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While the coronavirus pandemic is certainly the 2020 plot twist none of us could predict, after months in lockdown I found myself in another unprecedented situation: I was bored with Netflix. The trauma of living through such trying times was sapping my energy. I found myself completely lacking enthusiasm for new TV series, choosing to rewatch old shows rather than get through my ever-growing watch list.
To make matters worse, scheduled television was too much to bear. Since March, the news has been a continuously depressing bin fire, every bulletin may as well be Fiona Bruce asking me how my panic attack is going. Coronavirus-related programmes have been milked for all they are worth. If I see another show with ‘lockdown’ in the title or filmed in the style of a Zoom call, I will throw my laptop out the window.
EastEnders episodes from 2008 have been added to BBC iPlayer since the soap suspended filming and this has been the perfect tonic for my lockdown-induced Netflix fatigue. For a show that has been running since 1985, this is a significant period of absence for fans. I recently worked out that I’ve been watching EastEnders for nearly 20 years, and then had to have a bit of a lie-down after that revelation.
The earliest storyline I remember is the Dallas-inspired ‘who shot Phil Mitchell?’ whodunit in 2001, which had millions of viewers on tenterhooks and feels like a lifetime ago now. As someone from Essex with an East End side of my family, I’ve always had a soft spot for the cockneyisms, the humour, the insults, and the overly glammed-up matriarchs that make the soap so iconic. While the safety of the cast and crew must come first, I have found myself missing the show since it’s been off the air.
The old episodes have been keeping me entertained in a way that suits my fuzzy coronavirus brain. They don’t require the commitment of a new series or my complete concentration because I’ve seen them all before. It has been refreshing to watch a show that captures ordinary life in a COVID-free world. This period of EastEnders is surprisingly light-hearted for a soap that is notorious for its Christmas Day murders. With nothing too intense or depressing happening for once, this selection of episodes is exactly the right tone for the current moment.
Everything about EastEnders 2008 is pure noughties nostalgia, from the fashion to the background music. So much camo, so much denim, so much statement jewellery. Practically every female cast member under the age of 30 looks like they could be a sixth member of Girls Aloud sporting a side fringe or an attempted Amy Winehouse-style beehive – fashion choices that remind me a lot of my school days. In the café, the pub, and the laundrette it’s like having the soundtrack to Love Actually or Bridget Jones’s Diary on a loop with hits from the likes of the Sugababes, Sade, Gabrielle, and Dido.
Something I’m loving about the old episodes is being reunited with iconic characters. Peggy Mitchell and Pat Butcher have been the grande dames of the show since the 1980s and 1990s and their presence seems to add something vital to the soap even when the spotlight isn’t on them. I think it is important for ageing women to be represented on screen in roles that aren’t just caricatures or afterthoughts. If these characters are lost completely, you are basically just watching Hollyoaks. The excessive glam of Pat’s flamboyant earrings and Peggy’s Dolly Parton-esque wigs alone shows that they are not ageing characters who are prepared to fade into the background. Peggy and Pat have resisted falling into the stereotype of demure grandmothers and some of their best capers involve them refusing to act their age, including getting drunk and hijacking an ice-cream van. They add a sense of camp comedy and cheerfulness to the show, something that other soaps like Coronation Street have always done extremely well.
Soaps are important platforms for exploring societal issues, but it doesn’t always need to be doom and gloom. EastEnders has been severely lacking these endearing comedy moments in recent years. When Pat and Peggy exited the show in 2012 and 2016, it’s almost like they took the best parts of it with them. That’s not to say that these characters are only there for comic relief. As well as the 2008s, iPlayer has also added two Peggy and Pat centered episodes as part of their EastEnders: Iconic Episodes series. It’s so much fun to look back on these classic storylines and see Barbara Windsor and Pam St Clement at their finest performing a tour de force in some of the soap’s most dramatic moments.
Another standout character is Christian Clarke, who singlehandedly brings gay culture to the Square. His relationship with Syed Masood, a strict Muslim, is one of the most daring and culturally significant storylines in EastEnders history. Over the years, EastEnders has struggled to do justice to queer representation, opting for coming out stories and shocking affairs rather than representing normal life in London’s thriving gay scene. Christian’s proud and unapologetic attitude towards his sexuality is essential for the soap and represents queerness in a more ordinary and authentic way. Since Christian’s exit in 2016, few gay characters have come close to matching what he brought to the show. I’d be lying if I said EastEnders has been consistently good over the course of our 20-year relationship. The quality of the show has been a bit up and down. It’s guilty of recycling old storylines in ways that seem more lazy than nostalgic, but I’ve stuck by it out of a sense of East End loyalty that I didn’t realise I had. It’s a habit I can’t quite shake, and nor do I want to because watching it makes me feel at home. While I’m pleased that EastEnders will be back on air in September, I can’t help but find myself craving the nostalgia of the good old days.