Back in October when movie hardman Danny Dyer was cast as the new Queen Vic landlord Mick Carter, we were expecting him to arrive at Christmas with a shotgun under his overcoat and a head butt for misbehaving punters. Who would have thought that the ultimate lad’s lad, a man famed for his big-screen gangster roles, would be playing a decent dad who reacts to his son coming out with sympathy and understanding?
“I don’t think EastEnders usually portrays good fathers,” says Dyer. “They’re often quite dysfunctional. I’m one of the first to come in and be a really good parent. I think that’s what was needed. Plus they used the perception of what I’m known for and spun it on its head. It was a gamble. But I’ve had letters from young gay men who’d been too scared to come out, but who did so after watching that episode.”
Viewers were recently astonished to see Dyer play against type as Mick cradled his son Johnny in his arms and told him that he was proud. But then surprising the fans is what Dyer and the man who hired him, new EastEnders boss Dominic Treadwell-Collins, want to do.
The pair are battling to reinvigorate BBC1’s flagship soap after a ratings slump in the face of an ascendant Coronation Street. Treadwell-Collins, 36, is a young man on a mission.
“EastEnders has got to shake up the audience,” he says. “We don’t want to do cover versions of greatest hits. EastEnders has to sing new songs, otherwise it doesn’t feel fresh. And it also has to be about people and feelings and emotions. I’ve never been a fan of blowing things up.”
This last comment sounds like a thinly veiled shot across the bows of Coronation Street and Emmerdale, where – in the past 12 months – we’ve witness an inferno at the Rovers Return and a siege at the Woolpack.
But fighting talk is exactly what’s needed. Treadwell-Collins has been in post as executive producer since August last year after taking over from Lorraine Newman, who resigned after just 16 months. It was obvious to viewers and critics that he faced a battle: EastEnders had fallen behind Coronation Street and Emmerdale in the ratings, new characters were unpopular and the action was unconvincing.
Once upon a time, the show’s tagline was “Everyone’s talking about it”. In 2013, nobody was, except to say how dull it had become.
“It’s in a bit of a state at the moment,” said former stalwart Barbara Windsor in September. “It’s not getting there. We’re third. We’ve never been third – ever. So it needs working on.”
Even the new BBC1 controller Charlotte Moore had EastEnders in her sights. She said, with steel in her voice, that the soap had to become “the best drama on TV”.
Whisper it gently, but Treadwell-Collins is already proving to be a clever choice to get EastEnders back on track. His Christmas trailers – which proclaimed “It’s all about to change” – were a statement of intent. And, for once, what followed has matched the hype.
Out have gone the woeful Carl and Ava, while fresh blood has been introduced by scriptwriters who are determined to create characters that viewers will care about.
Even the normally scabrous TV critic Charlie Brooker is impressed. In his BBC2 show Weekly Wipe, he observed: “The old soap osmosis kicked in and, before long, I was caring about what happened to the characters. Rather than watching EastEnders so I could laugh at Danny Dyer, I was watching EastEnders because of Danny Dyer. He’s a canny choice because there’s something weirdly watchable about him.”
Treadwell-Collins may be a new broom, but he knows his way around Walford. Between 2006 and 2010, he was a story producer and the creative force behind such crowd-pleasing plotlines as the “Who Killed Archie?” whodunnit and Syed’s struggle with his faith and sexuality. He even loved the show as a boy.
“I remember poring over the map of Albert Square that Radio Times published when the first episode aired. I grew up in Radlett in Hertfordshire, which is about ten minutes down the road from where EastEnders is filmed in Elstree, and I’d go along to the studio and stick my head through the gates.
“I’d never felt an affinity with Corrie – it’s a fantastic show, but it wasn’t my thing. I liked EastEnders because it felt dangerous, real and naughty, and also that it was saying something about life.”
And then comes a confession in a stage whisper: “Now, stalking is a heavy word, but I did once stalk Pam St Clement [who played Pat Butcher] around the Radlett branch of WH Smith. She bought a book about the Royal Opera House. She and I have laughed about it since, but you know, I was a proper die-hard EastEnders fan.”
In the space of a month, his new characters – the Carters – have already proved to have a quality that’s been in short supply: authenticity.
“I always knew that [EastEnders co-creator] Tony Holland used his own family as inspiration for the Fowlers. And Mick and Linda Carter are influenced by my own mum and dad. In fact, Johnny is a bit like me. So I know who these characters are,” he says.
Treadwell-Collins’s dad was the son of a farmer who came to London from Ireland at the age of 16. When he married the daughter of a fishmonger and hairdresser from Kilburn, the pair put their surnames together and started a catering supplies company, which ended up doing well.
“My dad died when I was 15,” he reveals. “And Mum, like an EastEnders matriarch, took over running the company. She’s the most incredible woman and, with the support of my grandparents, brought us up [he has a younger brother and sister].”
