With BBC One celebrating the 30th anniversary of Eastenders; we at The Custard TV thought we’d take time to discuss our memories of the show. As this article focuses on our recollections of the soap, there are no mention of the early days as we started watching the show in the early to mid 1990s. With that in mind here are our collection of our favourite storylines, episodes and moments that Eastenders has provided over the last thirty years.
Mark Fowler’s HIV (1990 onwards)
More of an ongoing character development than a storyline; the writers at Eastenders were able to use Mark’s HIV diagnosis in a number of ways over the years. From when Todd Carty took over the character in 1990 this became a slow-burning story which culminated in Mark’s confession about his illness to Arthur and Pauline in the 1991 Christmas Special. I felt it was brave for the Eastenders writers to make us think about our prejudices when, year’s later, they used Mark’s HIV once again as Peggy Mitchell began a campaign of hate against him. I think that Eastenders did well in presenting the HIV virus as something that Mark just had to live with even though it affected him several times throughout his tenure on the soap. It’s also the first example I can remember of Eastenders trying to educate people about an issue that many were ignorant about beforehand.
Sharongate (October 1994)
As well as issue-based storylines, another thing Eastenders does so well is its slow-burning dramatic plots which often culminate in big reveals. The first one of these that I personally remember is Grant’s discovery of the affair between his wife Sharon and his brother Phil. As the affair first began in 1992, Eastenders were incredibly brave to string the reveal out for two years but the results were brilliant. Using a taped interview between Michelle and Sharon as the catalyst, we the audience knew that by listening to the tapes Grant would eventually discover the truth. Finally listening to the evidence, Grant played the tape to a packed Queen Victoria and later got his revenge against Phil by throwing him down the pit at The Arches. The fact that viewers were gripped by this storyline is evidenced by the fact that this episode raked in audiences of over 20 million.
Debbie’s Death (June 1995)
Eastenders’ deaths are often dramatic affairs however occasionally the soap bucks the trend by doing something a little bit different. Loveable loser Nigel Bates looked to have finally found happiness when he married single mum Debbie however this happiness was short-lived. Whilst Debbie’s death in a road accident happened off-screen, the emotional impact of the incident were felt throughout Albert Square. Even the usually tough Grant lent Nigel a shoulder to cry on as his friend wondered why he didn’t feel more tearful. The episode was perfectly capped off by a silent scene in which Nigel told Debbie’s daughter Claire of her mum’s fate. The fact we didn’t see what was being said made it even more effective and to me this was an example of Eastenders at its best.
Tiffany hit by a car (December 1998)
Back to Grant again and this time his attempts to keep his second wife Tiffany from leaving with their daughter Courtney. After another affair reveal, this time via baby monitor, Tiffany learnt that Grant had been having it off with her own mother Louise. Meanwhile, Tiffany’s escape had been aided by her new beau Beppe di Marco and all looked to be going swimmingly until Grant caught the pair attempting to escape. Throughout the episode, we’d seen Frank’s attempts to get back to Walford before midnight to see the New Year in with Peggy, however he took his eyes off the road for one moment and in the process ploughed down Tiffany. I feel the reason this moment has stuck with me is due to the fact that Tiffany had been built into such a beloved character and to kill her off in this way was truly tragic.
Steve kills Saskia (February 1999)
An example of a different kind of Eastenders death occurred when suave Steve Owen was being stalked by his unhinged ex-girlfriend Saskia. Confronting him in his office at the club, Steve attempted to quash Saskia’s assault by hitting her with an ashtray. However the blow turned out to be deadly and Steve later convinced club DJ Matthew Rose not to call the police. Instead the two covered up the crime which predictably was later revealed and saw Matthew, rather than Steve, jailed for the murder. I felt Easenders did a great job here at making the audience anticipate just when Steve and Matthew would get found out, adding an extra twist to the tale by having the more sympathetic character take the rap. The plot wouldn’t end properly until the next year when a released Matthew came back to the club to get his revenge against his nemesis.
