A Study in Long Running Series
The purpose of this presentation is to study an example of a successful television
series in order to discover the reasons for that success, the problems inherent to the
format of continuing drama and to discern some of the skills required to overcome
‘Eastenders’ was created for the BBC by Julia Smith and Tony Holland in 1985.
Originally screened as two half hour episodes per week it now runs in a prime-time
slot every week day with a complete omnibus of the week’s episodes on Sundays.
Within eight months of its launch it was the most watched programme on British
Television and remains to this day either at the top of the ratings schedule or near
thereto. It has won five BAFTA awards, eleven National Television Awards and
three Royal Television Society awards, to name but a few. It is screened throughout
the world and has spawned an industry in itself of magazines, news comments,
documentaries and fan sites.
The central narrative engine of the show is the idea of community as a family. This is
explored through the use of a single location, a Square in the East End of London with
its houses, shops, businesses and public gathering places. Characters come and go but
some regulars have remained from the beginning. Mostly, the characters are
identified by a specific family allegiance though some do arrive and depart as
individuals. The stories seek to reflect life through ordinary human experience.
Although the story-lines can stray into the grandiose and even, sometimes, the absurd,
the broad discipline is to portray issues directly relevant to the audience.
At their worst, shows of this nature can simply become a picking-over of the trivial
and mundane. If they aren’t stealing ‘issues’ from the daily papers, they are merely
putting their characters through endless cycles of romantic trysts, love-triangles,
infidelities and petty betrayals. At their best, they are able to explore themes of a
universal nature through the lens of daily life. This remains a constant aspiration for
any such series though success on a year by year basis tends to vary.
The particular episodes that we shall take as an example were broadcast in July 2004.
They are by no means the best episodes of Eastenders ever made but they do reveal
many of the problems that can arise in long running series along with attempts to
solve them. Various cracks were beginning to appear in some of the stories that these
episodes were constructed either to resolve or paste over. At the same time, the
logistics of scheduling were such as to confound many stylistic niceties that the writer
hoped to propose. For instance, in the second episode the two main characters were
confined to a single indoor location so that even the story-line as received by the
writer was instantly invalidated. The stories themselves had become tortuous and,
some might say, implausible. Somehow everything had to be brought back to an even
If nothing else, dealing with the challenges of series television is a good exercise for
the writer since before the desirable plateau of universal truth and profound human
exposition can even be approached, certain intractable obstacles need to be overcome
or at least avoided.
There are several stories running through the episodes. The main one concerns
Samantha, Andy and Billy. The second concerns Den Watts and his wife Chrissie.
The back-story to the Sam/Andy narrative is rather complex. Sam Mitchell belongs to
one of the key families of Eastenders which owns many of the major business
enterprises, including the night club and the garage. A little loose with legality they
introduced a spicy quasi-criminal atmosphere to the community, both loved and
loathed at various times. With the older brothers and their mother absent for various
reasons, Sam is now running the Mitchell empire alone. Andy Hunter is, true to his
name, a predatory character who is seeking to take control of the Mitchell business in
order to destroy the Mitchells. He is doing this by seducing Sam into a romantic
liaison. Billy, also a Mitchell but notoriously weak in many ways (the runt brother),
suspects as much but is, like Cassandra, never believed.
Andy’s next step is to propose marriage to Sam. Once she accepts, should she accept,
he will gain control. Billy, however, has some serious dirt on him which he hopes
will open Sam’s eyes to the kind of man that Andy really is. Andy was once engaged
to a lady called Kat. Kat left him to pursue her true love, Alfie Moon. Both Kat and
Alfie are likeable, popular characters. When Kat and Alfie ran into financial
difficulties, Andy lent them money. When they were unable to repay he told Kat that
he would write the loan off if she slept with him. She refused. He then altered the
proposal: if she didn’t sleep with him, he would injure Alfie. Fearful, she did as
requested. He filmed the act, however, and showed it to Alfie. His intentions were
purely malicious, nothing but revenge. He did all this while he was courting Sam.
Billy feels that if Sam knows this, the game would be up for Andy. The problem is
that Andy is a dangerous man and both Billy and his friend Minty fear the
consequences of opposing him. In fact, in the previous episode, Minty is injured as a
warning by one of Andy’s ‘heavies’.
The second major story also has its complexities. Den Watts is happily married to
Chrissie but is having an affair with Kate. He tells Kate that Chrissie is a monstrous
wife and that his marriage is a wreck. When Kate meets Chrissie, however, she
doesn’t find the woman that Den has described. Den assures her that behind the
scenes Chrissie is a different person. Kate calls his bluff by inviting herself for
dinner. Den fears that Kate will see how genial Chrissie actually is. Somehow he has
to provoke Chrissie into behaving monstrously in front of Kate.
Other strands involve a couple hoping to foster a child, a young man getting himself
tangled into Andy Hunter’s dodgy dealings but loving the kudos and another fellow
who is collecting money for a charitable run that doesn’t exist so he can keep the
money for himself.
Somehow all of these have to be woven into a pair of episodes that honour the
continuity whilst exploring unique themes. There needs to be a sense of narrative
completion to both episodes along with a hook that keeps the story running. All of
the dramatic laws apply. There are cheats, of course, but the audience is a shrewd one
and not easily fooled!