35 years on from ‘summink stinks in ‘ere’ and not many people thought that the iconic doof doofs as the River Thames spins into sight would still be a regular fixture in many a home. EastEnders has had many ups and a few downs too but now, as it goes into its 35th anniversary full steam ahead, it is in its strongest form in quite a long time.
If you’ve never dabbled with Walford goings on, you occasionally just dip in for a bit of Big Mo banter or you stopped watching and did something productive with your evening, now is the time to sort yourself ahhht.
Laying your mince pies on EastEnders right now is a top way to spend 28 minutes of the night – here are 35 reasons the show is on top form right now both during the big week and beyond.
1. The grit is back. The show is known for hard hitting storylines, pure angst and a lot of darkness. Some watch soaps for escapism, sure – but let’s be honest, most of us watch to reason with ourselves that life could be worse. We could be getting dangled over bridges or have Shirley Carter chucking glasses at us.
2. So much is going on. Each week is packed with big storylines and small, all interwoven and with a great mix of characters – with up to 10 strands burning and exploding right now, there’s so much to hold interest. It beats the days of a single week only A strand story while Ted Murray played chess.
3. Families are alive again. In the show, in the trailers, in the interviews – family is the emphasis, as it should be. The Beales are being built up again and the existing families such as the Fowlers and the Carters are facing their biggest tests to prove how united, or not, they are.
4. There is diversity. There are always improvements that can be made in this area but introducing additional LGBTQ+ characters, a special Pride episode, a gay bar and expanding Patrick’s family while introducing the Panesars are all positive steps in the right direction both to represent London but also the entire audience who watches.
5. The Ballum effect. There’s no denying it, in the age of social media, every soap needs to be shouted about by its most passionate fans and nothing does that quite like a power couple that people can buy into, relate to and really feel engaged by. Whether it’s playful or angsty, Ballum just works.
6. The Panesars. Introducing a family en masse has been a success in the past and also a mistake – so drip feeding us Ash, then the brothers and now the fascinatingly cryptic Suki has kept the Panesar family intriguing and layered. We’re dying to know more about each and every character – but not so much in a hurry for it all to be exposed. Suki is one to watch…
7. The young cast are strong. EastEnders already has a generation developing of younger characters from love’s young but imperfect dream that is Tiffany and Keegan, to the next Janine Butcher in the form of Dotty. And whoever cast Clay Milner Russell as Bobby deserves a pay rise.
8. Issue led stories are at the heart of the drama. Chantelle and Gray’s domestic abuse, Linda’s alcoholism and the depressions from different angle of Sean Slater and Bex Fowler are story strands that have felt very real, sometimes relatable and sometimes horrifying enough to make us sit up and take notice, which is what EastEnders and Brookside, the soap it was most familiar with, was known for.
9. The cast is as strong as it’s ever been. There is little feeling of heirachy – the cast feel more like an ensemble unit rather than being packed away into category A, B and C characters. There are sublime performers who really go all out – I started to list names but ended up deleting them as there were too many to mention.
10. Experimental directing. As soap fans, we have to accept that as well as having our bread and butter kitchen sink drama, we need to move with the times as well. At the moment, EastEnders is experimenting with the occasional cinematic feel with added sound and visual editing for special weeks. And for the most part it is working a dream – looking divine, feeling special but not removing the heart of what the show is.
11. Shirley Carter. That’s it, that’s the point. If a soap has Linda Henry in it, the job is half done. Not even sorry.
12. Queen Whitney. Speaking of queens, Whitney may be the current most tortured soul of EastEnders but isn’t she gripping to watch? Shona nails every performance to the hilt, no matter what is thrown at her and she is a classic EastEnders character, fighting against the odds with unwavering strength in the mould of the likes of Kat, Ronnie and Mel.
13. Sharon’s sass. Sharon is camp as Christmas, a real dynamite of a soap character and EastEnders would be in a sorrier state without her. When Tish Dean is given the material to deliver all her fabulousness, whether with a pursed lip, a raised eyebrow, a cutting barb or a full on rant, Sharon cannot be topped. And right now, she’s at her best.
14. Complex characters. EastEnders is rarely split into goodies and baddies. Sometimes we feel for Ian, sometimes we laugh at him. Sometimes we could absolutely throttle him, especially for the way he treated Bobby. Other characters such as Stuart, Ben, Martin and Rainie have massive imperfections and have done some abhorrent things – and yet EastEnders has layered them enough to either make them redeemable or keep them engaging.
15. The interactions are on point right now. Soap never feels clunkier than when all friendship and relationship groups separate and there is no fluidity to them. Right now, we’re catching little scenes with characters like Jean and Mick, who rarely have a chance or reason to interact. Through experimenting like this, double acts like Mo and Kush and friendships like Chantelle and Linda would never have been born. The characters are mixing and EastEnders has the community feel nailed on right now.
16. Humour. It’s known for its doom and gloom but EastEnders can generally make you laugh out loud – way more than it is given credit for. Mo is too much an unsung hero of the comedy caper while one liners from the likes of Shirley and Sharon can be unbeatable. As a pairing, Stuart and Rainie also light up the screen and, even when he is being a snarky wee villain, Ben can make us chuckle with his ‘I don’t give a f***’ attitude to putting people in their place.
