One of the UK’s favourite TV soaps, Eastenders, is set in a fictional square in the East End of London. The program was first broadcast in 1985 and has remained one of the top three prime-time soaps ever since.
Over the years, all of the country has enjoyed watching the lives of fictional Eastenders as they go through all the trials, tribulations and crises that you expect from a soap. Is it true to life? Who can really say?
Eastenders – The East End of London as a Soap
It certainly sticks to some preconceptions we have about life in the East End giving us a local community and lots of villains!
The Eastender community
Eastenders is set in a fictional square, Albert Square, in a fictional part of London’s East End, Walford. The square is a self-sufficient little community with a small market, shops and the hub-of-all-social-life, The Queen Vic pub. The residents of Albert Square, unsurprisingly, all live in houses and flats in and around the square itself.
The whole premise of Eastenders is community based. Like much of the East End, traditionally at least, Albert Square is populated by close-knit families and groups of people who become part of the local scenery. The primary focus in its early years was on the Fowler and the Watts families and their friends and neighbours. The Fowlers were ruled by a traditional East End matriarch, Lou Beale. Her son, Pete, ran the square’s fruit and vegetable stall. Her daughter, Pauline, did a good job of being Lou-in-waiting.
The Watts family were a little different – they ran the Queen Vic pub. Den Watts, the landlord, was Pete’s best friend, and he ducked and dived through life and his marriage to Angie. Their ups and downs before they split up traumatised their daughter Sharon and gave us some of the best Christmas Day TV viewing for years. The episode where Angie and Den finally imploded remains the highest-rated soap episode in the history of UK TV to this day with a whopping 30.15 million viewers.
Today, the Eastenders community is probably more true to life than in the past. It is more racially mixed and has more characters coming in and out. You can still spot a Beale or two and Sharon Watts is back so the connections with the past are still there. We now have new family units to watch, including the Mitchells and the Brannings
Like any TV soap, Eastenders is not really about everyday life. We aren’t really interested in spending days watching people do their laundry and have a pint in the pub. We want action and Eastenders has always provided that. The show has had its fair share of deaths, divorces, affairs, abuse and angst. It is much-loved by many viewers because of its villains.
Apart from Den Watts, one of the original bad boys in the soap was Nick Cotton. He was the black sheep son of Dot, who was an old friend of Lou Beale. Nick spent years coming in and out of the soap, bullying the locals and making his poor mother’s life difficult. It eventually turned out that he had murdered Reg Cox – the death of this character was the centre-piece of the soap’s first episode.
Over the years, the show has also given us Kray-like villains like the Mitchell brothers, Phil and Grant. Their mother, Peggy, even said in an interview that she had modelled the character partly on the mother of the Kray twins, Violet. We’ve even had Martin Kemp from Spandau Ballet play the mean and moody Steve Owen. In an interesting twist, one of the most recent villains in the soap, Derek Branning, was played by the actor Jamie Foreman. He is the son of the infamous London gangster, Freddie Foreman, who was an associate of the Kray twins in the 1960s.
Odd facts about Eastenders
Despite the fact that we all think that Albert Square looks like an East End London location, it is actually a set based in the BBC’s Elstree studios in Hertfordshire. Albert Square has some old buildings in it, but the set was created in the 1980s – set builders and designers had to use pickaxes to chip away at set buildings to make them look more authentic.
Eastenders is screened to countries all over the world and has fans everywhere, although the East End accents and dialogue have caused problems in some places. It is said that BBC America pulled it from its schedules in the USA in 2003 because Americans couldn’t understand what anyone was saying!
The comings and goings of so many characters can be a headache for the wardrobe department, which gets through around 150 costume changes a week. They buy a lot of Dot Cotton’s wardrobe in charity shops. She wears the same dress every Christmas – this is now the oldest piece in the Eastenders wardrobe department.