1 9 8 5 – Current (UK)
At the start of 1984 a patch of land at the back of the BBCs newly acquired Elstree studios lay dormant and derelict. It had last been used six months earlier by the previous owners, Central, for their hit series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.
A year later, that wasteland had been transformed into bustling Albert Square in the fictional East London borough of Walford, E20, and the BBCs long-denied dream of a twice-weekly serial to battle Coronation Street had become reality, in the shape of EastEnders. In another 8 months, it would be the most popular television show in Britain.
The first episode of EastEnders, in which Reg Cox was found dead, was watched by over 17 million people on 19 February 1985. Three days later, the story broke that Leslie Grantham (who played ‘Dirty’ Den Watts) was a convicted murderer who had served eleven years in prison for killing a taxi driver when he was a soldier in Germany back in 1966, and the love-hate relationship between EastEnders and Fleet Street began.
Britain’s tabloids were soon obsessed with the show. This hysteria blew the importance of the programme out of all proportion, but it did wonders for the ratings. On 24 October, three weeks after Michelle told Den he was the father of her baby, EastEnders topped the viewing figures for the first time, thereby ousting Coronation Street.
The principal families were the Fowlers, the Beales and the Wattses. Co-creator Tony Holland based the Fowlers and the Beales on his own relatives while many of the names were taken from East End cemeteries.
There were the usual teething problems: Ethel Skinner was supposed to have had a pet Yorkshire terrier and Den Watts an Alsatian, but suitable canine performers could not be found so they settled for a pug and an apricot standard poodle respectively.
And the role of Angie Watts was to have been played by actress Jean Fennell, but she was sacked before the first episode and her place was taken by Anita Dobson.
The characters became national heroes. Susan Tully, who played Michelle Fowler, was used to introduce the NSPCC’s ‘Better Parenting’ campaign, and Bill Treacher (Arthur Fowler) became a symbol of the unemployed via the ‘Hands Across Britain’ day.
The show continued to go from strength to strength in 1986. Viewing figures constantly topped the 20 million mark.
Den’s mistress Jan turned up at the Queen Vic, Angie tried to commit suicide, Arthur was arrested and Michelle finally married Lofty.
Then at Christmas, Angie and Sharon left Den, and deeply depressed Arthur broke up the Fowler household. Those two episodes on Christmas Day attracted audiences of 30 million – the highest ever recorded viewing figures in Britain.
The miracle continued through 1987 as the show began to screen in Australia, New Zealand, Holland, Norway, Barcelona and parts of America.
On screen, Arthur went into hospital in January and came home in April, Jan walked out on den and the Dagmar reopened. Gay Colin’s Barry ended the affair. Ethel left the square at the start of 1988, followed a few months later by Lofty and Angie.
EastEnders has always showed inner London as an unlovely place. It is never cute and has never ducked the important issues of the day – rape, unemployment, homosexuality, alcoholism, abortion and prostitution.
And yet the series remains at the top of the ratings nearly 30 years later.
Prisoners at Dartmoor staged a riot when they couldn’t see Michelle marry Lofty, couples flooded Marriage Guidance counsellors after Den and Angie broke up. And the programme has even been included on the syllabus for inner-London school children.
When EastEnders began, Pauline Fowler was truly overshadowed by mother Lou Beale, who lived in the family home and ruled over it with a rod of iron. She was all about dowdy cardigans, shifts in the launderette and worries with husband Arthur and daughter – gymslip mum Michelle – until Lou’s demise and the onset of age saw her transform into a matriarch.
Pauline’s obsession became family, which was her undoing towards the end of her life when she became embroiled in a bitter dispute with son Martin and his wife Sonia. She was driven to fake a fatal illness, accidentally set fire to the house, and on Christmas Day 2006 died alone in the snow of Albert Square.
Pat Wicks first appeared in Albert Square as a hard-nosed brass hell-bent on causing trouble with ex-husband Pete Beale (Pauline Fowler’s twin brother). As the years progressed she married teen sweetheart Frank Butcher and was the working mother at the centre of family life – which proved to be more dramatic and wayward than her trademark earrings.
She was unable to forget Frank even after marrying fourth husband Roy, embarking on a colourful affair which culminated in a public dressing-down by arch-rival and fellow grande dame Peggy Mitchell.
George ‘Lofty’ Holloway
Pam St Clement
David Scarboro (1)
Todd Carty (2)