EastEnders wanted to show Thatcher’s Britain. These days it would make Maggie proud

In its efforts to reflect the real world, the BBC’s flagship soap has unconsciously embraced the Tory vision

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

Albert Square full of Thatcherites? You ’avin a larf? No, it’s true. EastEnders, conceived 30 years ago partly as a means of enraging the Conservative party, has blossomed into a Tory commercial.

Iain Duncan-Smith could watch all the wealth-creating activity in Albert Square with a syrupy smile; George Osborne could visit Phil Mitchell’s garage in a hi-vis jacket and look perfectly at home (Boris Johnson has already had a cameo pint at the Queen Vic). EastEnders portrays small businesses built up through hard work; it implies that turning to the state won’t get you anywhere; they even sent swotty teenager Libby Fox to Oxford. Never mind the affairs and addictions, the murders and rape, Walford is rammed full of aspirational, hard-working families. No wonder so many posh folk gather round the TV to enjoy it with their M&S fish pie.

Albert Square’s drift to the right appears to be unintentional. When the series began, at 7 p.m. on 19 February 1985, the real East End of London was a sumpland. Shoreditch was somewhere to inject drugs in doorways; Dalston was noted for its spectacular murder rate; the old London docks were dead. The opening episode angrily reflected all this. The body of a poor, elderly murder victim is found in a grimy flat; one of the men who discovers the body has been unemployed for months, and is on the brink of depression as a result. Later, in the very brown pub on the corner, where a fight between two snarling lager louts is taking place, an old woman in a charity-shop anorak complains that there is no such thing as community any more. As the production team stated in 1985, the series was set ‘uncompromisingly in Thatcher’s Britain’.

Quite so: and we might say that it is now set in the Britain Mrs Thatcher wanted. Look around today’s Albert Square: no one is on benefits. No one! Among the young characters, Jay and Ben work in the Arches garage, Lee and Nancy in the Queen Vic, Tamwar in the market inspector’s office; Whitney is a teaching assistant; Shabnam is there all hours at the Minute Mart; and young Peter Beale is up before dawn to work the veg stall that has been in his family for generations. At the other end of the age scale, Dot Cotton is still working shifts at the launderette. She is 87.

Funnily enough, Dot is the sole council tenant left on the Square; the rest is owner-occupied and tarted up. Ian Beale’s lavender wallpaper might not be Osborne and Little, but Albert Square’s canniest businessman has more important things to think about. In 1985, Ian was a 16-year-old with bigger dreams than his barrow-boy father; over the years, he has started a café, a fish-and-chip shop and a swanky restaurant. He is also a buy-to-let landlord. In the earliest years, his acumen was portrayed as abnormal and amoral. Now it is accepted by all the other characters as perfectly natural; how else are livings made?

Entrepreneurship abounds. Beastly Dean Wicks owns and runs the Square’s natty hairdressing business. Its premises were once occupied by adventuress Janine Butcher who, between murders, was a high-flying estate agent. At the other end of the Square, when Tanya Branning tired of her husband’s infidelities, she decided to earn her own way with a beauty parlour called Bootys. The moral? Starting a business is the path to fulfilment, whatever the state of your moral compass.

And when disaster strikes, it’s no use crying to the nanny state. Think of Alfie and Kat Moon. In a recent episode, a chilly official told them the only way they could get a council house was to move to Luton. In EastEnders terms, that’s transportation. They have been taken in by friends, Big Society-style.

And there are handsome earnings to be made in Albert Square. Phil Mitchell’s empire — stretching from the Arches garage to the Albert cocktail bar — is so profitable that he has a spare £100,000 knocking around in his safe (or did, until cousin Ronnie nabbed it). Meanwhile, his other cousin Roxy owns the local gym. Across the way, Max Branning’s sex addiction does not get in the way of his little earner, ‘Deals On Wheels’, a used-car concern that keeps a very nice roof over the heads of his daughters. Nor will you ever hear the term ‘tax credits’ used in the Vic; even shivering market traders Kush and Kat don’t fall back on the Treasury when the takings have been slim. Kat’s leopard-print dresses, shuddering on their railings, are all that lie between her and destitution. But will she accept handouts? No, indeed she will not.

