Return to EastEnders
The piece in this column in the March issue on the BBC’s EastEnders provoked a mixed response from readers. Michelle Howard, of London, protested:
I wish to comment on Steve Coleman’s review of the TV series EastEnders in which he describes the characters as, amongst other things, “unlovable, mindless lowlives” and “working class trash”.
Using the “self-fulfilling prophecy" theory, he argues that viewers “internalize these ‘negative’ images as portrayed in EastEnders" and actually become “detestable specimens of the worst in humanity".
I meet many, many people who are similar in personality and character to some of the “EastEnders” and, far from being the scum of the earth, are warm likeable and intelligent human beings. They may not be University-educated but that does not make them stupid. The essence of EastEnders is surely about human relationships and the kind of problems that can arise in everyday living.
Whilst I feel that the programme romanticizes working-class life in the sense that we see a community where isolation is impossible and mutual support in abundance, I feel that it has handled a number of topical issues in a very sensitive and educational way (Cathy’s rape, Mark's HIV).
I have shown the review to four friends (all Marxists) and they also find it patronizing. Can we have an explanation?
Joe Kenyon of Barnsley, on the other hand, asked if he can reproduce it in the newsletter he prepares for the Claimants and Unemployed Workers Union:
The Between the Lines article by Steve Coleman was very, very apt and most interesting. It echoed my constant criticism of the East Enders. Indeed in our house we often refer to the EastEnders as "What a Rotten Lot". We sing it along with the signature tune. I was wondering if Steve Coleman would let me use it, with a few more expletives added, in a future newsletter which I am preparing (Of course you can use it—anyone can— but don't forget to say where it came from—Editors).
Please send in more letters like these: the TV column seeks to arouse heated debate. Needless to say. whether or not you are a socialist is not determined by your view of EastEnders: being a socialist means an active commitment to the establishment of a global society where resources are owned in common, controlled democratically and there is production solely for use. Whether you think that the Mitchell Brothers or Pat Butcher are “warm, likeable and intelligent human beings” is secondary.
It is secondary, but not irrelevant to how you see the world. Most novels published in the last century either ignored reference to the working class, lest the presence of the majority disturb the prettified imagery of the free and wealthy “characters” or it depicted workers as being somewhat slow-witted, untrustworthy and mob-like. In many respects the soap opera is the much more popular contemporary successor to the novel. We know that soaps have a huge influence upon viewers by offering a picture of reality to serve as an image of what living in this society is really like.
Some American soaps repeated the old novelists’ pattern of completely ignoring the working class. For example, Dallas relegated the wage slaves to voiceless Mexican servants, while the "real characters” (mainly oil millionaires, billionnaires and their lovers) dominated the action. In Britain there has been more of a tendency to try to depict the workers in soap operas. Now, there is no doubt much about workers in EastEnders which you would find amongst any group of workers in any area.
If Michelle Howard really knows people like that and really likes them, good for her. The present writer would rather sit in a cold bath with copy of the telephone directory than have to spend a social evening with a bunch of any three of the detestable characters of Albert Square.
The assumption of the people who produce EastEnders is that the working class are, as Joe Kenyon amusingly suggests, a pretty rotten lot. In the idealised world of Albert Square there is a mean mindedness to life; nobody ever does anyone much of a favour unless there's something in it for them: every expression of affection can usually be expected to conceal dishonesty and corruption; in discussions, the politics of the fascistic gut feeling is rarely far beneath the surface.
That is a very patronising image of the working class. It is one which leaves this viewer feeling that there is no coincidence in the fact that workers who read, workers who play musical instruments for pleasure, workers who attend serious political meetings and workers who care and share with one another are so conspicuously missing from EastEnders. It is as if the programme producers are of the view that mere prolies would never do those sort of things.
So. the argument with EastEnders is about what reality is actually like—and what was argued in this column two months ago was (a) that workers are not as one-dimensionally brutish as EastEnders shows them to be, and (b) the depiction of our class in this way on their media is no coincidence, but a political choice, even if an unintended one.
Any more views?