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: Wikimedia Commons and Getty
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“Rise like lions after slumber”: why do Jeremy Corbyn and co keep reciting a 19th century poem?

How a passage from Percy Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy became Labour’s battle cry.

“If I may, I’d like to quote one of my favourite poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley,” Jeremy Corbyn politely suggested to a huge Glastonbury audience. The crowd of nearly 120,000 – more accustomed to the boom of headline acts than elderly men reading out romantic poetry – roared its approval.

“Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number!” he rumbled. “Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you: ye are many – they are few!”

The Labour leader told the crowd that this was his favourite line. It’s the final stanza of Shelley’s 1819 poem, The Masque of Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo Massacre earlier that year, when a cavalry charged into a non-violent protest for the vote.

Though it was not published in Shelley’s lifetime – it was first released in 1832 – the poem has become a rallying cry for peaceful resistance. It has been recited at uprisings throughout history, from Tiananmen Square to Tahrir Square.

Corbyn’s turn on the Pyramid Stage was not the first time he’s used it. He recited the stanza during his closing speech on election night in Islington, and the audience began quoting along with him:


It was also used by comedian and celebrity Labour supporter Steve Coogan at a rally in Birmingham:


During Corbyn’s second leadership campaign, his ally Chris Williamson MP told a public meeting that this part of the poem should be “our battle cry” . He delivered on this the following year by reciting the poem to me in his Renault Clio while out on the campaign trail in England’s most marginal constituency (which he ended up winning).

You can hear it echoed in Labour’s campaign slogan: “For the many, not the few”.

Corbyn’s election guru, James Schneider, told the Standard at the time that “it would be a stretch” to say the slogan was taken directly from the poem, but that “Jeremy does know Shelley”. Yet even he took the time to recite the whole stanza down the phone to the journalist who was asking.

Corbyn is famously a fan of the novelist and author Ben Okri. The pair did a literary night at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank in July last year, in which the Shelley lines came up at the end of the event, as reported by Katy Balls over at the Spectator. Okri announced that he wanted to recite them, telling Corbyn and the audience:

“I want to read five lines of Shelley . . . I think there are some poems that ought to be, like you know those rock concerts, and the musician starts to sing and the whole audience knows the lines? And sings along with them? Well this ought to be one of those, and I’d like to propose that we somehow make it so that anytime someone starts with the word ‘Rise’, you know exactly what the lines are going to be.”

Which, of course, is exactly what Corbyn did at Glastonbury.

“We have this huge, abundant literature on the left and it’s hardly known”

The former left-wing Labour leader Michael Foot loved the poem and recited the lines at demos, and Stop the War – the campaign group Corbyn supports and chaired – took a line from it as the title of its 2014 film about anti-Iraq War action, We Are Many.

So why does the Labour left rally around some lines of poetry written nearly 200 years ago?

“It’s a really appropriate poem,” says Jacqueline Mulhallen, author of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary (Pluto, 2015). “Shelley wrote a poem about the fact that these people were protesting about a minority taking the wealth from the majority, and the majority shouldn’t allow it to happen.

“He was writing at the beginning of industrial capitalism, and protested then, and 200 years later, we’ve still got the same situation: food banks, homeless people, Grenfell Tower, more debts – that’s why it has great resonance when Corbyn quotes it.”

“Shelley said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now”

Michael Rosen, the poet and former Children’s Laureate, also describes the poignancy of Shelley’s words in Corbyn’s campaign. “You’ve got a sense of continuity,” he tells me. “Shelley was campaigning for freedom, for free thought, for free love. He was campaigning for a fairer society; it was a time of incredible oppression. He said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now.”

Rosen celebrates the poem’s place in the Labour movement. “When any of us from the left quote people from the past, we’re saying that we have traditions... We’re making a claim on our authenticity,” he says. “Just in the same way as the right and the establishment draw on the pageantry of the Queen, or talk about Parliament or quote Winston Churchill. These are our traditions, which are different. You hardly ever come across it, either in newspapers or history lessons or anything.”

Rosen, a friend of Corbyn’s, believes his speech brings a left-wing tradition alive that is often forgotten. “We have this huge, abundant literature on the left and it’s hardly known. What’s great about Jeremy calling on it is to remind us . . . This stuff sits in old museums and libraries, gathering dust until it’s made active and live again. It’s made active and live particularly when being used in an environment like that [Glastonbury]. He was making the words come alive.”

Read more: 7 things we learned from Jeremy Corbyn on The One Show

The Masque of Anarchy’s final stanza has been recited at high-profile protests throughout history – including at the 20,000 garment workers’ strike in 1909 in New York, the student-led demo in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, anti-Poll Tax protests, and at Tahrir Square in Egypt during the Arab Spring, according to Mulhallen. The way civilians were treated by the authorities in many of these protests echoes what happened at Peterloo.

So does Corbyn’s penchant for the verse mark a similar radical turning-point in our history? “It’s indicating a change in attitude that people should start thinking about redistributing the wealth again,” says Mulhallen. “People are becoming much more aware.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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