For years, we’ve witnessed Phil Mitchell pin Ian Beale to the floor with lead piping, give him more bog washes than he’s had failed marriages and generally threaten to ruin his life. But tonight, these two bitter enemies actually hugged it out on the sofa, the tears and snot flowing freely.
Blofeld never broke bread with James Bond, the Joker won’t cuddle up to Batman, and yet Phil (Steve McFadden) and Ian (Adam Woodyatt) have found the superhuman strength to put a lifetime of enmity behind them in the wake of Lucy’s death.
It was a rather wonderful moment of TV: raw, touching and deliberately uncomfortable all at the same time. But it’s doubtful that this is a permanent cessation of hostilities. As Ian recovered his composure and apologised, Phil in turn told him to “forget it” and sniffed back his own distress, a clear signal that this was just a quick flash of solidarity.
Which is as it should be, really. We don’t want Phil and Ian going for dirty great fry-ups together in the caff or doing a charity three-legged race in Lucy’s memory. But soaps’ unique ability to chart life, love and loss over years and sometimes decades does allow for such moments of humanity from unlikely parties to briefly shine through.
And it’s not just EastEnders that recognises the power of a bit of male bonding. Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow and Mike Baldwin called temporary truces when it mattered most. Rivals Brian Aldridge and Matt Crawford have also seen eye to eye at times of crisis on The Archers.
In a genre where strong women are usually the founts of all wisdom (think Lou Beale or Rita Tanner), it’s only fair that the men get to provide the odd rare insight. Interestingly enough, on this occasion, it was Phil who was able to be a more empathetic source of support than the highly strung Sharon.
But watching this week’s episodes of EastEnders, it’s hard for long-term fans not to be reminded of a scene from 1985 (see the end of the episode below) when Ian was again in need of support. Back then, it was the aforementioned Lou who was the shoulder for Ian to cry on as he fretted about his future in catering:
“As you get older, time flies by,” she told her grandson. “Before you know where you are, you’ll have children and grandchildren of your own. You’ll look back at the problems you’re now facing and wish your future problems were as simple.”
Ian’s woes have certainly worsened in the three decades since that portentous conversation, yet how emotionally rewarding for the viewer to have Phil come to the rescue in his hour of need. But let’s hope – for the sake of future plotlines – that they don’t stay bosom buddies for too long.
EastEnders continues on Monday at 8pm on BBC1
Phil and Ian in 2014
Ian and Lou in 1985 (from 24 mins)