Just as it seems life couldn”t get gloomier, along comes Christmas in Albert Square
On Christmas night, there won’t be any arguments over the remote control in my house.
For once, my mother — a passionate Downton Abbey fan — and me — an EastEnders devotee — will be agreeing about one thing: we won’t be watching the BBC1 soap.
The reason is simple: it promises to be just too miserable.
At the end of a year that in real life has seen job losses, recession and enough unhappiness to see us through to the end of 2012 at least, surely the one thing we can ask of Christmas Day is that it puts a smile on our faces.
Misery: Den and Angie”s divorce drama in 1986
There is absolutely no chance of the fictional Walford doing that.
During this ‘festive’ season in Albert Square, at least two of the Square’s residents will die and several will be horribly burned in a blaze. There’s also an arrest over the death of the character Kevin Wicks some years ago.
And let’s not forget that young single mother Roxy has lost custody of her daughter, Tanya has cancer, Jean is having more bi-polar episodes and the most popular characters, Alfie and Kat, are enduring more marital difficulties following revelations of her affair.
There was a time when EastEnders was compulsive festive viewing. In 1986, more than 30 million watched the Christmas Day episode in which Queen Vic landlord Den Watts served wife Angie divorce papers, after discovering she had lied about having a terminal illness to stop him leaving her for his mistress.
More sadness: Pauline Fowler”s death in 2006
It was the first time the soap had been aired on Christmas Day (after being broadcast for the first time in February 1985), and it remains the most-watched episode in soap history.
So excited was the show by this success, and recognising that there was an audience hungry for serial drama (possibly as escapism from the dramas they might otherwise be enduring in their own homes), the following year saw two episodes aired on Christmas Day (attracting 16.7 million viewers) and another two on New Year’s Eve.
The second of these aired at 11.30pm so viewers could see in the New Year with characters in the Queen Vic.
Grief: Ian Beale mourns the loss of his aunty Pauline in the same 2006 Christmas special
Was that the last time there was anything to celebrate during Walford’s festive season
In 1989, the Christmas highlights were matriarch Pauline Fowler’s hysterectomy and vamp Cindy Beale giving birth to a son who was not the offspring of her husband Ian.
The next decade was hardly one of tinsel and baubles, either.
There was a little festive romance in the air in 1991, when hard man Grant Mitchell sang You’ll Never Walk Alone to wife Sharon, but the storyline was tempered with Mark Fowler breaking the news to his family that he was HIV-positive.
They were not happy.
Still no better: There is a sombre mood at Pat”s house as the matriarch lies seriously ill in bed
The irony is that the more depressing EastEnders’ Christmas story-lines were, the more viewers were drawn to them.
Twenty-one million people viewed the Christmas episodes of 1992, when secret lovers Phil and Sharon engineered to spend the day together, and a drunk-at-the-wheel Pat Butcher killed a young girl.
The following year, 23 million people tuned in to see Pauline Fowler’s brother, Pete Beale, die. The decade saw consistently high viewing figures: in 1998, 22 million watched Grant Mitchell’s second wife, Tiffany, die after being knocked down by Frank Butcher’s car.
Distraught: Carol Jackson is comforted by David Wicks in this year”s festive EastEnders
It was a figure almost matched by the 21.1 million who saw Jamie Mitchell knocked down by a car driven by Martin Fowler in 2002 (you can’t help wondering why anyone takes to their cars at Christmas in Albert Square).
The battle for Christmas ratings, in particular those for soaps, has always been intense, but while Coronation Street has always played many of its festive storylines for laughs (even in the midst of tragedy, there has always been a feel-good factor), EastEnders ups its misery quota.
If that’s what attracts viewers, it’s unsurprising they go down this route, but the past seven years have seen a significant drop in numbers for the more depressing story-lines.
More drama: At the Queen Vic, humiliated by Bradley, Stacey struts around the pub addressing various men in a drunken state
In 2003, 15.2 million tuned in to watch Kat and Alfie’s wedding; the following year, that was down to 12.3 million, with Jane Collins’s husband’s Huntington’s disease being one of the key storylines.
In 2006, viewers were down to 9.2 million and 10.7 million. The highlight that year The death of Pauline Fowler.
Ever since its inception in 1985, complaints have been levelled at EastEnders for its relentless diet of misery; yet it continues to clean up the prizes at award ceremonies, not least because of the high volume of young people who watch the show and vote through magazines.
Out in the street for Christmass: In 2009 the Mitchell family were evicted from The Queen Vic
But when only a third of the size of the first Christmas Day audience is watching, you have to ask whether it’s time that the residents of Albert Square started to spread a little happiness.
Of course, these days fewer people watch TV than they once did. There are so many other things competing for our attention, especially so over Christmas, with a plethora of channels offering a wide variety of shows and films.
But EastEnders has come in for increasing criticism in recent years — at no time more so than last year, when a distraught Ronnie Mitchell swopped her dead baby for the living son of Kat Moon as the bells chimed in 2011.
While I thought these episodes were brilliantly acted, one has to sympathise with the criticism that so emotive a subject should not have been inflicted on viewers at New Year, which is a particularly vulnerable time for the lonely and bereaved.
Merry Christmas to you and yours! Grant and Tiffany Mitchell appear stoney-faced during yet another sombre Walford Christmas
Nevertheless, people still watched, and it became the most talked-about storyline of the year.
What attracts us to unhappiness, especially at a time when we are all trying to be jolly
Do we see, in the EastEnders’ lives, things that make them even more miserable than our own have become, and is there perhaps a ghoulish pleasure in thinking that maybe we are not so badly off after all
Or do we like to play counsellors, feeling a superiority over people who have made mistakes we are sure we would not make under the same circumstances
Or do we genuinely learn from the errors we see characters make, when we see them magnified, as they inevitably are, on screen
Whatever it has been in the past, there is now, I believe, a real sense of change in the air, and this year, I suspect, will be the year that misery goes out of fashion.
ITV’s period drama Downton Abbey has been an enormous success, not only because of its sublime cast, but also because it provides escapism into a world that, at least on the surface, appears more glamorous and interesting than our own.
As viewers, we want to feel uplifted, transformed to other worlds — it’s the reason the fantastically rich man’s oil world of Dallas is being brought back to our screens after 20 years.
We may still crave the escapism EastEnders once gave us, but during the toughest times many of us have ever experienced, the soap’s storylines have become a little too close to our own depressing situations for comfort.
So, for me on Christmas Day, it’s a choice between Downton Abbey and the EastEnders’ spirit that might as well be called Downbeat Alley. There’s no contest…