The Pub Sign from The Queen Vic, a T-shirt logo from 1986.
THIS PAGE WAS WRITTEN IN 1998 - INFO AND LINKS MAY BE
OUT OF DATE
Arguably, Eastenders is not the first programme made by the BBC to qualify as a "soap". "Triangle", set on a cross-channel ferry, was certainly more like a soap-opera, and there were plenty of domestic, long-running, series that went before; but if you include as part of the definition of a soap that it is broadcast every week of the year then Eastenders was the first - it was commissioned to run two nights a week from the start. ITV's Coronation Street and Emmerdale began as short series, Albion Market and Crossroads are no longer with us, so strictly speaking the only other "true" UK soap is Channel Four's Brookside, and neither show can be called lightweight!
In the mid 80's the BBC decided to move with the times and schedule a strong "audience grabbing" programme at the beginning of the evening. The Wogan chat show was to run every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7pm and they wanted something for the other nights. Plenty of ideas were listened to, but the winner was Julia Smith and Tony Holland's concept. They offered it to the BBC without asking for the fees normally associated with the credit "devised by" which could have made them very rich indeed. Julia was a highly respected producer - she has been quoted as saying that she once phoned her boss with the proposal "Nerys Hughes, District Nurse, set in Wales" and got the go-ahead over the phone.
They didn't want to tie up a studio at West London Television Centre - by the time the sets were struck each week it would be time to put them back - and have to travel across London to the "real" locations, so it was fortuitous that the old ATV studios at Elstree were for sale. Designer Keith Harris built the Albert Square back lot on the site last used for Auf Wiedesehen Pet and the interior sets were moved into Studio C. Crews were recruited from Television Centre and a number of dry runs were begun to get them used to working on the back lot. I first visited Elstree when they were still digging cracks in the paths and planting weeds in them. The set was very convincing, although to begin with there were only three sides to the Square and nothing beyond Bridge Street. It is rumoured that one of the sound mixers was overheard saying "of all the places to build it, they have to put it right next to a railway" as he stood beneath the dummy rail bridge. Any trains you have seen have been matted in, which has happened on two occasions to my knowledge, Lou Beale's funeral and the VE Day street party.
The dry runs had at least one result - the actress that was to play Angie Watts was replaced by Anita Dobson at quite short notice, and the doomed couple of Den and Angie were destined to become the audience's favourite sparring partners. Shooting got underway and by the time the first episode hit the screens things were running smoothly - early attempts to run scenes together in the studio, with Julia shouting "Cue and Cut" from the back of the gallery were slowly forgotten and they stopped writing long five handers in the "First til Last" shop where there wasn't any room for cameras (until it was extended, so it now encroaches into the Launderette).
Stuff your Poxy Boozer
As Nick Cottons words brought the first episode to an end, public and press reaction was luke warm, but over the summer of 1985 things began to build. Tabloid revelations that Leslie Grantham, who played "Dirty" Den Watts had in real life served a prison sentence for killing someone did the show no harm at all. Another boost was the scheduling of a Sunday Omnibus repeat, which has always brought in a decent increase in the audience figures. As the storyline "who's the father of Michelle's baby?" came to a head, the viewers and even the newspapers really got behind the series. Of course, Den was the father, but somehow the papers hadn't found out (or chose not to spoil the story). In the week ending 14 December 1985, Eastenders reached an audience of 22.15 million - it had arrived at the top.
The way Eastenders is made has changed a bit since the beginning, mainly due to it now being a thrice-weekly. Stage 1, first built for "'Allo 'Allo", houses the main interior sets - the Queen Vic, Fowlers, Cafe and Launderette are always there, and Studio C is now used for Top of the Pops. Studio D, (once upon a time the best Light Entertainment studio in the UK with its sunken "Morecambe and Wise" cyclorama pit and permanent audience rostra) is now used for overflow sets. The lot has grown a great deal and the cameras no longer work out of a van, but cable up to Stage 1's gallery.
Four years to the day I left Elstree as a cameraman, I returned as a director. The shooting rate is high, but as the show is geared up for multi-camera, not quite as fast as Brookside. The main problem is shooting in the pub - fine if you've just got a few principles but time can really disappear if anything like a party is going on! Rehearsals were still happening when I first arrived, but now only occur on special occasions, so rehearse/record is the order of the day.
There is a page of links at
www.beadsland.com/eastenders which leads to a large amount of
information on the internet about the show.