What a sight it was – the detested Derek Branning keeling over on Christmas Day as his brothers stood by and watched him expire. What a cheery tableau. But then Christmas on EastEnders does provide a handy sense of perspective. No matter how underwhelming our own festive season might be, it’s guaranteed to be worse in Walford.
The tone of my Christmas Day was set by my father-in-law who greeted the family with the words, “I’m a broken man. I’m not up to this.” He was wearing a surgical collar thanks to stress-induced neck pain and was more interested in reading a book about the bombing of Kenley Aerodrome than playing charades. But at 9.45pm, I was at least able to turn off the TV and count my blessings, thankful that I hadn’t died, as Derek had just done, looking like a dyspeptic Baron Greenback.
This evening, we got to pay final respects to a man who’d brought such inadvertent cheer to our lives. Not that Derek’s nearest and dearest seemed all that bothered about the funeral. “Derek weren’t close to no one,” said Lauren, before opting to spend most of the day fretting outside the police station wearing a souped-up version of Ian Beale’s tramp hat, while Carol threatened to stay at home clutching an SOS letter from the much-missed David Wicks. Meanwhile Max, a man whose never been able to walk a circuit of Albert Square without telling at least three lies and having two extra-marital affairs, prepped himself by snogging the face off Kirsty.
She, of course, has been the best thing to come out of Derek’s untimely demise. Who isn’t loving her rat-tail hair extensions, the pouting lips and massive hoop earrings that look like they were forged during the Olympics opening ceremony? Oh, for a catfight with Tanya and Cora where the latter’s beehive gets completely rucked.
Tonight, though, Cora was all about the “dignity” and “gravitas”. Wearing a mourning outfit of fascinator, sunshades and secreted hip flask, she rose from her pew to deliver a brutal eulogy: “Derek Branning was an obnoxious, pig-headed little man,” was the opening gambit, swiftly followed by, “I’d have cheerfully swung for him this Christmas. One of those people it’s best knowing at a distance. Close up, they give you a headache.”
She did go on to mention his old-fashioned gentlemanly East End conduct, but as My Way played in the church, you couldn’t help but recall that Derek’s Way involved breaking his wife’s collarbone and annihilating the jam sandwiches at his son’s seventh birthday party.
With brimming tears and straining biceps, the grown-up Joey was now the very picture of hunky torment: “I let him die,” he confessed to Alice after bolting from the service. You can’t help but feel that Derek would be pleased by the sight of his boy weeping into the sleeve of his best suit jacket, though whether we’ll be able to stomach a prolonged period of recrimination is another matter. Taking pleasure in Walford misfortunes may be obligatory at Christmas, but do we really want him fighting his demons for the best part of 2013?
Joey’s also forgetting that Derek did, in fact, have the fastest fatal heart attack of all time. That tick-tick-BOOM! cardiac arrest was more speedy than an EastEnders duff-duff drumbeat – had Joey leapt the steps of Number 5 in a single bound and whipped some defibrillators out of his back pocket, he’d have still been unable to save his old man. Small comfort, but then that’s life, as Sinatra was heard singing as Del’s coffin rolled away for the final time…
EastEnders continues on Monday 7 January at 8pm on BBC1