for Christmas and she stroked them like were a cat. She also has bird wallpaper. Things have to be heightened on the show. The clothes and the decor are an extension of the characters’.
These days, of course, similar houses in a London square would be on the market for millions, snapped up by broadsheet editors and TV producers that couldn’t afford Notting Hill prices. Those native working class Londoners, publicans like the Carters, are an endangered species. Yet there are sightings of them, in a city they no longer recognise. In neighbourhoods altered by gentrification and mass immigration. A die-hard cockney like Mick Carter would have a view on this, and if we stay tuned long enough we might hear what it is - and agree with it.
‘I could sit and watch a whole episode of Linda, Mick and his mother-in-law, Elaine, just talking around the kitchen table’, says Treadwell-Collins. He’s absolutely right about this. You hope that he may yet take the radical move of making it happen. Hearing characters discussing their opinions, sharing memories of histories we understand, in voices we recognise would indeed be a smart move for a BBC drama like Eastenders.
In the year since their arrival the Carters have dealt with rape, rising damp, and Mick Carter discovering his sister is his mother. Yet one of the finest scenes in that time was not the murder of Lucy Beale or Nick Cotton’s return from the dead, but the arrival of Linda Carter’s mother, Elaine. Witnessing the relationship she had with her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren, you were eavesdropping on a funny, humane, loving family within Albert Square that did have that elusive ring of authenticity so sought after by the BBC Trust and others. Finally, here was a family you had met, lived next door to, or once been part of.
words: michael collins