17. It’s action packed. Things are actually happening. It seems odd to say that in EastEnders but there have been times when this was not the case. But each month feels like an explosion of event right now – right from the shocking death of Mel Owen, it has been firing action at us left, right and centre. Episodes are genuinely unmissable if you don’t want to be spoiled on social media.
18. The women. EastEnders’ female characters – from Angie Watts to Pat Butcher and from Peggy Mitchell to Pauline Fowler – have always been the staple. And in the likes of Whitney, Kat, Linda, Shirley, Denise, Karen and of course, Queen Sharon, as well as many others, the female characters are leading the way with dominant force and real strength. And each character is different rather than being a standard soap trope caricature.
19. People are talking about the show again. The slogan used to be: ‘Everyone’s talking about it’ and genuinely, it feels like people are again. For the right reasons.
20. The trailers and press. EastEnders are rightly proud of their show and they’ve upped the game with promoting it for fans to get a buzz whether it’s a swanky trailer here or a preview clip there or cast having real energy when talking to press – the excitement is infectious.
21. There are twists. We are in the age of spoilers – there is no way of getting around that. But EastEnders still knows how to deliver a twist or a wtf moment that has been held back for the enjoyment of fans. Brace yourself for more of that soon.
22. Cliffhangers. The end of an episode feeling of being so frustrated at having to wait a day or more to see what happens next is what EastEnders is known for – there’s a reason those drubeats are so dramatic. And right now, that hunger for the next installment is very much there.
23. Everyone gets the spotlight. No-one is the show at the moment but cast members who previously were forced into the backseat a little bit are shining just as much as others. Take Honey for example, forever smiling sweetly behind the counter of the shop. Give her a heart wrenching plot about self image and bulimia and Emma Barton reminds us all of what she is capable – and of how much we care about Honey beyond her being a familiar face in the Minute Mart.
24. Karen Taylor. The most recognisable voice, the most quotable lines and the most GIF-fable character of all. Long live Karen Taylor, a true, modern day EastEnders legend. Over the top but with a fierce heart, a filthy laugh and some genuine warmth, she epitomises the perfect soap characters.
25. Couples we can get behind. Soaps are often a hotbed of cheating but couples we can really root for like Tiffany and Keegan, Ben and Callum, Iqra and Ash, Kat and Kush and Jean and Daniel (sob!) are also plentiful. Everyone needs a ship.
26. It can make us cry. Speaking of Jean and Daniel, EastEnders is subtly airing one of its most powerful stories so full of heart in many years with the bittersweet love story between jean and Daniel. She’s kooky, he’s a miserable sod, they love each other and they both happen to have cancer. We know it’s not a happy ending but for a cancer storyline, it has shown how differently an illness story can be tackled – with heart, humour and hope as well as sadness.
27. There is still legacy. From older clans such as the Fowlers, Beales and Mitchells to the brimming with possibilities Slaters and the now much loved Taylors, EastEnders already has much of the legacy that will propel the show forward. And with key clans still in place, there are always reasons and opportunities to revisit former faces too such as Lisa, Grant, Sean…
28. It’s fearless. EastEnders isn’t at the moment being as cautious as before – it’s pushing things to the limit either with its fight scenes, its risky decisions of pushing couples like Linda and Mick to the absolute brink and by now shying away from the brutality of situations such as Gray’s control and abuse of Chantelle.
29. The location. The show is all about London – as this special week hits home. And it seems to have remembered that more of late with its mix of characters, the feeling of East End community in the backstreet pub and the use of the location a little more. And on the Square having both the nightclub and the gay club among locales to visit, it gives plenty of backdrop variety for the characters to mix in.
30. Fantastic re-casts. It’s always a dodgy business slapping a new face on a well known character but anyone who says that Max Bowden, Clay Milner Russell and Milly Zero haven’t brought a real nuance and edge to Ben, Bobby and Dotty – as well as bulking up the younger generation and core families – has been watching a different show to me. And I’m pretty sure you’ll be equally as impressed with Dayle Hudson as Peter Beale version 512.
31. Fandoms. EastEnders fans are a loud, passionate, fiery and busy bunch and that’s just what a soap wants – if the storylines and characters aren’t creating debate as well as friendship groups and loyalties to particular parts of the programme, it means those watching don’t care enough. But just dip your toe into social media and you’ll see right now that the fans care.
32. Big Mo. She deserves her own point, if only for her terror that the boat had hit an iceberg. From the moment she hid in a coffin, we knew it was the right thing to bring Mo back.
33. EastEnders is event TV again. With publicity, trailers, social media buzz and water cooler moments, people really are tuning in to watch and engage with the show. With iPlayer records being smashed, it’s not hard to see why – with so much going on in the show, there’s a real FOMO if you’re behind.
34. Kate Oates and Jon Sen. Loathe as we are to highlight the big brass when EastEnders is such a massive and hard working team, there’s no denying that the killer team of Kate and Jon has really propped up EastEnders and left it in a healthy place as it turns 35.
35. And there’s so much more to come. It was never the plan that the 35 would be the climax and then it’s back to business. What you are about to see is many huge storyline strands kick for months and years to come. The EastEnders team have big plans – and for a show aged 35 to still create such excitement and buzz through that is a real testament to it and everyone who is a part of it, whether they work on it or they are a fan of it.