EastEnders – Soaps and Community Space

Soap operas might not attract the massive audiences they once did, but millions of people still watch them every day of the week.

These viewers are under no illusions – they know EastEnders doesn’t represent London with any kind of accuracy – but there are aspects of these continuing dramas that inform our discussions about communities; about how people hope to live together, the spaces they would like to live together in, and the current threats to such ways of living.

Producing four or five episodes every week means shows like EastEnders or Coronation Street work under a variety of constraints. Their casts need to be diverse but fairly small; they need to live in close proximity to each other, and they need to be closely involved in each other’s lives. Not only that, characters’ work and home lives need to blend into each other. If the whole cast commuted to jobs away from the Square or the Street, for example, opportunities for drama would be limited. Characters’ leisure time needs to be spent locally too. If dramas are to develop and resolve over the course of a few episodes, regular and repeated interactions between characters are necessary.

All of this creates something that, while it is artificial, is also for many of us, desirable: a diverse community of people who live, work and play together; who, while they often fight like cats and dogs, will mostly end up supporting each other. A community who – and this is key – share domestic and public spaces.

Thus the settings for the squabbles and romances, tragedies and comedies of EastEnders are not just homes, but the garden square, the pub, the market, the caff, the chippy and the community centre. These locations are not just backdrops; over the decades The Queen Vic, Kathy’s Caff and Bridge Street Market have taken on a significance of their own. They are valued spaces, because the community uses them not just for commercial transactions, but for living out their personal dramas.

In recent months a long, complex storyline began to unfold in EastEnders: the threat to the Square from an outside property development company. EastEnders had finally caught up with what is happening across London. A fictional developer planned to buy up the pub and the caff, close the market and community centre and knock down the neighbouring tower block, in preparation for a redevelopment of the entire area.

As in the real world, this threat to shared public and private space represented a threat to the community. The pub would be reopened to new, higher-spending clientele; the caff would make way for a restaurant; the community centre for luxury apartments. With its physical spaces erased or transformed, with no ‘place’ in which to exist, the community would dissolve.

In the fictional world of EastEnders, the property development company was defeated – by the community itself. And while in the real world, many London communities have been and are being pulled apart by development, in some areas, life is reflecting, if not art, then soap. Earlier this year, as the EastEnders got their square back, the plans to redevelop the much-derided Elephant & Castle shopping centre were brought to a halt by a community campaign. The new plans for the area are yet to be thrashed out. Let’s hope the lessons of Albert Square are learned.