Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

As TV soaps go, EastEnders just doesn't wash

Rumours that the BBC's Director General Mark Thompson decided to leave his post rather than accept an invite to visit the set of EastEnders can't yet be confirmed (I only started them this week, so give me a chance). If however, they turn out to be true, then I for one, won't be surprised.

Thompson has often been accused of spinelessness in the face of a nagging Ofcom and the Daily Mail-backed Court of Public Opinion, presiding over a production culture of caution over courage and opting for profuse apologies and even high-profile sackings rather than the fighting sprit his feisty predecessor Greg Dyke encouraged.

The chances of him risking a dander through Walford, a dark snakey den populated by red-faced, raging hate-mongers, cave-dwelling narcotics addicts and cold-blooded killers are pretty low.

I may sound a tad facetious but in fact, I seek to make a serious social point, and not just about my relief that Thompson, the tim'rous cad, is on his way out.

Oddly, it was The Apprentice's Nick Hewer who drew the issue of EastEnders' potentially dangerous effect on society to my attention.

As we've been reminded this week with the return of the Thatcher-esque show which made Nick's name, the BBC has long played its part in mainstream television's embrace of the culture of greed and individualism.

But even within the context of that rogues gallery, Nick himself has always seemed like a rather soft-hearted and thoughtful chap. Appearing on Room 101 two weeks ago, he argued, politely as ever, that the misanthropic nature of EastEnders had infected British society and was eroding what was once a generally quite decorous and respectful culture.

He worried about the show's casual assumption that even people who vaguely like each other bulge their eyes and scream 'You stupid cow!' after a misplacing of ketchup in the family home

Having just returned from an airport where a man who had taken a few seconds to fill a gap in the queue was met with a derisive 'Oi, doughnut!' from fellow passengers, Nick was convinced he'd witnessed the Eastenders effect in action.

At first I, like Room 101 host Frank Skinner, dismissed Nick's notion as naive and perhaps even typically 'old'. But then I actually watched the soap. And within 10 minutes, my stomach was in knots.

What a joyless, venomous, loveless set of vipers the EastEnders folk are.

How long, I wondered, did they train before they got that look in their eyes, the one that says they despise the world and can only be motivated to get out of bed by the possibility of inflicting pain on a fellow human being?

The episode I happened to catch did include a rare scene of happiness, when a couple hugged with excitement at the thought of their upcoming wedding.

By the end of the episode however, one of them had been brutally murdered by Phil Mitchell's screwed up son, so all was back in balance in the EastEnders' universe.

Of course we can't blame popular culture for all of society's ills; dispassionate and unfair government policies which have instilled principles of selfishness, cynicism and entitlement probably have more of an impact.

But when more than eight million people tune in to this insidious stuff every week - and they can't all be masochistic sociopaths - the BBC, jewel in the world's broadcasting crown, has to look at itself. I hope the show's loss to Coronation Street at Tuesday's Royal TV Society Awards is just the start of its downfall.

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