“Eeez not a grass, eez old school,” sneers Derek Branning as he holds court in front of a group of moon-eyed Moon brothers and a sultry Patrick Truman. It’s been a bad day for Walford’s gangland mastermind.
But “a parole officer with an itch”, drinking whisky by the boat load and the dangers of “stripping the rails” to earn a crust aren’t Derek’s only problems. He’s got something much more pressing to worry about: he’s one of the most infuriating soap characters ever to have been created.
Last year, BBC controller of drama, John Yorke, told this very publication: “EastEnders' East End and its version of working-class life are very stylised.” Really? With Derek Branning around, I would never have guessed.
According to Yorke: “Real life changes much more quickly than representations of it on television” and “soaps reach a point where they have a really big decision to make - do they stay true to the original vision or do they throw it away and adapt to a changing world?”
Fair enough, I suppose. But EastEnders began airing in 1985, yet Derek Branning – complete with his insistence to settle all disputes, no matter how minor, with gruesome physical violence while wearing a cheese cutter hat – is clearly a character from 1960s Krays London. Why has he been so unceremoniously dumped into the heart of Walford?
“Nah, we’re not square coz of the beating – we’re square coz your missus coughed up” – that’s right, Del, you tell the bloody mess formerly known as Michael Moon. Do you need some Brylcreem for your hair before you pop off down the milk bar and neck with a bit of skirt?
Of course, the BBC probably thought they’d hit gold with Del’s character when they secured Jamie Foreman (the son of a real-life gangster – Freddie, one of the Krays’ henchmen) for the role. And although I have no problem with Foreman’s performance (and even if I had, I would be too scared to commit it to print), EastEnders just has no place for fairy-tale gangsters.
Branning is not the first gangland boss to plague the Square, and sadly, he probably won’t be the last. The show has a proud history of injecting Knees Up Mother Brown mobsters into affairs.
Remember Johnny Allen’s reign of terror in the square, or the misadventures of Steve Owen? Did anyone really enjoy Andy Hunter and Dennis Rickman’s “bent” endeavours? Not me. Although it is clear that, in many cases, the gangsters are brought in to challenge Phil Mitchell’s dubious stranglehold on black-market activities in the Square - which in itself is rather upsetting – their presence is always grating.
Perhaps it’s because I hate anachronism, or maybe it’s just because “pre-watershed gangsters”* who are happy to bludgeon a man to death on air, but never swear, can’t ever really ring true.
So please, EastEnders, please listen. I can live with Lucy Beale transforming into a different person, I don’t mind the unrealistically high prices in the Bridge Street café, I’m even prepared to overlook the clear lack of ethnic characters in the Square… but you must get rid of the 1960s gangsters.
* ™ my colleague David Brown