EastEnders, in its efforts to reflect the real world, has unconsciously embraced the Tory vision. As a microcosm of Britain, Albert Square is a blend of self-reliance, fierce localism and community cohesion. If Cameron had any sense, he’d make it the cornerstone of his election campaign.

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Show comments
  • GraveDave

    Yes, its underclasses are generally all white chavs aren’t they.
    Unlike in the real east end.’Tory values’ or otherwise.

    • wyclif

      Haven’t there been a lot of black and Asian characters on EastEnders over the years, though?

  • Jambo25

    Apart from the fact that none of the characters in East Enders could afford to live in that part of the East End any longer.

    • Mc

      You must have a good working knowledge of East Enders to know that. How do you manage to retain your sanity watching that soap? 😉

      • Jambo25

        Have never really watched it. I do know roughly the part of East London Its supposed to be set in and working class Londoners couldn’t afford to stand on the pavement there let alone buy a house.

  • john p reid

    Surely the criminality of the local business men to break even and the violent crime in the area, reflects thatcheriem,

    • wyclif

      Just as surely as the loads of people on benefit and sprawling council estates, esp in the North, reflects Labour.

      • john p reid

        What’s wrong with council estates,the drama our friends in the North had 1000’s of homeless people sleeping ruff, in cardboard city, a Thatcher legacy, as for benefits ,remind me who increased unemployment from 1.5m to 3.6 million, twice in the 80’s

        • wyclif

          Don’t you think English citizens aspire to something more than benefit and gov’t dependency their entire lives? Or a life where they can improve their lot and that of their children through work, making their families financially stable and whole? Do you ask these people if they’d like to have a job and own their own home someday?

          EastEnders is a very well-produced show. I’m not concerned with whether it reflects reality or not—it probably doesn’t, since it’s on telly after all—but I’m not outraged by the fact that the people depicted on EE are working class and work hard. That’s something that we should admire, not denigrate, no matter what class we belong to.

          • john p reid

            Of course I think people don’t want to be on benefits,or own their own homes, what’s that got to do with 3.6 million unemployed,or the homeless on the streets being an example of Thatcherism,and my comment that if Eastenders somed up Thatcherism, then half the business men on it,are dodgy.

  • ohforheavensake

    Really? Is that why its viewing figures are down?

  • lakelander

    When I recently re-visited the East End (West Ham and Plaistow) where I lived as a student in the ’70s I was staggered by the absence of cockneys and their almost entire replacement by those from the Indian sub-continent,

    By any measure, Thatcher would NOT have been proud of that.

  • tomgreaves

    I was born into an East End family post war. This article is based on a total and utter fallacy. East Enders were always famous for their right wing views, especially when Thatcher was in power. Yes, there were union members and left wing activists, but in the main they had market-trader mentalities and were great at ducking and diving. They hated the north-of-Watford lefties and considered themselves far superior. Their financial circumstances and the slums and hovels they lived in counted for nothing in their self esteem. They were little Englanders through and through. My father, who was a member of the Communist Party, absolutely hated his fellow East Enders because of their conservatism…with big and small C: he always said “What have that bunch of goons got to conserve anyway”. So, My McKay, get your facts right or shut your norf and sarf.

  • jo cooke

    TLDR khkh

  • davidshort10

    What a lot of twaddle. Coronation Street has become exactly the same. So many of its characters have their own businesses. The pub, the taxi firm, the hairdressers, the restaurant, the shop, the cafe. A little community with lots of businesses all with their neighbours for customers is not evidence of prosperity. It’s a financial merry-go-round where everyone would eventually fall off. People buying and selling to each other is economic stasis. At least the Street has a factory but given the lack of work ethic of its staff and its tiny size, that would have gone to the wall a long time ago. When it began, there was the pub and Len Fairclough’s builder’s yard. The characters went out to work and spent some money in the pub. Just like real life as the Street used to reflect.