Dot helps Ethel to die (September 2000)
One of the strengths of a continuing drama, as opposed to a regular series, is the fact that they can let us get to know characters over a number of years. Both God-fearing Dot Cotton and eccentric Ethel Skinner joined the show in its first year and eventually became two of the soap’s most-loved characters. That’s what made the story in which Ethel convinced Dot to help her end her life all the more poignant. As we’d seen the relationship between Dot and Ethel grow over the years we knew that the former would do anything to help the latter even if it meant going against her religious beliefs. Ethel and Dot’s final scene together is still, in my eyes, one of Eastenders’ most emotional moments ever thanks both to the build-up and the brilliant chemistry that the two actresses share with one another.
Sonia gives birth (October 2000)
Sonia Jackson was another character who’d we got to know quite well as we’d seen her growing up on screen from trumping-blowing youth to petulant teen. That’s why it was quite brave when Eastenders gave Sonia a storyline which saw her give birth to a baby that she didn’t know she was having. Although the audience had been privy to a dalliance between Martin Fowler and Sonia, we were as clueless as the teenager herself so were shocked when she started going into labour. Eastenders was able to add a bit of humour into this dramatic storyline by having Big Mo deliver the baby. The aftermath of the birth allowed for some hard-hitting moments as Sonia was forced to put the baby up for adoption before later stealing her and going on the run. Again I found this to be a rather brave storyline and the birth scene was executed particularly well.
Who Shot Phil? (March 2001)
Another whodunnit that was handled ever so well, as Phil Mitchell went around making a lot of enemies in the lead up to the wedding of Mel Healey and Steve Owen. The bridegroom himself was a suspect alongside long-running characters Mark and Ian and Phil’s ex-girlfriend Lisa. Although we knew the event was going to happen, the build-up to the shooting was expertly handled and led up to a moment where Phil was shot after he opened the door to what he believed to be mischievous children. The Who Shot Phil? story was the first soap plot that I remember people taking bets on and led to future murder mysteries such as the current one involving Lucy Beale. Although the reveal was a little underwhelming, the whole story itself was gripping and had far-reaching consequences for both the victim and the suspects.
Kat is revealed as Zoe’s mother (October 2001)
When they first arrived on Albert Square; The Slaters were presented as a rather loud family who were on the scene to shake things up. But, over their first year on the soap, we learnt that Kat was actually the mother of youngest Slater sister Zoe; as a result of a rape at the hands of her Uncle Harry. The secret, that had laid dormant for so many years, finally came out after Kat tried to stop Zoe from going to Spain with Harry. I feel that almost everyone in the country knows the iconic moment when Kat told Zoe she was her mother, but not everybody will remember that this revelation was followed up with one of the show’s classic two-hander episodes. This episode almost felt like theatre as Zoe finally learnt the details of her birth and Kat was left distraught by the aftermath. It’s a testament to everyone involved that, over thirteen years later, we still remember this plot as vividly as we do.
Little Mo and Billy marry/Jamie dies (December 2002)
Eastenders Christmas episodes have always been particularly iconic ever since 30-odd million people saw Dirty Den hand Angie the divorce papers. The 20002 instalment was no exception as we saw sweet-natured couple Little Mo and Billy finally make it down the aisle. The light and shade of the episode was brilliantly balanced by having one of the show’s most-loved characters; teen hearthrob Jamie Mitchell, die in hospital after being hit by a car. The way the episode flicks between Billy and Little Mo’s happiness and the sadness felt by Jamie’s nearest and dearest was expertly handled. To this day I still can’t watch this episode without a little tear coming into my eye.
Stacey and Max’s affair revealed (December 2007)
Five years later there was another humdinger of a Christmas episode as another affair was revealed; this time between lothario Max Branning and his daughter-in-law Stacey. Another affair that the audience had known about for ages finally came to light courtesy of Max’s daughter Lauren. After filming the events of Stacey and Bradley’s wedding; Lauren came across footage of her dad kissing the blushing bride. Burning this footage onto DVD, she left it under the Christmas tree and, when the assembled guests started to watch, it was only a matter of time before Stacey and Max’s respective partners learnt the truth. Once again, this was an example of the sort of story Eastenders do so well and demonstrates the impact a reveal can have when done properly.
Dot’s single-hander (January 2008) Not long after the late John Bardon suffered his stroke the story was cleverly incorporated into Dot’s story. Leaving Dot Branning struggling to cope without her husband. The first episode in the soap’s history to focus solely on one character, it saw Dot speak to Jim on a tape recorder, recounting memories with old friends and finally telling him how much she missed him. The monologue earned June Brown a BAFTA nomination.
