Red Pepper archive

Square deal

Mental illness and queerbashing are the latest dramas in Albert Square. Campaigning groups have praised the careful research and sympathetic portrayal of characters. But is it radical or is it a substitute for action? Jacquetta May, who played Rachel, one of EastEnders' few middle-class characters, takes us behind the scenes

EastEnders, like every soap, has never lacked critics. The programme appeals to the lowest common denominator, they claim; it is the opium of the masses; nostalgic; formulaic; a poor substitute for real relationships. The soap is conservative. But there is also appreciation: it represents working class life; describes women and their concerns; portrays black and Asian characters; gay lifestyles; deals with contemporary, controversial issues. The soap is radical. What interests me is how this conservatism and radicalism in EastEnders are vital, if unlikely, bedfellows. The role of women in EastEnders illustrates this well.

The British urban soap tradition demands a working-class set-up because it is centred on community. Middle-class lifestyle is too private and career-based to create a realistic sense of community. Middle-class characters do occasionally become regulars (I was one myself), either as toffee-nosed baddies or positive liberal influences. But once these jobs have been done, they become redundant. A script editor told me that nowadays liberal or non-liberal characters are used rather than the problematic middle-class regulars. And of course EastEnders portrays working class life because it was designed to attract the working class audience from ITV.

Soaps have traditionally appealed to women. No one knows the real figures, because men tend not to admit to watching the programme. I can't count the number of times shopkeepers and taxi drivers have said to me: 'I know who you are – you're off EastEnders. Course I don't watch the programme myself, but the wife has it on.'

It is not surprising that women watch. Compared to most TV, EastEnders has a fantastic range of female characters, from schoolchildren to older women, black, Asian, Turkish, daughters, wives and grandmas. This is a healthy cross-section, but does it really reflect any sort of true experience? Take Cathy Beale. Surely no woman's life could contain such a catalogue of disasters: slum childhood, two rapes, a drug-taking daughter, product of the first rape who tops herself, a broken marriage, disastrous affairs and now an alcoholic husband who endangered their son's life. The biography of Pat Butcher who used to be a prostitute is equally melodramatic. Running through the women's biographies you are struck by the contrast between a realistic portrayal of women and the familiar stereotypes. As well as Cathy, the good, long-suffering woman and victim, and Pat the tart, there are the gossip, the mother-in-law and the bossy grandma.

So where's the realism? I think there is realism and an endorsement of female ability, not in the big dramatic stories, but in their fall-out – the day-to-day working through of problems which arise amongst the families and community that make up Walford. This is where women shine.

British soaps, unlike their American counterparts such as Dallas, represent a matriarchal tradition. Women are at their heart. The mother takes on the major responsibility for the family, sheltering its members from the tribulations of the world and absorbing their rebellions and conflicts. Pauline and Arthur Fowler also represented the matriarchal relationship of strong woman/weak man. Arthur, only sporadically employed and disabled by a breakdown, often behaved like a little boy while Pauline had to make the decisions and keep the family functioning in the face of poverty and unemployment, teenage pregnancy and depression.

'But we're family' is an over-used phrase in the programme that means blood ties come first. Grant and Phil Mitchell endlessly fall out, get drunk together and say 'I love you bruv' in a manly sort of way. Loyalty to clan is highly valued, but I don't think that EastEnders is trying to promote Daily Mail-type 'family values'. There are single mothers (Michelle had Vicky at 16), single fathers (Clyde and Kofi), mixed-race and gay and lesbian partnerships. And family life, even when 'traditional' is represented as hard graft and problematic.

The highest value is placed on family because it provides a sense of belonging; satisfies the need for roots and identity. This encompasses the whole Square, making the community a sort of family, prey to upsets and conflict, but at the end of the day all pulling together. But in EastEnders, community is not just an analogy for family; there are so many nephews, nieces, brothers and mothers-in-law, ex-wives and stepchildren that most of the characters are related by blood or marriage. The incestuous atmosphere is kept on the boil because in Albert Square relatives rarely move away – they just move round the corner. And if they happen to be out of the picture for the moment, they turn up eventually – long lost and full of dramatic potential.

