Life must be tough for EastEnders producers. In any other Olympic year, three weeks of sporting coverage would have dinted, but not eliminated, the audience for their soap opera. With a Games hosted in the UK’s capital city, though, TV audiences have been lapping up the BBC’s wall-to-wall coverage: all day, every day, on BBC1, throughout daytime and early evening on BBC3 (with the channel mysteriously finding the Freeview bandwidth to broadcast in daytime) as well as streaming video coverage of every single sport online. While BBC2 and BBC4 have provided plenty of non-Olympian content — including many shows, including EastEnders, which normally reside on BBC1 — and there is much radio and commercial TV still out there, the truth is that most TVs at the moment are glued to the sport.
It must be especially galling for Easties, as the Olympics is in “their” borough. The fictional postcode for Walford, E20, has now been formally adopted by the rejuvenated Olympic Park area. So the decimation of EastEnders’ regular viewing audience is being conducted by a neighbour.
It’s unsurprising, both geographically and in terms of attracting audience attention, that the EastEnders production team have tried to reflect the Olympics’ presence in East London on the sets of Elstree. An audacious episode which combined standard prerecorded scenes with a live segment showing Billy Mitchell (actor Perry Fenwick) carry the Olympic torch through Albert Square worked well, gimmick though it was.
However, last night the production team went a step further, and included a topical conversation about Team GB’s gold medal success. And so the Olympics joined topics including the death of Michael Jackson to be indulged with a topical scene that, with the best will in the world, can only be watched through one’s fingers.
The scene, which featured a cafe discussion between Jean Slater (Gillian Wright), Tyler Moon (Tony Discipline) and Ray Dixon (Chucky Venn), name checked several British medal winners, and included a no-doubt-funny-in-the-writing-room double take from Jean on the mention of ‘Mo’ (a reference to 10,000m winner Mo Farah, rather than Laila Morse’s Mo Harris). I suppose it was no worse than the discussions going on in every workplace at the moment, except that such discussions in real life don’t occur once during the Olympics and comprise one huge infodump.
Not that EastEnders portrays real life, of course - but, like all dramas, it works best when dialogue and situation springs from character. The torch scenes worked because it worked within the context of Billy’s character: a conversation about medals in the cafe betrayed that the words were dreamt up in the producer’s office rather than the brains of the characters speaking them.
Of course, if EastEnders was to truly reflect the attitudes of East London to the Games happening on their doorstep, most of the characters would be at home most nights watching the telly, perving over either the women’s beach volleyball or the men’s diving. Local shopkeepers who attempted to tailor their displays to appeal to the much-promised onslaught of tourists would be falling foul of the new laws which prevent misuse of the words “Olympic”, “Gold”, “Silver”, “Bronze”, etc. And there would most certainly have been seven years of discussions about whether or not the East End will gain any long term benefit at all, or even enough to offset the disruption. Given Easties’ predeliction for violent crime, I’m half surprised that one of the Square’s residents hasn’t been driven to homicidal rage by Boris Johnson’s incessant “Get Ahead of the Games” broadcasts on Tubes and buses. Although I suppose that, uniquely in London, Walford residents all work within three minutes’ walk of their own front door, so nobody uses public transport anyway.
I suppose, as the designated “Olympic Broadcaster”, the BBC doesn’t want its regular primetime soap to become a soapbox for voices in opposition to the Games. But if it is to continue to try and shoehorn topical references into EastEnders, can it please try and make them suck less?