Magazine article The Spectator

EastEnders: Thatcher's Soap

Magazine article The Spectator

EastEnders: Thatcher's Soap

Article excerpt

How EastEnders became a positive reflection of Tory values

Albert Square full of Thatcherites? You 'avin a larf? No, it's true. EastEnders , conceived 30 years ago partly as a means of enraging the Conservative party, has blossomed into a Tory commercial.

Iain Duncan-Smith could watch all the wealth-creating activity in Albert Square with a syrupy smile; George Osborne could visit Phil Mitchell's garage in a hi-vis jacket and look perfectly at home (Boris Johnson has already had a cameo pint at the Queen Vic). EastEnders portrays small businesses built up through hard work; it implies that turning to the state won't get you anywhere; they even sent swotty teenager Libby Fox to Oxford. Never mind the affairs and addictions, the murders and rape, Walford is rammed full of aspirational, hard-working families. No wonder so many posh folk gather round the TV to enjoy it with their M&S fish pie.

Albert Square's drift to the right appears to be unintentional. When the series began, at 7 p.m. on 19 February 1985, the real East End of London was a sumpland. Shoreditch was somewhere to inject drugs in doorways; Dalston was noted for its spectacular murder rate; the old London docks were dead. The opening episode angrily reflected all this. The body of a poor, elderly murder victim is found in a grimy flat; one of the men who discovers the body has been unemployed for months, and is on the brink of depression as a result. Later, in the very brown pub on the corner, where a fight between two snarling lager louts is taking place, an old woman in a charity-shop anorak complains that there is no such thing as community any more. As the production team stated in 1985, the series was set 'uncompromisingly in Thatcher's Britain'.

Quite so: and we might say that it is now set in the Britain Mrs Thatcher wanted. Look around today's Albert Square: no one is on benefits. No one! Among the young characters, Jay and Ben work in the Arches garage, Lee and Nancy in the Queen Vic, Tamwar in the market inspector's office; Whitney is a teaching assistant; Shabnam is there all hours at the Minute Mart; and young Peter Beale is up before dawn to work the veg stall that has been in his family for generations. At the other end of the age scale, Dot Cotton is still working shifts at the launderette. She is 87.

Funnily enough, Dot is the sole council tenant left on the Square; the rest is owner-occupied and tarted up. Ian Beale's lavender wallpaper might not be Osborne and Little, but Albert Square's canniest businessman has more important things to think about. …

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