Thursday, 1 November 2007

Eastenders - from high to low. So what happened?

Everyone’s talking about it. That was the catch-phrase and, for the first time, at least in living memory, it was pretty much true. Eastenders had come of age. Good actors, taut scripts dealing with meaningful stories, dialogue that transcended the medium of soap, directors getting creative … there really was something to talk about. For a while there, writing for Eastenders was something to be proud of. You had kudos in just about any kind of circle, school-kids, relatives, neighbours, friends. Even the critics recognised quality when they saw it. What’s more, the show was beginning to contend for serious awards and not just soap gongs. One year later the only talk was of how bad it was, how maybe, for the first time in its history, there might be reasons for pulling it. So what happened?

Wheel the time back. Eastenders, circa the late nineties was plodding along much as it always had. Then in came John Yorke, an exec on his way up who believed that going out four times a week didn’t mean it had to feel rushed, routine, bland. Perhaps his greatest innovation was to encourage every writer to define their episode within the bounds of a self-contained structure. In other words, they weren’t just knocking the serial element on a couple of beats, they were telling a story. That meant they could use tone, texture, they could play with structure, have some fun. As one writer at the time put it, ‘getting away with 23 minutes of jaunty cockney dialogue wasn’t enough anymore.’

While the change was painful for some who’d got perhaps a little too comfortable, for others it was a relief to raise the bar. [It’s worth noting, that this process, natural when it happened naturally, became a kind of ‘hurt the writers to show I’m in charge now’ formula exercised indiscriminately on numerous shows but, inevitably, without the beneficial effect.] Slowly the word got out that writing for Eastenders might be interesting. Established writers began to knock on the door and found to their pleasure that the new creative freedom and editorial disciplines could make for some seriously good writing – which is all that most writers ever ask for.

The term ‘writer-led’ began to float around the grey lanes and grubby corridors of Elstree studios. Writers began to engage with the story-lining. They met and talked to each other. Good writing brought good directors. Good directors made for good actors. Everything began to shape up and pretty soon, yes, everyone was talking about it.

Then John Yorke moved onwards and upwards, taking over drama at C4. He was replaced by Louise Berridge and, for a while, the show went from strength to strength, gaining prestige, gaining momentum, gaining speed as it headed straight for that there old iceberg.

Now, opinions on Louise Berridge are divided but we have heard more in her favour than against and are therefore of the view that Louise is one of the good guys. She’s demur, modest, approachable and honest. She’s not too big to talk to anyone in the production, from writers to actors to crew. A lot of the effort to put writers closer to the centre of the show was hers. She even hosted events for writers to get together, wander around Albert Square, share ideas and opinions and have their photo taken outside The Queen Vic. Above all, Louise has a natural nose for story and the ability, not as common among execs as might be good for British Television, to read a script and know what it’s doing.

So far so good. Ms Berridge turned out to be a natural successor to John. A friend of writers, a believer in writing, she was demanding but never a bully. For a good two years everything in the show smelt of roses. She even made history, of a kind, with the reincarnation of Dirty Den. Ratings were high, acclaim was consistent, prizes began to clutter the tall glass cabinets outside the lifts in Neptune House. But two years is a long time as executive producer of a busy show like Eastenders, especially for someone as conscientious as Louise. She lived and breathed it. She agonised over every detail. She was available to everyone all the time. Many feel that all she needed was a holiday. A couple of weeks in the sun with a trashy novel and a glass of G&T might have saved her. It was fatigue, we believe, not malice or ineptitude that led to a series of fundamental mistakes. But it should also be noted that in spite of the size of the ice-berg, nobody warned her. Not the other execs in White City, nor the writers who only grumbled as writers do. Nobody sat her down and said hey, we might be making a bit of a mistake here. That they didn’t speak is probably because writers are accustomed to not being listened to and have ceased, by and large, to try.

Mistake number one was that she started taking the message boards of the BBC Eastenders website too seriously. However important a feedback and response website might be, it nevertheless represents only the opinions of one type of one part of a show’s audience. And they don’t necessarily know why they like what they like. So when they said how much they loved the Sharon/Denis love-story, for instance, Louise decreed that they get more of it, bags of it, sometimes nothing but it. They loved it. But others in the audience started to fidget while the writers began to tire of whole episodes revolving around a single, rather bland narrative concept like ‘Sharon and Denis walk around the square loved-up’. The writing began to get functional again, fed-up, and even – in spite of the enthusiasm that still remained, a little bit ‘will this do?’.

