For a genre famed for its social realist storytelling, soap has been taking a lot of risks of late: flashbacks, flash forwards, live instalments, point-of-view specials. But tonight’s EastEnders broke new ground again with an episode that saw real testimonies from those affected by knife crime play out alongside the funeral of Shakil Kazemi, himself a victim of a fatal stabbing. The big question, though, is whether the blending of fact and fiction was a success? In a way, this move by the BBC does demonstrate one thing: that soaps (perceived by programme makers and critics as a rather rigid format) have the potential to be more flexible than you might initially imagine. But the result in this case was, unfortunately, something of a misstep – albeit an honourable one.
The issue for me was that the recollections from the likes of Yvonne Lawson (whose son, aspiring footballer Godwin, died in 2010) and Caroline Shearer (mother to Jay Whiston, murdered at a Colchester house party in 2012) were so traumatic and horrifying that the EastEnders characters just couldn’t compete. Rather than complementing the drama, these direct-to-camera accounts ended up overshadowing the events in Walford. And how could they not? When you’re seeing real grieving mothers, head in hands, despairing at life’s cruelties, any right-thinking viewer is going to focus on them rather than the fictional facsimiles.
What this evening’s EastEnders showed was that drama and documentary should remain two distinct mediums. Documentary’s remit is to capture life as it is, drama’s role is to take those specific experiences and present them in a creative way that we, as viewers, recognise but may have struggled to articulate had it not been for the skill of the writer. The trouble is that all the insight on EastEnders came from the words of the special contributors rather than the dialogue given to Kush and Carmel.
Shearer was seen talking about being a member of an exclusive and expensive club that nobody wants to join, while Carmel (through no fault of Bonnie Langford) has spent the majority of her time throughout this storyline reciting statistics. Kush, too, has been criminally underused: his role tonight reduced to fretting about the whereabouts of his mum. Only in fleeting moments have we seen how Shakil’s death impacts on the Kazemis at a personal, domestic level.
OK, so tonight’s funeral episode pushed them to the forefront, but it was – if we’re being honest about it – a belated show of confidence in the plotline. Back in May, when Shakil lost his life, EastEnders chose to juxtapose his death with the surprise return of Alfie Moon – a baffling move, seeing as actor Shane Richie’s one-episode comeback had nothing to do with the stabbing story and could easily have waited until the following week. The result was that we, as viewers, weren’t given the opportunity to emotionally invest in what was happening to the Kazemis in their moment of crisis thanks to this shifting of focus on to Alfie, who hadn’t appeared on screen since the climax to spin-off Redwater in 2017.
Then there was the press quote from show boss John Yorke about his desire to present the subject of knife crime in a “responsible, non-sensationalist” way – a statement that ended up being partly at odds with the way the stabbings played out on screen. What I refer to here is the scene where Mick tried to take an injured Keegan to hospital, only to be caught in the glare of the headlights of a lorry heading at speed towards him after his own car broke down. Non-sensationalist? It was exactly the opposite.
But perhaps this highlights the quandary at the heart of all this. Yes, it’s a very London-centric story, especially seeing as knifings in the capital are now at their highest level in six years. But its message is actually at odds with a lot of what else goes on in EastEnders – after all, this is a bruising, melodramatic show where many of the Albert Square residents are regularly involved in life-or-death cliffhangers and routinely try to solve their problems with violence. This year we’ve already had the likes of Mick, Keanu and Vincent getting embroiled in an armed heist and a vengeful Phil threatening Hunter with a baseball bat. And only last week, Mo was seen going for Ollie with a hammer in a showdown at the Slaters’ house.
Yes, EastEnders has always presented its audience with flawed characters, but the problem comes when someone like Phil is venerated as a local hero, as he was in March when he launched gangster Aidan Maguire through the doors of the Queen Vic and ejected him from Walford. Do you see what I mean? On the one hand, EastEnders is telling kids to put their knives down, but on the other, the unapologetically thuggish Phil (who rarely gets comeuppance for his actions) remains the go-to guy in a time of crisis.
The whole thing, though, boils down to one line of Denise’s concerning Shakil: “He deserves to have his story told properly.” But, for me, EastEnders has fallen short of doing just that. The aftermath of Shakil’s death was bungled – why, for instance, were the teens suddenly playing Spin the Bottle in the E20 on the Monday after his demise? Why was the plot temporarily abandoned in favour of Stuart revealing that he’s a paedophile hunter? And now, on the day of the funeral itself, we’ve had storyline research positioned front and centre when really it should have been used to develop characterisation.
Admittedly, the one moment where reality and drama knitted together to good effect was when the contributors were seen holding photos of their loved ones as the coffin was carried from the church. If EastEnders really wanted to introduce true-life elements, then this genuinely moving sequence with its haunting Abide With Me soundtrack could have sufficed. Instead, what we’re left with are so many missed plotline opportunities – shouldn’t Karen have had that pivotal scene with Carmel, during which we could have explored both loss and survivors’ guilt? Maybe Bex could have wrestled with giving a speech in church rather than Tiff? How about Sharon and Denny being involved more, seeing as Dennis Rickman was himself stabbed to death in 2005?
In short, all I really want is for the show to be telling good stories involving characters to whom I feel connected. By drawing attention to the fact that the neighbourhood in Albert Square is artificial, EastEnders is ultimately running the risk of alienating its audience rather than making them feel a part of Walford life.
Visit our dedicated EastEnders page for all the latest news, interviews and spoilers.
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news