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.

New Statesman
EastEnders: out of touch? Image: Getty.

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