Mistake number two stemmed from mistake number one. The website tended to carry remarks like ‘I love Sharon, she’s mega fab.’ So the characters became increasingly important. And increasingly, stories amounted to little more than a rehash of their past histories and the effect that years of unlikely life-stories might have had on their present attributes. No scene was allowed to crack on if there was an opportunity to remind the audience what happened to Pauline in 1989. Great for the stamp-collectors who cooed at the myriad references, tedious for the new audience, the young audience, the audience that has a way of packing its bags the moment a show gets boring. As each episode became a futile effort to dredge the depths of characters that weren’t especially deep anyway – these are stylistic constructs designed for soap, not tragic-heroes with a terminal velocity – so they became increasingly bogged down with research notes and archival niceties that meant very little to most of the people out there and even less to writers who just wanted to get on with the exploration of human nature and the telling of tales.

Mistake number three was a genuine attempt to improve the situation. Aware that scripts were beginning to spin in ever-decreasing circles, she attempted to offer creative control back to the writers and editors. What she did was tell the script editors that the episode they were working on was ‘their’ episode. She forgot to mention that this implied working with the writer. Writers suddenly found that they were taking dictation by sometimes very inexperienced editors who nevertheless were still trying to second-guess Louise. It could be five or six drafts before Louise got to see it at which point she could and often did, throw the whole thing out. So they started again, another five drafts wondering what she’d think about this. Scripts began to lose any sense of authorial voice, of imagination, of creativity. The audience was still strong, but was ominously beginning to drum its fingers on the side of the armchair.

Somehow the press began to get a whiff of all this. Having elevated it with praise over recent years, the time had come to destroy. All they had to do was pick their moment. It nearly came with the lack of interest shown in the Ferreira family, the oddly cobbled-together amalgam of too many focus groups, a family made of bits, the siblings of which didn’t even look like each other. But Louise held her ground. Then the Ferreira Patriarch was somewhat inelegantly hoisted off the show due to visa problems. Production went into controlled panic as episodes had to be re-written at the last minute and story-lines reshaped into something that was, frankly, not all that good. Then Dirty Den lived up to his name - off the set - and the jackals moved in, howling.

In some ways it was just another cast scandal in a long list of cast scandals but it rapidly became an attack on the show itself. Now, drama is a bit of make-believe that requires a suspension of the thought that these are people paid to recite lines written by somebody else. Dennis Watts has never actually existed and yet, in the realm of story, he has a kind of existence necessary for the story to be told. Focus attention on the actor to the point where his reality takes over that of the character and it’s no longer drama, its celebrity exhibitionism. For a show like Eastenders which depends on rather a lot of suspension of disbelief to be watchable, the breaking of its glittery magic was a mortal blow.

Confidence in the show drained as rapidly as the blood from Louise’s face when the scandal broke. The audience, already tiring of the effort and losing hope that things would improve, left in droves. The press was in raptures. The lowest ratings ever for an episode of Eastenders, they chanted. Louise defended her position: Corrie had put a special against that episode, if you took the overnights into account it wasn’t so bad … But once they’re ripping into you, forget any attempts to reason. The show toppled. It was jeered at, abused, vilified. The execs in White City did what anybody does when they are anxious only to save their own skins, they showed her the door and suggested that it might be nicer out there.

She went. Mal Young, who was himself on the way out to pursue a career in the independent sector, looked around for a new Exec for Eastenders and settled on Kathleen Hutchinson from Holby.

What the traumatised writers didn’t realise at this point, was that, compared to what was about to happen, they were still in the good old days.

Louise, it must be said, remains liked and admired to this day - by most people at least. We have heard no-one deny that she is a very talented lady who has earned her place in the Televisual Pantheon. Many grieved at her departure confident that given a bit of support from above and a proper holiday she might have been able to turn things around - with or without the feeding frenzy that became the tabloids’ response to Dirty Den’s unfortunate indiscretion.

But it was not to be.

Kathleen quickly settled into the show by ditching the most recent set of production scripts and demanding complete rewrites along with a total revision of their story-lines. In spite of the pressure this created for everyone, Kathleen declared that there was no way she’d put her name to those episodes. Some muttered that this was more of a kick-ass demonstration than a genuine editorial decision. Others felt that maybe she was just getting a grip at last and things might actually improve.

She gave a talk to the core writers, along with the script editors, in which she set out her vision for the show, her attitude towards the production team, her management policies and her understanding of what story-telling is. As she left the room a wag from the back was heard to remark, “I give her six months.” It was prophetic but then good writers are. One of these days, or is it merely in our dreams, people in the business might actually listen to them.

Christmas brought a much bigger meeting with all of the writers who contributed either regularly or irregularly. The mince pies and mulled wine looked cheery enough in the cavernous space of the clubhouse. But what anybody walking in noticed instantly was the tension on the faces of the producers and script editors. Greetings were forced, smiles were vague and meaningless. The fear was palpable. The only person who seemed to be enjoying themselves hugely was Kathleen Hutchinson.

