Do you remember how the BBC promoted the arrival of Ronnie back in 2007? In a series of trailers, she and her sister Roxy were depicted as being hot from Ibiza, squirting the punters at the Vic with a soda siphon, serving tequila shots and causing general shock among the old guard with their raucous hedonism.
Cut to July 2011 and there’s Ronnie sitting ashen-faced on the kerb, dressed for court in a sombre black dress and with her legs angled towards the gutter. That’s what four years on EastEnders does to a person – it reduces them to a defeated husk.
You can start with every intention of being happy-go-lucky and with a cheeky glint in your minces (and yes, I’m now looking at you, Tyler Moon, with those mobile phone numbers slashed in lipstick over your pecs), but there’s no way that kind of attitude is going to last long.
Just recall what happened to that previous would-be lothario Garry Hobbs. One minute he’s flirting with the ladies, the next he’s being saved from suicide by Minty Peterson. Or how about Kat Slater, who once hitched a ride home on the back of a milk float after a night of hard partying? What’s she doing these days? Giving a heart-rending statement to the magistrates about how she had to bury what she thought was her dead child, that’s what.
All of which leads us back to Ronnie. Poor, downtrodden Ronnie, who has had to witness her daughter being mown down by a car, her rapist father being murdered and her newborn boy dying of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. This last development led, of course, to the controversial baby-swap plot that now sees Ronnie being jailed for three years.
Fans of soaps acknowledge that there’s a certain pleasure to be had in watching awful things happen to fictional characters, a reassuring comfort in being able to turn off your TV following that night’s cliffhanger, safe in the knowledge that your life is never going to be as bad as what you’ve just seen.
But the Ronnie Branning storyline has been such a theatre of cruelty that it’s now hard to feel any soapy surge of schadenfreude. At times, the borders of Albert Square appear to be being fiercely patrolled by the wraith-like Dementors from Harry Potter, primed to kiss away any cheer. To be happy, a character must now engineer an escape, preferably with their head held stoically high like Peggy Mitchell. But that new life always unfolds off camera and, most importantly, away from E20.
Ronnie got an escape of sorts when her cell door closed behind her following the judge’s ruling and Kat’s attempts at absolution. As Ronnie cast her eyes up to the ceiling, was that the smallest hint of a smile playing around her lips? This one look suggested that she’d rather spend the rest of her days incarcerated than pass another moment in the company of the emotionally battered souls in Walford. And really, who can blame her?