I came to EastEnders relatively late in life. While I’d watched the soap occasionally as a kid, it wasn’t until I was a student that I became fully addicted to following the goings-on of Albert Square.
It didn’t take long to become hooked. The ritual of switching on the telly every weekday evening (except Wednesdays, of course) became an anchor grounding me to a semblance of a routine amid when there was none.
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It wasn’t just about the routine, though. In its three-decade tenure EastEnders has gifted us iconic moments that will forever be ingrained in the British psyche – shout “you can’t tell me what to do, you ain’t my mutha!" in any pub and you can guarantee that you’ll hear “yes I am!” in a beautifully-timed chorus.
The 17 million viewers that tuned into Kat and Zoe Slater’s epic showdown is just testament to how invested we are in the inhabitants of Albert Square. EastEnders has brought us queens of the small screen like Peggy Mitchell and Kathy Beale – as well as leading men as diverse as Phil Mitchell and Ian Beale.
EastEnders gave us baddies to hate with every ounce of our bodies (Dirty Den, Nick Cotton) and good-hearted heroines (Little Mo, Jean Slater) – not to mention the ‘tart with a heart’ trope that’s been rolled out more times than we care to count (Kat Slater, Pat Butcher, Roxy Mitchell).
It’s not all doom and gloom, though; comic relief is a big part of EastEnders’ appeal. Truly, what is funnier than watching the God-fearing Dot Cotton incorrectly pronouncing the name of her boss, Mr Papadopolous (ooh, I say) as she chain-smokes worriedly over a load of laundry.
When EastEnders broadcasts were reduced to just two days a week in March 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was one of the early indications that life in Britain was truly changing in ways none of us could have anticipated just months earlier. Storylines that would normally be rattled through in mere weeks, were eked out over months, as we were slowly weaned off one of the last ‘normal’ things to survive the pandemic.
Then, in June, the soap left our screens completely, for the first time in the show’s 35-year history. Anyone hoping to find out the outcome of big storylines like the death of Sharon’s son Denny (and best friend Ian’s role in his demise) and Chantelle’s worsening relationship with abusive husband Gray would simply have to wait.
The long wait is over
But now, the wait is over – EastEnders is back on our TVs tonight (Monday, September 7) for the first time after its unprecedented three-month hiatus. And what many are now dubbing ‘EastEnders: Season 2’ promises an explosive return to Walford, with old and new characters turning up on the Square (no doubt for a knees-up, and possibly a punch-up in the Queen Vic).
I won’t be the only one, either. While viewing figures haven’t reached the lofty heights set by the infamous Christmas day episode in 1986 (30 million of us tuned in to watch Den Watts hand divorce papers over to his wife Angie), it’s consistently popular, both in the UK and across the world. It’s so popular, that UK electricity-use rises so dramatically at the end of each episode when the nation boils the kettle for a cuppa, that the National Grid sometimes relies on France for an extra surge of power.
One of the best things about the return of EastEnders is that, while coronavirus may be mentioned, and actors will need to adhere to social distancing regulations on set, the pandemic won’t be a huge focus of the show. Instead – at least I’m hoping – EastEnders will bring a touch of normalcy back to our screens, and I for one can’t wait to lose myself in the sometimes trivial, sometimes outlandish, day-to-day lives of the characters.
Many of us have been desperately craving new TV shows during the lockdown, especially as British channels have been squeezing out reruns and ‘best of’ compilations while production on new shows was brought to a halt this year. Sure, there are plenty of great Netflix shows to sink your teeth into, but there’s something reassuring about being able to tune into live TV, plonk yourself down on the sofa, and while away the evening without putting too much thought into what you’re going to watch.
It’s mindless, comforting TV – and right now, comfort is key, if the enduring success of old shows like The Office on streaming platforms is anything to go by. There’s no telling how the next six months will pan out – and we’re certainly not ‘back to normal’ yet – but the return of EastEnders tonight marks a new stage in this stalled, hiccuping year of false starts, restrictions, and widespread anxiety.
It may be silly, and even downright poor sometimes, but for me, the return of EastEnders is a beacon of hope – and a small step towards recovery – in what has possibly been the strangest, most dysfunctional year many of us have ever experienced. I can’t wait to put on my slippers, make a cup of tea, tune in, and zone out tonight.
EastEnders returns on Monday, September 7 at 8:05pm on BBC One.