The claims of the BBC’s flagship soap opera, EastEnders, to be a realistic portrayal of anything, let alone working-class London life, have always had to be taken with a lorry load of salt. Where in the UK, for instance, is washing-machine ownership, even if on the never-never, so non-existent that everyone ends up using the launderette? And how likely is it, let alone possible, that everyone living on a square in one of the most vibrant cities on Earth only works in and around that square? It’s as if commuting never happens, which given EastEnders’ characters’ aversion to leaving E20, lest they end up on The Bill or ‘starring’ in an ill-fated musical, it probably doesn’t.
Still, it’s meant to be a fiction, not a documentary. Disbelief is left at the door as viewers are invited into an idealised quasi-village community, where everyone knows one another’s business, not to mention one another, and celebrates and commemorates together, usually at the great British local, the Queen Vic. It’s never been realistic, but then people wouldn’t want to watch it if it was. A soap opera founded on the absence of local community, rather than its mythical presence, sounds about as appealing as a night on the webcam with Leslie Grantham.
Not that EastEnders’ fictional core has stopped its executive producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins from bemoaning its lack of realism. Speaking to TV listings mag Radio Times, Treadwell-Collins said that EastEnders ‘should feel more like London’. He continued in this vein: ‘[EastEnders] has been frozen in aspic for too long. Sharon [one of the characters] said recently that she’s looking to be a landlady and as a result you’ll see the edges of Shoreditch creeping into EastEnders. It’s got to reflect the modern world.’
As various reports have now pointed out, the square in London on which EastEnders’ Albert Square was based, Fassett Square in Hackney, is now a largely gentrified, hipsterish area, full of artfully rough-and-ready, wood-heavy coffee shops, and Old Man-style boozers, just without the actual old men. It’s a long way from the Fassett Square of the 1980s. Houses now sell for over £700,000, cafe-bistros serve grouse, and Movember never ends. That’s the reality that EastEnders denies. And, according to Treadwell-Collins, it needs to catch up. A raft of new characters - ‘to better reflect the ethnic make-up of the city’ - are planned, as is a hip new set.
Much mirth has greeted Treadwell-Collins’ announcement, with countless commentators imagining what a gentrified, hipster-ridden Albert Square will feature, from ironic cap-wearing dolts searching Bianca’s stall for vinyl, to craft-beer quaffing and electronica at the Queen Vic. But alongside the ridicule, the response has been infused with guilt, too, as if the proposed gentrification of EastEnders has provided an occasion to mourn real-world gentrification. In this telling, Treadwell-Collins is the well-to-do incomer, pushing house prices out of the range of the locals, turfing them out of their pubs (and into the arms of the local Wetherspoons), and transforming the local caff into a pseudo street-food retailer. As one commentator argues: ‘What will be gained from introducing the flotsam and jetsam of gentrified Hackney, who are without fail emptier and more worthless than even the worst soap character, I do not know… I suspect the most accurate aspect of the new world order will be well-to-do wankers still trying and failing to bend their tongues around tewtally authentic inner-city accents.’