By Stuart Manning
It’s last orders at the Vic. After 35 years and 6,000 episodes, the unthinkable has happened: EastEnders is going off the air, ending a 35-year unbroken run.
With production on hold since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, BBC One has cut back its EastEnders broadcasts, but the stockpile has run out. While Coronation Street and Emmerdale have resumed filming in time to keep broadcasting, the residents of E20 are going to have to sit things out. EastEnders will be back soon, but looks set to be off our screens until August or September.
For BBC One, it’s a risky proposition. Soaps are shows that depend on viewer habit and routine: Break the routine and you risk losing your audience. Yet there’s a sense that an enforced break might what just what EastEnders needs.
It’s been a tough few years for Walford, with abrupt changes of producers and creative direction leaving EastEnders a distant third in the ratings. In recent months, execs Jon Sen and Kate Oates have made impressive inroads to refocus and innovate the show: Production standards have been freshened up, with improved lighting, camerawork and – controversially – even the occasional tinkling of incidental music.
Set-piece episodes like Linda Carter’s drunken New Year nightmare and Ben Mitchell’s recent point-of-view aural psychodrama have shown EastEnders punching high and breaking away from its traditional format, yet this ambition hasn’t translated into ratings. The episode that preceded the Prime Minister’s address to the nation on March 23 received a boost to 7.31m, but otherwise there’s been no upswing. Recent instalments have averaged 5.2m, compared to Coronation Street’s 7.5m.
So by going off air, might EastEnders potentially offer jaded audiences a new jumping-on point? Is it a chance to draw the line under the shortcomings of recent years and let viewers appreciate the show through fresh eyes? At the very least, we’ll soon find out if absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Some changes are already confirmed: When EastEnders returns, it will be back to four episodes a week, but with the compromise of shorter, 20-minute episodes for the foreseeable future.
Another, more tantalising question is how will EastEnders reflect a changed London when it returns? Recent episodes have focused on yet another protracted tug-of-war over the ownership of the Vic, but it’s difficult for viewers to care when no one’s seen the inside of a pub for three months.
For years, EastEnders producers have pledged to more authentically reflect contemporary London, but have made little headway. Yes, hipster market trader Shrimpy has a touch of Hoxton about him, and Canary Wharf occasionally hovers above Walford’s rooftops courtesy of CGI, but the nation’s Capital often feels as far away as the 18 miles that separates the actual East End from the show’s Borehamwood backlot.
London has been hard-hit in recent months. By reflecting the realities of post-coronavirus London, EastEnders might finally achieve this impossible goal, to become a show resolutely about London life in 2020.
But are viewers ready for a pandemic soap? Is it a dose of reality too far? Perhaps, but it offers a chance to take EastEnders back to its roots. When the show debuted in 1985, the East End provided a threatening urban backdrop. Fast-forward three decades, and gentrification and renewal has made those postcodes practically suburban. Great for estate agents, less so for script writers trying to engineer Greek tragedy within the sound of the Bow bells.
The pandemic aftermath can shake away that cosiness and restore some of Albert Square’s traditional unease. Walford is a fictional world that feels perfectly suited for masks and distancing and wariness. EastEnders can embrace these possibilities and tell its stories through a new prism: How would alcoholic Linda be coping in lockdown, confined to the pub she now hates? How would Chantelle Atkins face being trapped in a house indefinitely with her abusive husband Gray? There’s even room for the show’s trademark gallows’ humour: Surely Big Mo would be on the make right now, making a mint selling dodgy face masks?
Whatever happens, the show’s producers need to make this break count. After months off air, a low-key return and business as usual won’t be enough. But, unlike any other soap, EastEnders embraces bleakness: It’s not without heart, but its soul is undeniably dark. Midway through the most relentlessly grim year in recent memory, it should be the soap for our times.