This compulsive over-representation of family threatens the programme's commitment to realism but it allows a portrayal of the most intimate details of the characters' lives and relationships. The fiercer and more intimate the connection, the stronger the drama, the more terrible the secret, the more wicked the rumour, the more awful the betrayal, the more cataclysmic the falling out, the more shared the triumph and the bigger the celebration at the Vic. There is the family, and at the centre of it is a woman. The meat and veg of the series is in the talking needed to sort out personal relationships and the examination of feelings that emanate from them. The 'traditional' feminine qualities of emotional intelligence, perception and the desire to understand and negotiate are highlighted; women deal with difficult decisions with careful concern. We always get the woman's point of view and see her skills at reaching solutions.

Confiding female friends are obviously useful to a soap because of the amount of information that can plausibly be divulged, but there is also reflection: the past is examined; regrets expressed; support and home-grown wisdom offered. In action-led dramas there is no time for this. 'Cut to the chase', a common script-editing term, means stop talking; get on with the action. But EastEnders has never stinted on the reflective scenes.

Take the episode where Phil Mitchell goes to Alcoholics Anonymous. Phil's alcoholism has ruined his business and broken up the family, and Cathy has persuaded him to get counselling. The East End boy is put in an alien and uncomfortable arena where men are forced to talk about their problems and expose their vulnerability. Meanwhile Cathy and Pat re-examine past mistakes and agree that life is hell, but you've got to keep struggling, mend the electrics ('wait for a man to do a job and you'll wait forever') and have a laugh. The reward for talk is quick; after only one counselling session Phil is able to reveal the basis of his problem: his father had beaten him as a kid and he fears that he will do the same to his son. The episode blames his destructiveness on the 'male' response to self-hate: violence. It says that unless problems are worked through (the female method), they will be repeated generation after generation.

However, although women are rewarded for their dogged and intelligent approach to life, they are still reacting to men. It is the men that torch the Vic or kill a publican (creating big action stories). A woman is more likely to be rewarded for being long-suffering than for taking action.

Take the tart, for instance. She cheats on her husband without remorse, seeks sexual satisfaction in an aggressive manner and tramples on female solidarity in order to achieve her aims. Her sexuality is often connected to money; she likes fast cars and expensive suits and has never wanted to do a day's work. The tart is manipulative, greedy and bad, but she is vital.

I was talking recently to a script editor about the new tart, Frankie. 'Oh, but she's a pathological tart,' he said. 'What do you mean – a nymphomaniac?' 'No, she's got, like, an illness where you break up marriages and move on – you always want something you're not allowed to have. Er... it's called... Butterfly Syndrome.' This did seem to be pathologising female sexuality. I mean, who has ever heard of Butterfly Syndrome? They wanted that storyline badly enough to search through obscure psychological tomes. It's as though they wanted to push her pretty far and, lacking plausible motivation, they found an illness; the modern gloss on demon possession.

The tart is also vital because her badness defines female goodness. If the woman has no modesty but has an ulterior motive, she becomes a wicked tart. When 'good' women have affairs, they show love and get caught out – and the family structure survives. So if the tart is to become a key figure she must first be 'made better', even if it breaks the rules of scriptwriting.

Michael Fergusson, an ex-producer on EastEnders wrote a kind of rule book for writers and script editors on the programme in which he says: 'The integrity of the character's personalities is never violated. No character's logic is ever distorted to serve an awkward plot. Their biographies are never adjusted retrospectively.' And yet the notorious bitch Pat Butcher went through a radical and sudden character change when the programme decided to make her landlady of The Vic. She settled down, married Frank, took on stepchildren and mellowed completely. Now, she's bosom pals with Cathy and all for female solidarity. In order for her to take on such a central community role it was deemed necessary to make her 'good'.

