Four months back in Albert Square and I never want to leave

Ed Williamson

2nd May 2014

It's been something of a revelation to me, as the worst kind of TV snob who likes to watch and discuss "high-end", mainly American, drama, that four months back in the snug embrace of Eastenders has been quite so rewarding.

I don't mean that Eastenders has been light relief, or a (*spits*) "guilty pleasure". I mean that it's been good, and that it's engrossed me totally. That is, after all, what a soap is supposed to do: allow you into a world and let you live in it.

I was a regular Eastenders viewer for several years, from the late nineties through the glory periods dominated first by the Slater sisters and then counterposed by a string of alpha males (a deliberate reactive decision by the producers, worried it had all gone a bit girly): the Mitchell brothers, the returning Den Watts and the excellent, haunting arc of Dennis Rickman. The storylines were fantastic; mainly crime-based back then but grounded in the Square's everyday reality. Just look at Dennis's Wikipedia page: he went through more in two years than Walter White.

And he lived happily ever ... oh.

In around 2007 my job meant I was never home when it was on and I began to lose touch. Then, of course, in 2013 I discovered that Danny Dyer was going to buy the Queen Vic, and I decided to hop onboard again. The dynamic was always going to be interesting: when sticking a recognisable face into a soap there's potential for disaster, with the big name (I know, I know: relatively big name) overshadowing the background work. But on a soap, everyone's more or less equal.

Dyer shows no signs of frustration with this. Mick Carter's the landlord of the Vic, which serves as a narrative focal point and place for characters to meet, so naturally he does a lot of background stuff when the episode's about someone else, pulling pints, doling out a few one-liners ("Get it out your nut, get back in the boozer and earn your keep," he told a pensive Shirley a couple of months back) and letting others do the heavy lifting. When the Carters are front and centre he's a disarmingly likeable figure, too, and this is what's most surprising about his character.

The assumption was he'd be another of the aforementioned alphas, a rival for Phil Mitchell with a criminal history. Not a bit of it: he runs a pub and he loves his kids. When his son Johnny came out as gay early on, the scene between the two was quite touching, and a scene back in his father's flat where Mick recalled his childhood in foster care just as much so. Last week he was a blubbering wreck watching his dog giving birth.

"Hi, and welcome to Danny Dyer's Deadliest Men. We're going to be–"

It sounds like damnation with faint praise, but Danny Dyer makes so much sense as a soap actor. The discipline amounts to a lot of short-scene work, often comedic, punctuated by occasional bigger emotional scenes, and the sheer speed of production means you need to be ready for them. They don't hit it every time, but when they do, the level of investment you have in them makes it so much more powerful. Adam Woodyatt as Ian Beale, whose daughter Lucy was murdered over Easter, has done some astonishing stuff this last fortnight, and it's all the more remarkable given how rarely a soap actor is called on to hit these heights. Most of Ian's life is spent moaning and being a blowhard, which Woodyatt can do in his sleep, but every couple of years he has to up his game for a big story, like a striker short of match-fitness, coming off the bench and scoring a hat-trick.

You forget, being away from a soap for so long, and immersing yourself even in long-form TV drama, how it brings in ideas and then makes you forget about them for months before they come back around again. Episodes focus on three or four sets of characters, with the others sidelined and waiting their turn, or even absent with the actors on a scheduled break. Nancy Carter was revealed to have epilepsy and we've seen nothing of it since. Charlie Cotton, supposedly Nick's son, turned up and befriended Dot, then disappeared again for a few weeks, probably scheduled to pop up again in late May to move a bit closer towards revealing his latent dark secret. None of this is unsatisfying, because the pace is deliberate, you're used to it, and besides, there's other stuff going on to keep you interested, and you're invested in pretty much all of it.

This is what I've found most remarkable overall: how easily Eastenders has sat alongside my regular viewing. I expected to lose interest a bit after a month or so when The Walking Dead, Elementary, Girls and House of Cards all started coming back and I had less time for it, but without fail I've found myself keeping up. I think this is because a soap is a second life of sorts. Your year is punctuated by three-month bursts of your favourite shows, but the soap's always there. You invest in even the minor characters because you live with them, and everyone takes their turn at centre stage. The point isn't that it's better or worse than anything else; it's just a different prospect.

My only regret is that Dirty Den is dead, and so will never again twat Phil with a chair.

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