Why EastEnders is finally back to being the best soap on TV
Executive producer Chris Clenshaw has really worked some magic for Walford.
It has been a long time coming but EastEnders is finally back to being the best soap on television.
The past few years have not been too kind on the BBC soap opera, with storylines that failed to capture the public imagination outside of the occasional short-term shock twist and only a few relationships producing strong fan responses (looking at you, Ben Mitchell and Callum Highway!).
However, after a fair amount of time bogged down in lacklustre stories, EastEnders finally feels revitalised and one cannot help but notice that this began following the appointment of Chris Clenshaw as the show's executive producer last year.
As the commander-in-chief of the show, Clenshaw just seems to get what EastEnders is all about: grittiness, community, character, a dash of camp, and - of course - faaaaamily.
This could not be more evident than in the soap's current issue-led storylines. EastEnders has faced some criticism on social media in recent weeks that there has been an "overload" of these highly emotional stories, but EastEnders has always thrived when breaking boundaries, raising awareness and targeting issues where stigma remains, all while starting conversations in the process.
The axing of Lola Pearce has proven controversial but the storyline surrounding her terminal brain tumour has not only provided the best material in forever for actress Danielle Harold but also for other actors in her orbit, including Jamie Borthwick as Jay, Perry Fenwick as Billy, and young Isabella Brown as Lexi. The show has focused on Lola's devastating personal experience but also the impact of her diagnosis and treatment on the loved ones around her, grounding her story very painfully in reality.
The same storyline has also delivered a fantastic casting in the form of soap veteran Patsy Kensit as Lola's mysterious mother Emma Harding - who we can't wait to see more of.
Similarly, the storyline tackling Zack Hudson's HIV diagnosis has also added further layers to the womanising character and also allowed actor James Farrar to show off what he can do with such weighty material.
Not only has this served Zack's character but it has also had a real-world impact by showing how far HIV treatment has come since the days of EastEnders' groundbreaking storyline concerning the classic character Mark Fowler.
Terrence Higgins Trust, the UK's leading HIV and sexual health charity, saw a 75% increase in website traffic after the episode of Zack's diagnosis aired, showing the potential of EastEnders to inform as well as entertain.
It is not just excelling with issue-led stories either, as EastEnders delivered a classic Christmas period with its sensationalist and explosive drama detailing the exits of iconic characters Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Janine Butcher (Charlie Brooks), proving a ratings winner for BBC iPlayer over the Yuletide period with 23 million streams.
There have also been suggestions that women are suffering a great deal in EastEnders but the practical reality is that characters in soaps will always suffer for the sake of drama and EastEnders - and soaps as a genre - thrive especially when focused on its leading ladies and strong matriarchal figures.
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This is evidenced by its focusing on tragic heroines in the form of Whitney Dean (a flourishing Shona McGarty) and Lola, or allowing the likes of Kat Slater (Jessie Wallace) to become a strong matriarchal figure as evidenced by her recent scenes supporting Whitney in the hospital and supporting Lily Slater (Lillia Turner) too; carrying an air of the beloved Pat Butcher (Pam St. Clement) in the process.
The younger ladies of Walford are depleting in number but the show will always work best when introducing its characters organically through strong stories and with thorough development, leaving little doubt that more additions will be added to the ranks in due course.
Of course, the show also needs to balance its past, present and its future. In terms of the show's strong modern assets, the Panesars remain a true success story from previous producer Jon Sen's era and Clenshaw has taken that baton and run with it, helping Suki Kaur Panesar (the incredible Balvinder Sopal) especially to become one of the soap's most dynamic and complex leading players.
Meanwhile, returns of older characters have also been handled well too, as shown by the surprise return of Keanu Taylor (Danny Walters) opening up a whole new bounty of story possibilities, not least for camp soap icon Sharon Watts (Letitia Dean) who always deserves to be front and centre.
Alongside Keanu, Clenshaw has also firmly established a recently returned Sam Mitchell (Kim Medcalf) as one of the most textured characters on the Square and made a really strong friendship (or is it romance?) for her with Zack too.
Elsewhere, it has not just been through such full-time returns that the history of Walford has been respected, as shown in the beautifully handled funeral episodes for Dot Branning, played by the late icon June Brown.
In a series of moving returns and touching moments, there was real pride in the show's past here, with timely and organic references to classic storylines for some of the show's longest-running characters.
In fact, this reverence for the show's legacy is evident in dialogue and discussions outside of "special events" too. Soap operas are the only genre of pop culture outside of perhaps comic books that can tap into a well of such rich narrative history and, if they are also to reflect real life, the characters should share their similar experiences or open up about their life stories now and again.
Conversely, this era has been looking to the future too with the arrival of some fresh talent that has seen casting thinking a bit more outside the box. Bobby Brazier has been a breath of easy-going fresh air as Freddie Slater, while Matthew Morrison has proven what a charismatic addition he is as Felix Baker - let's just hope we see more of them both soon.
There is also a real sense of strengthening the younger members of the cast with the likes of Ellie Dadd and Lillia Turner tackling some complex issues as Amy Mitchell and Lily Slater, respectfully, and showing an innate natural ability to capture their teenage character's emotional journeys. If Dadd and Turner can hold their own opposite some of the show's greatest performers such as Diane Parish and Lacey Turner then the show is on to a winner in giving them more material in future.
Outside of the show too, social media is playing a huge role in getting the storylines to a wider audience, with Lily's pregnancy turning into a viral discussion point on TikTok and helping to create conversation about the show again. The EastEnders social media accounts also appear to be displaying more behind-the-scenes content and utilising the cast's off-screen personalities to help increase that buzz too.
Building a community outside of the soap is one thing but it still remains vital for the fictional world of a soap opera to flourish, something which has been rather absent in an organic sense in recent years with characters and families operating very much independently of others, but now the opposite is occurring it feels natural and less forced than previously. We are back to having a vague idea of how all of the characters feel about each other and seeing characters interact who may not typically share scenes together.
A recent example of allowing characters to mix more can be seen in moving the underutilised Bernie Taylor (Clair Norris) into Kathy's Cafe, giving her the chance to have regular interactions with a wide range of players and giving her an added value in the ranks of the whole cast.
Of course, no soap is perfect, they all go through peaks and troughs and handling such a large cast means some characters can be neglected or underused for some periods of time - but we just hope they get their time in the spotlight soon (especially Kathy Beale and Callum Highway!).
Yet, with a storyline that has not been done before on the horizon for the soap later this month, it feels like buzz for the show is at its highest than it has been in years and is proving that EastEnders can take risks and still surprise us despite nearly four decades on our screens.
You can read more about Edwards' Syndrome on the NHS website, or visit SOFT UK and Antenatal Results and Choices for help and support. EastEnders is working closely with Brain Tumour Research and Macmillan Cancer Support on Lola's storyline, and you can find help and support by visiting the above websites. For help, support and guidance around HIV, visit the Terrence Higgins Trust charity website.
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