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Historians say EastEnders not only won the BBC viewers, it also changed society. Harriet Swain reports
Dirty Den and David Blunkett may not seem to have much in common, but EastEnders could be partly to blame for the former Home Secretary's recent troubles, a conference will hear next month.
Jean Seaton, the BBC's official historian for the 1980s, suggests that the soap opera, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, marked a turning point in the way private lives came to be seen as public property.
"We now take it for granted that public and private lives - or the private lives of public people - are in the public domain and part of the story," she says. "But this is a novel phenomenon."
She says that there was a moment in the early Eighties when the private lives of public people became commodities. "There has been a drastic shift," she says. " EastEnders either shows that shift or pushed it."
" EastEnders 20th Anniversary Conference" is part of a series of events associated with a project, sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Board, to produce the sixth volume of the BBC's official history. Seaton, professor of media history at Westminster University, is leading the project, which will bring together some of the original team responsible for putting together the programme as well as academics.
The official history will differ significantly from other accounts of the origins of EastEnders , Seaton says. While these tend to focus on the people who conceived the soap - particularly Tony Holland and Julia Smith - the history will look at how the BBC as an institution needed an EastEnders and went about making it happen.
Seaton says that in the early Eighties, the BBC was slipping behind ITV in the ratings and needed to attract a post-tea audience and more working-class viewers. This drove the search for a new soap. It was followed by a huge injection of money and resources - about £750,000 in the first year. It was only then that key people were appointed to think up how it would work.
An important aspect of this was the amount of research that went into planning the storylines, according to Anthony McNicholas, conference organiser and chief researcher of the official history. The soap took its public-service role seriously and for the first major storyline - Michelle's teenage pregnancy by Dirty Den - the BBC consulted the Brook Advisory Service and other experts to ensure it got it right and that it fed into public debates on pregnancy.
The ratings took off, perhaps helped by the fact that campaigner and mother of ten Victoria Gillick was at the time pursuing a high-profile case against doctors' ability to prescribe contraception to under-16s. This was one way in which the soap benefited from merging private and public concerns.
The other was through publicity. EastEnders was the first programme to have a dedicated press officer, and the BBC publicity machine quickly realised that selling stories about the private lives of its actors, often chosen for their closeness to the role they were playing, could boost ratings.
McNicholas says that EastEnders marked a swing of the pendulum in broadcasting away from high culture towards popularism. But at the same time the emphasis was on high-quality realism - in production values (no wobbly sets) and storylines.
Christine Geraghty, professor of film and television at Glasgow University and a speaker at the conference, suggests that moves away from realism and towards melodrama could be a reason for the recent decline in the programme's viewing figures. She blames the fact that, in the past five years, the sense of community that the programme relied on to offer characters a support and gossip network has been lost.
She suggests that while EastEnders arose in the Eighties, when Margaret Thatcher was declaring "there is no such thing as society", it could still credibly maintain that such a thing as community existed. Now, she suggests, it really does seem to have gone - and with it one of the programme's major strengths. "As the sense of community has gone, there has been a turn away from realism." Instead, in recent months the programme has turned away from soap opera to crime fiction, featuring gangsters and morally black-and-white storylines.
Nevertheless, Geraghty feels there is hope for EastEnders' future. For her, the answer would be to drop the melodrama and introduce more friendships, creating smaller-scale and longer-term communities and links between characters. Both Dirty Den and David Blunkett might benefit from the same approach.
" EastEnders 20th Anniversary Conference: Inventing the Modern Soap", organised by the Communication and Media Research Institute at Westminster University and BBC Heritage, is at Westminster University boardroom, Regent Street, London, February 19. Contact Anthony McNicholas on 01189 486164 or email firstname.lastname@example.org