Gay Times Reviews XXIX

Eastenders BBC1

Ten Years in Albert Square BBC1

Coronation Street Carlton

Brookside Ch4

Emmerdale Carlton

Neighbours BBC1

The Red Zone Ch4

Pot Night Ch4

Timewatch: Oscar Wilde BBC2

She's Out Carlton

February 19, 1985: I don't remember actually watching as Dirty Den, Ali Osman and Arthur Fowler burst through a door and onto our screens in the first, eagerly awaited, episode of EastEnders (BBC1). When I watch tapes now of this monumental moment in soap history, I only ever notice how dingy the lighting was. I was not an instant convert.

Originally entitled East 8 and created by Julia Smith (whose other claim to fame is that she owned Roly, the Square's despondent and gargantuan poodle) and Tony Holland (the writer who brought District Nurse to your screens with the delectable Nerys Hughes), the programme now has a robust rating of 20 million avid viewers. I now happily devour every episode.

EastEnders holds the position of being the only television soap from South of the Watford Gap. Set in the mystical, mythical borough of Walford, London E20, it is a lot at the back of Elstree Studios, previously occupied by Auf Weidersehen Pet. The 23 central characters were created in two weeks with only Mary the punk, "Nasty Nick" Cotton and two dogs still to find. A mere 17 million tuned in and the critics were ecstatic. "I fink EastEnders is t'riffic!" gushed the Sun. "Pacey, bright and convincing" said the News Of The World. "Dallas is bloodless stuff compared" cried the Daily Mirror. Ten years on, and the Daily Star are still flying that Union Jack. "If EastEnders gets any more exciting, I'll need a change of underwear."

The human cast has grown from 24 to 41 (not counting Big Ron) and the Square has been developed to include a chippie, a hairdressing salon and a betting shop along side the Mark's fruit and veg stall, Kaffy's caff, the launderette, Pat's car lot and B&B, the Mitchell brothers' garage, a mini-supermarket and the infamous pub. Seems odd that with all this extra construction work, nobody saw fit to put a bathroom in Ian and Cindy Beale's flat...

The pub — affectionately known as the Queen Vic — is the lynch pin of the community (and yes, the beer is real). It has been the scene for two conceptions (Michelle's Vicky and Cindy's Steven), a raging fire, a siege, a shooting, a stabbing, domestic violence, divorce, suicide attempts, numerous parties and argy-bargies, and the death of Tom the potman. In fact, 13 characters have been killed off in a variety of ways, from the cot death of baby Hassan Osman to the shooting of Den by an "underworld enemy", from Donna's heroin overdose to Gill's death of AIDS-related cancer. And who could forget the passing of Ethel's little Willy?

Due to the "gritty and ground-breaking" nature of the soap, sexual activity — both blatant and secretive — has never been far from the viewer's eye. EastEnders is by no means a moralistic show (despite the fact that there is always a religiously-inclined character lurking somewhere near Bridge Street). Seven babies have graced the set, and ten marriages have taken place (hardly any of which actually happened in church). And who could forget the well-documented liaison between Den and 'Chelle, or Angie's unsuccessful attempt to bed Lofty, Mary's short-lived career as a prostitute, Kathy being raped by James Wilmott-Brown, "EastBender" Colin's clandestine kiss with Barry, Wicksy's affair with (and impregnation of) Cindy, Sharon's pious turn after she was poked by a Reverend, the tempestuous affair between 'Chelle and Clyde Tavernier, Dr. Legg's all-encapsulating affair with his hat, the sexual chemistry that exploded between Phil and Sharon and Arthur's romance with Mrs. Hewitt? No wonder the Mail On Sunday asked "Who needs Shakespeare when we have EastEnders ?"

But all of that wasn't enough for an audience thirsty for intrigue and spectacle. Hospitalisations figure highly on the agenda, from Pat's brief spell after her tussle with the Walford Attacker and Angie's magnificent bed scene (bravely played sans slap) after her gin and aspirin binge, to Ian crashing his van upon discovering Wicksy had been wick-dipping with Cindy, `Chelle's painful time in intensive with a gunshot wound, and Phil's monstrous head bandage.

Peripheral characters came and went as well. Remember Rod the Roadie, the reject from Dexy's Midnight Runners who pampered punk Mary Smith before walking into the sunset with his guitar? What about Andy O'Brien, the brave soul who married an ex-Angel and lost his life saving a lil' toddler when a car trundled over him? And Eddie Royle, the ex-copper stabbed through the heart by that heroin-soaked manipulator Nick "Shut up Ma!" Cotton? What about Mo Butcher (Frank's grouchy mother who died of Alzheimer's) and Charlie, Dot "Ooh I saa-ay!" Cotton's errant, gambling husband? Or the Carpenters — lawyer Hannah, odd-job man Tony and Kelvin? Ah, what memories...

