Where did EastEnders go wrong?

Where are the Somalian faces and the realistic depictions of Multi-Cultural London English? What used to be a boundary-pushing British institution is rapidly becoming completely irrelevant.

EastEnders: it’s as recognisable a facet of our culture as awkward silences on the tube, the Royal family and fish’n’chips: the quintessentially Ing-Ger-Lish soap opera, where everybody lives in a cramped terraced house, refuses to pronounce their T’s and indulges liberally in H-dropping. EastEnders is the show by Londoners, for Londoners, a million miles away from such sanitised American counterparts as Dallas, with its lavish sets and fine furniture. One might even call it a true British institution.

In its original incarnation, EastEnders truly was the breath of fresh air that the British soap opera scene had been longing for. It had a niche; it plugged a genuine gap in the market. It was a Shakespearean drama married with a sense of gritty, cutting-edge, kitchen-sink social realism. This was the longed-for accurate representation of the inner-city working class – perhaos not quite to the level of ‘Shameless’, we might argue in 2013, with its kids riding in trolleys, bonfires in car-parks and discarded furniture, fridges and/or washing machines left to rot in the front garden - but still: alleyways had puddles of piss, litter was in the gutters, graffiti decorated the walls of dilapidated houses. To its eternal credit, the Beeb’s East London soap never shied away from exploring controversial contemporary issues:  through the years we’ve seen EastEnders deal with AIDS, teen pregnancy, racism, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, and homophobia, to name only a few.

But despite these achievements, there is also something that has gone strangely backward in Britain’s most beloved soap. In fact, having done research for this article by watching innumerable clips on Youtube and iPlayer, I can tell you that at its core, the modern-day version of EastEnders is horrifically boring and disappointingly watered down. Less than halfway through my marathon, I felt with absolute certainty that I’d rather watch gears grind. The plotlines failed to grip me; the characters displayed less charisma than I’ve seen before in pavement cracks. What exactly has changed?

Over time, we have seen EastEnders transform from a gritty and boundary-pushing production with a genuine feel to a middle class writers’ portrayal of working class life. Simply put, as EastEnders becomes a plot-driven drama, the realism suffers - and I’m not talking about the mandatory rape/death/fight/incest/UFO sighting that occurs with loveable predictability every Christmas Day.

As we know, EastEnders is set in the fictional East ‘Lahndan Tahn’ of Walford, postal district E20. The programme first came to the small screen as a representation of a dying, (predominantly) white working-class in inner-city London. According to Underground History, “the fictitious station is located on the District line. The map on the wall was printed with actual train times to and from Walford East – though closer inspection of the map showed that Walford East was located between Bow Road and West Ham (thus taking the place of Bromley-by-Bow).”

If accuracy is to be considered, then, EastEnders would represent inner-city, highly multi-ethnic slums such as Bow, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Walthamstow and Mile End as opposed to highly industrialised and distinctively white working class East London suburban towns such as Barking and Dagenham. It’s surprising, then, that the racial diversity is so out of kilter. For instance, where is the Somali family who would have been so likely to move onto the EastEnders streets? Since 1993, the Somali community has continued to expand all around the UK from suburbs to inner-cities, even more so in London. The first round of Somalian immigrants were predominantly refugee and thusly placed in social housing on estates so familiar to the cast of EastEnders. Their absence in the soap is disappointing.

Such major discrepancies matter, especially when you consider the well-known words of EastEnders writer Julia Smith: "Above all, we wanted realism.” And while the writers’ commitment to such realism is echoed in their efforts to have characters continually discuss real life events such as Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory and the royal baby, some portrayals are woefully out of touch: chirpy Cockney geezers on market stall screaming, “Three for a pahnd!” where the reality is much more “one pound fish”.

This isn’t the only example of out-of-touch dialect in the soap. While EE’s FatBoy incorporates certain facets of Multi-Cultural London English in his speech, a character like Liam is still going around saying, “That’s sick, blad” with a straight face. And for all the Bens, Abbies and Laurens, where are the kids in the youth hostels? The ones that didn’t grow up in a nuclear family? The ones that took to drug-dealing and crime not because they were peer pressured by yuppies with slit eyebrows doing their best Dizzee Rascal impression, but because they actually have to make a living or else starve?

I’m willing to put aside the 2004 slang. What I can’t put aside is that this the general representation of Multi-Cultural London English in EastEnders. Those who speak it in the soap are invariably a crude personification of those imaginary characters the red-top rags label the ‘feral youth’, ‘chavs’, ‘ASBOs’. This simply reinforces the belief that MCLE is a language of the streets, a language of the uneducated, uncouth and unashamedly ignorant and unsympathetic, one to be dropped as soon as civilisation occurs. As a result of education and other modes of social mobility, people born in relative socio-economic deprivation have been able to propel themselves toward a higher level of cultural capital and up the social ladder, all the while retaining the mode of speech that they always used. But these people don’t exist on Albert Square. The people speaking MCLE on EastEnders are those feral black boys leading the poor white boy astray. It brings to mind David Starkey’s infamous insinuation that “white boys...turning black” is a major reason for social decay.

With a sensitive overhaul of its language and its racial diversity – preferably an overhaul directed by people from the communities they write about - EastEnders would have a fighting chance of returning to its former glory. But, sadly, from where I’m standing, it looks like the soap that was once a British institution is now in danger of becoming completely irrelevant.

Yacine Assoudani is a writer of Afro-Arabian descent, born and raised in Hayes, West London. Tweet him @YassinMY

EastEnders: out of touch? Image: Getty.
Yacine Assoudani is a journalist from West London. More of his work can be found at www.mediadiversity.uk. You can tweet him @YassinMY
Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.