The proceedings began with Kathleen saying how wonderful it was to be in the same room as some of the country’s best writers. She then explained why she had pulled those episodes. Basically, she wasn’t going to tolerate sub-standard work from anyone. That was also why, incidentally, she’d changed the production lighting because it looked dated. Wow, this was an up-to-the-minute-quality-demanding executive producer and no mistake. Then she said that when she had been fussing over a particular episode someone had said it didn’t matter because it was ‘only a Tuesday Ep’. She stared at the assembled creatives with a look of horror on her face. That, she said, was an attitude she was not prepared to put up with. Heads nodded although some people were slightly baffled since, if anything, the problem under Louise had been too much attention to every episode, too much hashing and rehashing and fussing around things that had already been fussed over. Nobody quite recalled anyone ever dismissing an Episode as merely ‘A Tuesday’ but somebody must have or Kathleen wouldn’t have mentioned it.

She then shared her vision for good writing. Every episode, she intoned, had to have one moment that made you really laugh and one moment that made you cry. A roomful of the country’s best writers sat aghast at the fact that they’d never thought of this.

And then it was a chance for anyone to say anything they liked. Kathleen invited questions, comments and even, she said, grumbles. Let’s have them out. One or two writers wondered about creative freedom and were told that this was a Producer-led show and always had been. A few more questions were dealt with equally brusquely. The wise sat wisely on their hands, all-too aware that inviting grumbles didn’t exactly mean that grumbles were invited.

And then it was on to the flip-chart as two hapless editors fumbled through photographs of our favourite characters while the writers were asked to define their principle characteristics. Kathleen stood to one side smoking, watching contentedly as a roomful of the country’s best writers dutifully jumped through their hoops, waxing lyrical about Pauline’s cardigan and Dot’s voice.

And from there it was downhill all the way.

Stories were written, torn up, rewritten. Scripts were written, torn up, rewritten. The story-line department went into melt-down. Writers had their stories changed up to production draft and sometimes beyond. Sometimes the stories changed without the writers being told. And, of course, writers were sacked en masse as chaotic scripts they’d worked on day and night trying to fathom what the hell these episodes were about in the first place were ripped from their hands and given to others to finish. Some week-blocks lost more than half their writers. A few stalwarts started to write most of the series but they could hardly keep up. Story-lines were arriving later and later, scripts later and later. Meanwhile, Kathleen marched around the offices berating everyone for their incompetence. Allegedly – although we don’t believe this to be true, of course – she called one script editor a ‘talentless slug’ who would ‘never amount to anything’. The production team became angry, the editorial team demoralised, the writers started to find other things to do - like episodes of a different series or perhaps a spot of gardening. Slowly it became difficult to find anyone actually prepared to write a script. The Series Editor phoned around past and present writers with increasing desperation. But much as everyone would love to have written for their beloved show, funnily enough, a lot of them were otherwise engaged for the moment.

This is perhaps the one and only time that the writers of this country have gone on something like a strike. Evidently there comes a point when writers, however much they need the money, would rather not write anything than write for a show they no longer believe in.

Far from reshaping the series back to a winning formula, the new regime had only succeeded in plunging it into further depths of failure. People began to wonder how low it could get before it actually fell off the schedules. The audience had abandoned it. The critics forgot about it. The gongs went to other series. Even the soap awards ended up with Corrie and its cousins.

And then, a bit like Richard The Lionheart at the end of Robin Hood, John Yorke came back, this time in charge of Returning Series. He wasn’t pleased with what he found. And it was his turn to talk. In one meeting with the editorial staff he said that he wouldn’t tolerate bullying in any of his shows. Apparently the sun must have caught Kathleen slightly at this moment because her face turned abruptly crimson.

But nothing much changed. And one morning John Yorke, Belinda Campbell and a couple of others all turned up to have a word with Kathleen. By some weird co-incidence, they had all quite separately decided to wear black for the occasion. One producer said it was like the arrival of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. They marched, silently, to Kathleen’s office, knocked on the door and went in. After a few minutes, Kathleen emerged, striding very quickly with her coat and bag, past the office doors, down the stairs and out.

In spite of many efforts, Eastenders has yet to fully recover. Some say it never will. Though it improved hugely thereafter, it has never quite reached the heights of those dizzy days. How much damage this did to UK Television, writers, actors and everyone else concerned with the show along with their families is perhaps something we’ll never be able to measure.

We’d like to say ‘The End’ at this point, but will have to reserve that phrase for the day we can be sure it will never happen again. That day has yet to come.

(Faustus is grateful for the contributions to this account received from many of those present. If there are any omissions or if any of the information is incorrect, please let us know. We wish to tell only the truth.)

1 comment:

Faustus said...

As those who know me know, Faustus always enjoys a bit of firm leadership - and likes to give credit where it's due. However, we mistakenly credited Kathleen Hutchinson with calling an editor a talentless slug. It was in fact one of her minions who did this.

I won't name the minion at this point in the hope that said person will have changed their ways.

The talentless slug, I'm informed, has gone on to prove himself anything but. Good on him.