I had ample opportunity to re-assess this "bold and realistic" but oh-so fucking depressing soap with EastEnders — Ten Years in Albert Square (BBC1), a woefully truncated celebration of the programme that started out as a 300-word proposal. Not all of the above incidents were mentioned; in fact the programme wasted a vast amount of time clocking up how many times "Sorted!" was used. Lou Beale, the ancient matriarch of the Square, didn't warrant a second of airtime, neither did Carmel Roberts, the social worker whose marriage to toyboy Matthew ended because he severely beat her. Colin, Barry and Guido didn't get an invite to the party, nor did Saaed and Naima Jeffrey. The Osman's pet snake Crush was missed out too.

There were some classic moments though: Arthur's realistically-stubbled portrayal of a man wracked by severe depression, Den's canal-side dive, Lofty's asthma attacks, Pat's incarceration for manslaughter (and those horrid blouses), Willmott-Brown's appalling children, Nigel's collection of lurid kipper ties, Pauline whacking Arthur with a frying pan, Frank's disappearance, Ian's first tuft of chest hair... Well, maybe not classic moments, but they're all an integral part of a soap that has been equally venerated and slated but will probably run forever.

Onto another old potato, Coronation Street (Carlton), which has been running for 35 years — virtually since television's year dot. Shock Corrors Horror! Rumours abounded that — at long last — a role for a "dazzler" had been created, despite the fact that this Northern soap already has some of the campest characters around. This hardly-hyped whisper did come to fruition, but you needn't panic, he was only on for one night. Somewhat predictably, he was cast as a hairdresser who helped Reg Holdsworth out with a brand new rug. Of course, writers and producers have straddled the fence and said that they may develop a storyline around him. We shall see...

It's a bit of a frothy soap special this month, so onto Brookside (C4). The much-touted five episodes in one week (plus two omnibus editions to cope with it all) charting the Jordache's flight to Ireland with Sinbad (what a hero) comprised equal parts damp squib and exhilaration. The hapless pair were bailed, due to the Judge's tremendously astute observation that they would "hardly jeopardise" their lives by skipping off (despite the fact they murdered Trevor, something of a risky act in itself). Since then, the story has waned a little, punctuated only by Rachel's screeching: the poor girl hasn't spoken an unagitated sentence in two weeks. And yet more rumours. Anna Friel was said to have collapsed on set because of the extremely tight filming schedules, and that she wants to leave the soap. Once again, we shall see.

Emmerdale (Carlton) has had a little bit of lesbian drama as well. After a quiet spell carefully tending broken animals, Zöe (Leah Bracknell) found herself snogging Emma, the interior decorator at the newly-pined Woolpack. This kiss — unlike the sensational ones in Brookside — was not cut and was screened to a breathless nation only a smidgen after 7pm. No surprise really. It was virtually an innocuous peck on the cheek, not a full-on tongue sandwich. Are all lesbians really so polite when they kiss? I think not. The girls chatted about moving in together less than a month after meeting: Zöe refused and was promptly dumped in front of millions. Back to the bovine backsides then, I suppose.

Two months ago, I mentioned that few Australian soaps were pink-tinted. Thank you to RK Flynn, who pointed out the omissions in my viewing schedule and submitted four examples of gay-related storylines. Now even Neighbours (BBC1) has a gay character! I never thought I'd see the day. Debbie Martin (the bulemic daughter of the obnoxious Julie and the wimpy Phil) falls for swarthy landscaper Makka (I kid you not) who wears skimpy khaki shorts and unbuttoned shirts. Her almost obsessive pursuit of this dark-eyed Adonis is halted by his coming out. The crucial episode hadn't been transmitted as my deadline crept towards me like the Grim Reaper, but I shall keep you all fully informed, don't you worry.

Theme nights have become something of an art form over the last two years. Usually restricted to BBC2 and a myriad of archived humdingers, The Red Zone and Pot Night (both on C4) changed the routine formula by choosing sex and drugs as the topics. The former mixed the fact and fiction of erotica, pornography and the body trade, from the Manningham Diaries, the recollections of Bradford prostitutes and NYPD Nude (the tale of an officer who striped for Playboy), to Finishing School, a documentary that followed a dozen transsexuals and transvestites to a Torquay school to be taught "the ways of femininity". No doubt the duty office phones were ringing off their hooks at the sight of Italian nightclub strippers, Russian go-go dancers, amateur photography clubs (nudge nudge), silent films made by Mexican revolutionaries and — at last — Daddy and the Muscle Academy, the brilliant documentary on Tom of Finland.

Pot Night provided a lazy, hazy wander through the wonderful world of marijuana (only made illegal after WWII). Within nine hours of herbally-influenced programmes, Lily Savage (surely she'll be up for the award of Most Prolific Performer) made hash brownies, Laurie Pike trawled the racks of hemp-induced fashion, Adam Faith bought cannabis truffles for £65, the marvellous Bruce Morton traipsed around Amsterdam in search of a smoke, and dope-heads "inadvertently" spiked their visitor's beverages. If I hadn't been so wrecked, I'd have yelled for more.

Turn on, tune in, whatever. Timewatch (BBC2) are commemorating the life and times of Oscar Wilde as part of another of those themed nights, and Dolly Rawlins is back in She's Out (Carlton), the hugely anticipated sequel to Widows, prompted by a fan's letter to Lynda La Plante noting that Dolly was due for release in March 1995. I'm totally wet-knickered at the prospect.

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