Whitney’s child abuse storyline (September-December 2008) A delicately handled story that gave Shona McGarty a chance to really shine. When the Jacksons returned to the square there were carefully placed hints at Tony. A man Bianca and her children adored but was wrongly imprisoned. When Tony did return, it was clear this family man wasn’t at all what he seemed. When Tony firsts young Whitney in her bedroom his true nature is revealed. The heavily researched story that dealt with the shocking reality of child abuse was hard to watch at times, but worryingly believable.
Stacey’s bipolar storyline (May 2009 onwards) By the time Stacey Branning’s life started to unravel she had already been at the forefront of the majority of the soap’s biggest storylines. She’d been raped by Archie Mitchell, seen best friend Danielle mowed down, slept with her father in-law and dealt with her mum’s bipolar. Another delicately handled and heartbreaking story, Lacey Turner’s performance still gives me goosebumps. It bought the realities of the condition into the public conscious. I’m slightly disappointed that the story hasn’t been explored further since Stacey has returned to Albert Square.
Peggy and Pat in the ice cream van (October 2009)
Eastenders has a hazy track record when it comes to more overtly comic sequences, with a lot of tehir attempts at slapstick falling short of the mark. The only sort of comedy that works for me is when the characters are allowed to misbehave slightly and divert from the normal drudgery of the Square. One scene that particularly sticks out for me is when, after Heather was in labour, Peggy and Pat drove to the hospital in Shirley’s ice cream van. Whilst the drama was going on around them; Peggy and Pat downed a bottle of vodka, helped themselves to a variety of sweets and had a nice little dance. Although Phil and Shirley eventually arrived to break up the fun, this was a sweet little sequence that cemented the friendship between two of Eastenders’ most memorable matriarchs.
Amira and Syed’s Wedding (January 2010)
Christmas 2009 will always be remembered for the Who Killed Archie Michell storyline which is a shame as another story came to a head during that period. On New Years’ Day 2010; Syed Masood married his partner Amira, who at the time was unaware that he was having a secret tryst with her friend Christian. Although this controversial storyline underpinned the ceremony, what I liked was seeing a different sort of wedding from the ones we’re used to seeing in soap. Usually Eastenders wedding consist of a trip to the registry office followed by a reception at The Vic catered by Ian. Instead, Eastenders let us experience an Islamic wedding which I at least found a unique and enjoyable watch. It’s great what soaps do something to let us into a world that most of us wouldn’t see and that’s why this wedding sticks out as one of Eastenders’ most memorable.
Billie Jackson’s death (October 2010) Still one of the most memorable episodes in recent memory, the death of Billie Jackson was so shocking and real that still feels like yesterday. The episode which only featured a few key characters was such a departure from the soaps normal way of storytelling as we followed a frantic Carol Jackson around the square as she rushed to get to her son.
Johnny comes out (January 2014)
The arrival of The Carters to Albert Square at the end of 2013 signified the beginning of a new start for Eastenders. One of their first major storylines wasn’t something explosive but instead focused on younger Carter son Johnny revealing that he was gay. Instead of his father Mick hitting the roof; he was instead completely supportive of Johnny and the two shared a tender moment. Indeed it was mum Linda who appeared to have more of a problem accepting that Johnny would never bring a girlfriend home. It’s just a shame that the character of Johnny has already departed the show after actor Sam Strike decided to leave just before Christmas.
Who Killed Lucy? (April 2014-present) So that brings us to present day. When it was first announced that EastEnders would tackle a murder mystery that would span ten months the whole nation of seemed skeptical. The show is on such top form that the time has raced by and as I type we’re days away from the big reveal. Dominic Treadwell-Collins has breathed new life into square and along with introducing the Carters this story was a stroke of genius. Whether the investigation took centre stage or was just bubbling along in the background as other stories took over, they’ve managed to keep us gripped throughout. Plotted with the precision of the best whodunnits the story has given virtually every character a moment in the spotlight. The performances form the original EastEnder Adam Woodyatt and Ben Hardy have been particularly standout. However they have chosen to conclude the story we’re bound to be talking about it when EastEnders turns 50!
What have been your most memorable moments? Let us know below.