The origins of a festive tradition: a simple two-hander between EastEnders' Angie Watts (Anita Dobson) and her husband, Den Watts (Leslie Grantham). “This, my sweet,” Den snarled, “is a letter from my solicitor, telling you that your husband has filed a petition for divorce.”


“Happy Christmas, Ange,” echoed across generations. Thus, they became the festive East End demigods. It’s estimated that more than 30 million people watched Dirty Den serve his wife with divorce papers on Christmas Day in a now-iconic episode.

It’s often claimed that soaps have an exquisitely non-existent grasp of reality. Still, at their core, soaps have always depended on and roused human connections because these characters are drawn from life – we’re still being told human stories.

Dirty Den serving his wife divorce papers on Christmas Day is a comparatively minor revelation, but it’s the blueprint for all who came after.

There’s still a cosiness, a homeliness to it – the grasp on reality might be ever more tenuous, but these people still occupy a unique position within the public consciousness. The characters on the screen share our festive schedule, gifts, Christmas dinner, and TV. Even if they deviate slightly: gifts, Christmas dinner, bludgeon your arch-nemesis with a bust of Queen Victoria, and, if time allows, gather around the TV.

More like this

As a child, I underlined what I wanted to watch in the festive edition of the Radio Times with clumsy, chubby fingers, scarcely understanding words though able to recognise photographs of soap characters – and that personal connection is still present.

The choice has grown – and soaps have evolved. These specials are billed more often as “events”. It’s a rite of passage to have a formative Christmas soap memory, such as seeing Emmerdale favourite Tricia Dingle (Sheree Murphy) being crushed in the debris when the storm hit The Woolpack.

But few could forget the Christmas which unfolded as the Brannings gathered around to watch Bradley Branning’s (Charlie Clements) and Stacey Slater’s (Lacey Turner) wedding video in EastEnders. A family is shattered in close detail as the groom’s father unzips the bride’s wedding dress.

Tanya (Jo Joyner) and Max (Jake Wood) in EastEnders
Tanya (Jo Joyner) and Max (Jake Wood) in EastEnders BBC

It appeals to our desire to experience TV collectively – even as social media has replaced the fabled water cooler. Or perhaps it reassures us that few are having a picture-perfect Christmas.

After all, it isn’t Christmas without a family spat, as the most iconic screech in British soap history conveys, “you ain’t my muvva!” Who better illustrates that truth than the most famous families across our land? The Dingle Dynasty, the Mitchell Empire, the House of Barlow.

We relate to soap because it provides that rare thing. A little honesty regarding what it is to be a working-class family, a working-class community, and a working-class woman. British working-class women are so often hidden; when visible they are put upon and worn down.

Soaps let us have a reprieve, particularly at Christmas when we’re shown the fabric of British life. Your grandmother might have lived at No. 1 Coronation Street, on Albert Square, or drunk in The Rovers when Hilda Ogden (Jean Alexander) led the regulars sing Silent Night, or was there when Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor) wore her most glamorous clothing.

Each was a golden age for their viewers, which captured a moment in time, their generation, and it continues to provide simple, comforting nostalgia.

But soaps have also embraced the surreal. Emmerdale has given an innovative retelling of a Christmas Carol. The episode revolved around Robert Sugden (Ryan Hawley) dreaming after an accident – his moral guide? Val Pollard (Charlie Hardwick), wrapped in white fur, clutching a cigarette holder, accessorised effortlessly with a lace veil.

And what about the romantic? Who can fail to reminisce fondly on the wedding of two icons: Kat Slater (Jessie Wallace) and Alfie Moon (Shane Richie). The pair married at the Queen Vic before they streamed into the streets to see the artificial snow.

After all, for that final piece of festive warmth and catharsis, another Christmas cliché: at the end of the episode, everyone will simultaneously gather at the central point outside. Often while it snows and having set aside their adulterous or murderous intentions, they are in a festive mood, dancing and singing to Slade or Wham!. All is right with the world until the snow melts, and the body is uncovered in the cold Boxing Day light.

There’s an important place for the traditional festive soaps if they are written for – and seen by – people who care about the characters and their stories. It offers us a place we know well, people we grew up with, and a community as it represents our lives just a little. Viewers might still live at No. 1 Coronation Street or on Albert Square, and there is a comfort to that little personal connection that remains, even if it is just once a year – there is no better time to return than Christmas.

Read more:

Visit our dedicated Soaps hub for all the latest news, interviews and spoilers. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide or Streaming Guide.


The Christmas double issue of Radio Times magazine is on sale nowsubscribe now. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to the Radio Times View From My Sofa podcast.