Monday, 16 April 2012

Eastenders: where did it all go wrong?

I have always been given quite a bit of stick for watching Eastenders. I mean, I watch it religiously. When I am away on holiday, I usually find someway of watching it - legally or illegally - and am forever checking the entertainment news to find out what is going on on Albert Square.

It is sad really, but like a teddy you have kept with you since birth, I see it as a soother. Something that I have to take with me everywhere, something that if misplaced, I would very much miss.

All so I once thought. You see, any avid viewer of Eastenders would notice that, as of recent, the show has really let itself go. A few years ago, it was the king of the Soaps, with plenty of awards to its name, yet recently, it's lost ratings, cast members and even its executive producer. So where did it all go wrong?

The blame, I feel, should personally be given to Brian Kirkwood, who recently quit his role as executive producer, to the joy of many fans. The former Hollyoaks producer had certain knowledge, yet was given the gigantic, often impossible task of taking on the reigns at the BBC, filling the boots of Deidrick Santer, who had done such a fantastic job as executive.

Even before he had started the role, he was already faced with a cast mutiny. With two popular characters leaving - Peggy and Stacey - it was paramount that he brought back famous faces. And to some extent, he did. Popular couple Kat and Alfie soon made a return, yet this was overshadowed by other cuts, including most of the Slater family (he even admitted his mistake at cutting Jean, who was later re-written into the show) and the character of Minty, who had been in the show for more than 10 years.

He was immediately criticised for 'sexing' up the show by commentators, introducing characters such as Vanessa and Jodie Gold, Lola Pearce and Kim Fox to sex up the show, the latter being the only one who has shown real character potential. Other characters were introduced or returned, including Sonia and Lisa Fowler, only to disappear after one episode. Sam Mitchell, left soon after she returned, and Nicole Stapleteon, arriving only a year ago, is soon to depart, soon after the swift exit of Amira Masood. Interesting to note that the majority of these characters are blonde (just putting that out there.) Coincidence perhaps?

Understandably, all Soaps lose characters now and then. But the problem with Eastenders is that too many have gone, and not enough have been brought in to replace them. Kirkwood has, without a shadow of a doubt, tried to appeal to a new generation of young fans, with focus very much on the teens and kids of the soap, leading to the loss of older generations. Maybe this led to the departure of soap matriarch Pat Butcher, and fan favourites Heather Trott and Jane Beale?!

 But besides from the cast, what about the storylines? Perhaps his biggest mistake was the awful baby-kidnap plot involving Ronnie and Kat. I have no sympathy for him here, it was an awful storyline which was so far-fetched you would never have believed it if it wasn't for Kirkwood. For me, this was the turning point. It led to huge criticisms from all members of the public and society (over 10,000 complaints were made), and led to the departure of Ronnie Mitchell, played by the wonderful Samantha Womack. Ratings have declined ever since, with stories getting more and more far-fetched. Jodie and Darren, Lauren and her alcohol problem, Fatboy and Dot and so on, just a neverending line of bad decision making.

So what are his worst decisions so far? Here are my top five:

  1. Cast losses - ultimately, this has been his number one flaw. If cast members leave, it suggests that something isn't working. The loss of Pat, Heather and Ronnie, to name a few, along with the temporary departures of Bianca, Ricky, Janine and Carol all suggest that the cast are not happy with the current producers.
  2. Extending the Branning/ Moon families - both families are popular, but their new arrivals are absolutely awful. With the only exemption in the fantastic Cora, played by Ann Mitchell, the three Moon brothers, along with the terrible Derek Branning and the even worse Eddie Moon (played by crooner David Essex, who barely lasted 6 months in the role), have added little to the show. He would have been wise to stick with the characters he axed 2 years ago!
  3. Storylines - the Ronnie baby plot was ridiculous, although this has been overshadowed by the recent Ben Mitchell storyline, which is so unbelievable I'm considering staging my own murder to show the producers how it's done. Please, once they introduce a new  producer, can they get rid of Ben!
  4. Recasts - something strange which is usually criticised by audience members is when producers decide to re-cast actors. The problem with Kirkwood is that he brought in good actors, but changed the whole persona of the character, making it seem unrealistic. Ben went from camp and sweet to an evil thug, Lauren went from quiet to alcoholic and Lucy went from bitchy to, well, pretty dull. There's a lesson here, don't re-cast actors!
  5. Youth - it was a given that, coming from Hollyoaks, Kirkwood would opt for a more youth feel to the show. But seriously? It's not Hollyoaks, it never will be so don't even bother. Get rid of Lola, Ben and the two Moon brothers, and please shut Fatboy up. Thanks.
 So, rant over! I am not going to hold my hands up and say I am never going to watch Eastenders again, partly because I am watching it now and partly because I look forward to the future. I am hoping that, once a new producer is sought, Eastenders will get its mojo back. It has been in a rut before (remember the 2004 years, with the dreadful Fererra family!?) and it can get itself out. But one things for sure, it needs change. Get rid of the characters that add little to the programme - i've mentioned a few already, but other might include Billy, Roxy, Derek and Michael. The show needs fresh characters, but not extended families - no, it needs completely new families. Introduce a few former characters, i.e. Sharon, which is the only god thing that Kirkwood has managed to get right in the last two years.

So alas, my weekday nights are still dedicated to Eastenders, but for how much longer? Time will tell.

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