Treadwell-Collins sounds like an unlikely saviour: he went to Harrow and Oxford and recognises that the double-barrelled name and public-school education may seem odd for the executive producer of EastEnders: “But my family are a working-class success story and I am very proud of that.”
He’s also proud that the Carters are being depicted with all their flaws intact. This is no idealised version of family life. “Soap operas go wrong when characters come in who all get along. We did a lot of work defining each member of that family, looking at how they should rub each other up the wrong way, at the same time as loving each other.”
Kellie Bright, who plays Linda, is quick to agree: “Characters fall apart when there’s no substance to them. People have said to me that it feels as though the Carters have always been around and that’s because there’s been a lot to them right from the get-go. When we stepped into the roles, there was a history already there.”
As we talk, Treadwell-Collins is preparing to head off to a story conference where he and his writing team will lock themselves in a hotel room for four days to thrash out plots (“I jump up and down on a chair a lot and lose my patience,” he laughs). They meet every three months in different locations, but this time they’re going to the East End of London, where they’ll begin with a trip to Fassett Square, the area of Hackney that was used as the original inspiration for Albert Square.
Terraced houses on Fassett Square can now go for £700,000, a sum surely out of the reach of most Albert Square residents – even Phil Mitchell with his seemingly endless supply of cash. Yet Treadwell-Collins is determined – as creators Julia Smith and Tony Holland were in the mid-1980s – that the Square of his era starts to look like a real-life neighbourhood. So should we be preparing for the arrival of trendy hipsters from nearby Shoreditch?
“It should feel more like London. It’s been frozen in aspic for too long. Sharon said recently that she’s looking to be a landlady and as a result you’ll see the edges of Shoreditch creeping into EastEnders. It’s got to reflect the modern world.” And in a vote of confidence in the new regime, the BBC last week unveiled plans to build a brand-new exterior Albert Square set at Elstree that will be 20 per cent bigger than the original.
Already, changes are being reflected in the ratings, which, in the week ending 12 January, hit 8.91 million, an increase of a million over the past six months. And press coverage has spread from soaps’ usual home in the tabloids to the broadsheets – Grace Dent in the Independent renamed Christmas “Dyermas” in homage to the new star.
However, EastEnders isn’t the only soap getting column inches: Coronation Street has been in vintage form, with Hayley Cropper’s suicide winning awards and sparking national debate. But the Street’s producer Stuart Blackburn isn’t resting on his laurels. “I abhor complacency,” he says. “Hayley’s death was pitch perfect. It’s the proudest I’ve ever been. But after it’s aired, who gives a toss? We have the next 12 months to deal with and it’s got to be magnificent. If we have a bad six weeks, then it can be six months before we get the audience back. But I’ve every confidence in my stories.”
Back in Walford, Treadwell-Collins isn’t content with just getting EastEnders back on the map: “When EastEnders is at its best, it changes the world a little bit. EastEnders isn’t about propaganda, but it is about life, which makes it a very powerful show. And you have to use that weapon carefully – you can’t be glib with what you do.”
“It’s quite daunting for us actors,” admits Dyer. “Since we’ve hit the screen, we’ve seen how much of an effect it has on the viewers. It reaches out to more people than politics does, especially among the younger generation.”
EastEnders may have regained our attention, but the next trick will be keeping hold of it. Over the coming weeks, we’ll see new faces introduced, the return of some old ones and surprises for every family.
Acclaimed star of stage and screen Timothy West has already made the switch from Weatherfield to Walford to play Mick’s dad Stan. There’s also been the shock one-off reappearance by Laurie Brett as Jane Beale, while Lacey Turner is also set for a comeback as Stacey Branning. So why bring back old characters?
“It’s good to have one foot in the past while looking to the future,” reasons Treadwell-Collins. “My idea is to make the show feel fresh with the Carters, but also a bit nostalgic by bringing back characters we love. And there should be more secrets that will make the viewer gasp. You want those moments where the audience is thinking, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know that was going to happen.’ That used to be what the show did brilliantly and what I really want it to do again.”
And it’s heartening to know that the Vic’s new landlord is in full agreement with his gaffer.
“There’s something so exciting about one of those ‘duff-duff’ cliffhangers where you don’t have a clue about what’s coming next,” says Dyer. “You know, Dom really rolled the dice with us – there was a big build-up for the Carters and it could have gone either way. We’ve definitely had some good stuff, but we haven’t really scratched the surface. I get a shiver up my spine when I look at some of the stuff that’s coming up. I’m honoured to be a part of it.”
Behind the scenes of our exclusive photo shoot:
EastEnders is on BBC1, Monday and Friday at 8:00pm and Tuesday and Thursday at 7:30pm