On a half-lit, very English afternoon in January, Albert Square 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. Built at great expense, the Square was an anachronism even when it was unveiled in 1985, rather like that older generation of East End caricatures – owing a debt to Dickens – found supping in the Queen Vic and spouting malapropisms. (Dot Cotton, now Branning, is still with us – it’s as though the 1880s, let alone the 1980s, never went away.)
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 1986, is laughable, even though the soap regularly pulls in seven 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 prime real estate: 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 recognisable to millions of working-class Londoners as it once did to those of us who grew up in these streets is the stuff of fantasy.
But this is entertainment, a “continuing drama” in television terminology, not reality. And in the 30 years since EastEnders first arrived in 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 Masoods’ 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 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 the show was particularly bad when he took on the job, but it was no longer arresting or challenging. “It was at its 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 a child, and has returned to the original stories to understand the intention of the show’s creators, Julia Smith and Tony Holland. “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 dressed up to go to the pub in the evening.”