More than just a sentimentalised view of working class life, Eastenders can often cut through some of the big issues facing working people argues Sofie Mason
It’s easy to make fun of Eastenders but we have always told stories to make sense of the world so it’s worth looking at the sense being made for us in Albert Square. After all, National Grid personnel monitor the power surge at the end of every episode, when up to 9 million viewers switch on their kettles, just in case they need to ask for additional power from France. That’s big! Especially for a show that claims to reflect the ordinary lives of working class people - and not the fantasy lives of the rich, the powerful and the unfeasibly beautiful.
Well, whether it does reflect working class life or not has been hotly contested ever since it started – and that was in 1985, bang in the middle of the miners’ strike. Especially suspect is that none of the characters seems to work anywhere but round the corner and none of them is ever a member of a union. 26% of employed people in the UK are in unions so one in five of the characters should be in something – the National Market Traders Federation? Allied Baristas? The Camorra? Denise did argue with HR once in the mini-mart about her maternity rights and got sacked for shouting blue murder. Which is hardly empowering but, as any trade union official will tell you, all too common. It could have been a subliminal reminder that you can’t start a revolution on your own.
But the ambition to tackle big topics and taboo subjects that affect ordinary people has kept Eastenders at the forefront of public chitter chatter. Often derailed by limp storylines - such as the recent Slater brood caterwauling about the importance of 'famleee' around reluctant mother Hayley, the otherwise sensible Linda befriending the incomprehensible fuck-up Stuart, and Keanu risking dismemberment by Phil in the unlikely pursuit of Sharon - nonetheless, the good stuff is pure gold.
At the height of the Weinstein scandal last year, Cathy’s recollection of her rape at the hands of her boss James Wilmott Brown was a timely and brilliant insight into why a woman would wait decades to acknowledge the experience.
Just last week, we reached the end of Carmel’s emotional journey after the stabbing of her son. The writers avoided trite explanations for the crime and even triter solutions but moved instead from a mother's grief to a brother's 'survivors guilt' to best friend Keegan's urge to stab the stabber, even embracing the struggle of the mother of the killer to come to terms with hating and yet still loving her own son.
That's the collateral damage, now what do we do? Carmel tries to set up community activity for bored young people, involve the police in education in schools, become an ambassador for charities tackling knife crime and visit her son's assailant in prison. She tries to substitute for the failings of the state and, unsurprisingly, fails.
In the end, her attempt to break the circle of violence, brings her up against Keegan and I was genuinely moved by what I believe the message beneath the story was - desperate, marginalised young people who have no stake in current society and can see no future for themselves will only understand the value of a life not, as you would think, when they are nearly killed themselves ("Even though you nearly died, you learnt nothing!" shouts his brother) but when someone close demonstrably values them. A fierce sense of community and solidarity will not fix the world but it helps.
Of course Eastenders doesn’t set out to blow wide open the contradictions of capitalism but, at its best, you hold your breath for the flawed and floundering humanity on Albert Square not because you are falling for a sentimentalised take on working class grit but because you are getting a glimpse of a far finer sense of morality, community and collaboration than you will find in many of our traditional role models. Will this merely serve to bind us to civic duty and obedience? Maybe, but it could just as easily fuel our distrust of authority and boost our faith in the collective. Doof doof ……
Sofie Mason is a political activist, arts campaigner, trade union official and occasionally works for all-female plumbing company Stopcocks.
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