In real life, women exhibit self-motivation and independent activity in work. Let's have a look at the Walford world of work and how far EastEnders promotes positive images of female competence.

Life on the Square is full of people working – in the market, in shops, as mechanics and as secondhand car dealers, but no one works in a factory, a large multinational organisation or office block. Such big buildings would ruin the cosy 19th century geography of the Square, but characters could quite plausibly travel to work in them. However location shoots are costly, and a large office block requires complicated camera set-ups, a lot of time and a plethora of extras. Also such organisations are impersonal, their members are cogs in a machine, and this is anathema to soaps. In order for the soap world to function, work must be about personal contacts. And indeed it is. Work at the launderette, for instance, is passed around and handed on in a highly ad hoc manner.

Most importantly, places of work are meeting places. They are public arenas where private concerns are aired and shared; where stories interweave, information is swapped and, in the pub, celebration of community takes place.

EastEnders is lousy at showing repetitive work and alienation, the forces of capitalism at play, exploitation or collective action. In its array of small businesses it represents the rise and fall of the self-made entrepreneur and consequently has a conservative approach to labour. What it regularly represents, though, is unemployment, casual and part-time work, so women are well represented amongst the Walford grafters. But Walford women do not have successful careers. Lorraine, Grant Mitchell's girlfriend, had a successful career as a cosmetics saleswoman taken away from her, along with her house in Bolton, car and money. How else could she plausibly take on a bar job at The Vic and a romance with Grant?

So, although women are well-represented, and the female viewpoint is consistently endorsed, although women's work, emotionally and practically, is championed, boundaries and stereotypes are an inevitable part of the soap format.

The rules and requirements of soap drama limit what women can be shown as doing. Yet judging by the tabloids and Mary Whitehouse, who regularly complain that EastEnders is undermining the moral fabric of our society, one could be forgiven for thinking that the programme sees itself as the radical campaigning arm of the BBC. Take the emergence of the HIV/AIDS story – the issue I was most closely involved with. It was a tragic beginning: the original actor who played Mark Fowler took his own life. So the fictional Mark has to leave the Square. After a few years it was mooted that they should bring back the character using another actor. The family of the original actor did not object. But EastEnders had a problem: why had Mark been away so long with no contact whatsoever with his family? Mark had to be in pretty big trouble. The HIV story fitted the bill perfectly. It was highly contemporary and plausible. It contained secrets, revelations and tragedy. The ripples and repercussions were dynamite and, as long as there are still people on the Square who don't know Mark's secret, the story can run. Recently, years later, it was used again. After a delicious set of rumours and coincidences, Peggy Mitchell, landlady of the Vic, overhears that Mark is HIV positive. She mounts a hate campaign. One day Mark returns home to find AIDS SCUM scrawled on the walls of his house. Good story – but now the programme has a problem with Peggy Mitchell: a key figure of the community has exhibited pig-headed ignorance and appalling prejudice. She must be punished and redeemed.

Enter: the Breast Cancer Story. Peggy, malicious gossip and bigot, herself becomes the victim of a life-threatening illness. At Christmas they run a Christian forgiveness story. Peggy calls on Mark and tells him she now knows what it is like to suffer as he has. She apologises, thus underlining one of the basic tenets of the programme: underneath the skin we are all the same, human and vulnerable, and recognition of this should unite us not divide us.

Along the way, a great deal of useful information about these illnesses was broadcast. So, although EastEnders endlessly repeats its conservative format, and although all issues are there primarily to feed the great hungry story-beast, its positive by-products cannot be denied. The programme must change and such changes militate against its becoming too cosy and old-fashioned, hermetically sealed like Coronation Street. And so long as family and community remain the vital connecting web of the programme, the central role of women will guarantee a continuity through these changes.