To television executives at Britain’s BBC1 channel, soap opera was a dirty word. But it was a proven fact that twice-weekly serials were a precious commodity and a guaranteed ratings-bringer so, of course, they had to have one. Enter, EastEnders.
Well, not exactly. It would be nearly two years from initial idea to it airing on TV screens. But when that day finally did arrive, it was with much ballyhoo and as a result, the residents of Walford have been sinning, scheming and shocking the nation for nearly 35 years.
Premiere Date: Tuesday, 19 February 1985
Masters and Creators of EastEnders
Wanting to ensure success, David Red, the then-head of series and serials at the BBC, contacted Julia Smith and Tony Holland. The two had worked together for years as a producer/script editor team and already had one successful serial under their collective belts — the BBC’s Angels.
They sold the channel on an idea that would follow the lives of a group of neighbors in an economically-challenged Victorian square neighborhood, who scrimped and saved the profits from their small businesses and then, inevitably, blow it all at the local boozer, The Queen Victoria.
When trying to decide on a look and a feel for their new series, Smith and Holland took inspiration from one airing in the United States — the cop drama Hill Street Blues.
What Is In a Name?
Among the many working titles for the program appeared London Pride, Square Dance, Round the Square, and E8 — the one that stuck around for the greater part of the pre-production phase.
However, the final decision was reached after both Smith and Holland realized that they had been phoning casting agents about their roster of real “East Enders” and decided that they had actually had their title all along.
EastEnders’ primary focus was on two families — the large and raucous Beal/Fowlers, which consisted of matriarch Lou Beal and her children, twins Pete and Pauline. Pete’s second wife was the sultry, husky-voiced Kathy and they had one son, Ian. Pauline was wed to Arthur Fowler and had bore Mark and Michelle.
Across the square, inside The Queen Victoria Pub dwelled licensee Den Watts, his flirtatious and frequently-inebriated spouse Angie and their adopted daughter Sharon.
The series pilot began with a literal bang as Den Watts forced open a locked door with his boot and offered the less than comforting observation that, “Oy, stinks in here, don’t it?”
Den was part of a three-man posse tasked with checking on local curmudgeon Reg Cox, whom the Albert Square residents hadn’t seen hide nor hair of for three days. Together with Arthur and café owner Ali Osman, Den found the man in question unconscious in a chair and in need of serious medical attention.
Twenty-eight minutes later, the viewing public had met a plethora of other characters, including Pauline (whose medical screening was interrupted by Den demanding Dr. Legg’s services for Reg) and ne’er-do-well Nick Cotton, who shoved his fist through the glass partition of The Queen Vic’s door.
At first, EastEnders was seen twice a week — Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. Now, it airs every weeknight (barring Wednesdays) with the Monday and Friday showings scheduled for 8 p.m.
There have been 131 deaths (including beloved pets), 50 births and 67 weddings. The first dispatch, hatch, and match respectively, were Reg Cox, Martin Fowler, and Lofty Holloway, and Michelle Fowler.
Owing to the proliferation of character passings, a scientific study published in the British Medical Journal found that living in fictional Walford was more dangerous than being a bomb disposal expert, a Formula One driver, and a steeplejack.
Adam Woodyatt is the program’s longest-serving actor as he and the character he portrays, Ian Beale, have remained since the first episode.
Ian Beale and his onetime step-father Phil Mitchell have been embroiled in a feud for decades but the men do have one thing in common; they are, apparently, EastEnders’ most eligible bachelors. Both have walked down the aisle with four women but Ian is the matrimonial victor because he said “I do” to Jane Collins, twice — it’s one of the few battles Ian has ever won.
Actress June Brown, who has played hypochondriac Dot Cotton since 1985 (except for a break between 1993 and 1997) is the longest-running female. Brown was the center of a well-received solo episode — the only one of its kind — and is the wearer of the show’s oldest prop — a red dress she has worn on every Christmas episode.
A storyline concerning Kat Slater admitting to being sexually abused by her uncle as a child is credited with raising the number of phone calls made to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children by 60 percent.
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