TV COLUMN: EastEnders, Upstart Crow

Columnist James Waller-Davies gives his view of some of the recent events on television.

James Waller-Davies

The last time I saw EastEnders, ‘Dirty’ Den Watts got shot on the canal path. That was 1989. Not exactly an avid fan.

Back in Christmas 1986, half the nation were riveted fans, with over 30 million people tuning in on Christmas Day to watch Angie Watts get the Christmas present shock of a lifetime, her divorce papers. Nothing else on our TVs has the power to capture a national moment like a soap.

This week, EastEnders (BBC1) did it again. Barbara Windsor took her last blisteringly emotional final bow as Peggy Mitchell, as Peggy took her own life and own way out in the face of her debilitating cancer.

The writing and production of Peggy’s final episode was nigh on perfect. The bringing back of her long-time nemesis, Pat Butcher, from the afterlife as a dramatic foil for Peggy’s last words was nothing short of genius.

For too many years, Barbara Windsor was a cypher for everything that was bad about women on screen. In the Carry On films she had to do little more than reveal various stages of undress to be, quite literally, the ‘butt’ of the joke to Sid James’ cackling punchline.

Even when clothed, Windsor was made to totter about on heals, projecting a body that had so many anatomical inaccuracies, it made Barbie looked like a reasonably proportioned doll.

After this week, and all the previous years as Peggy Mitchell, Windsor will be remembered as one of the leading small screen actresses of her later age. Going out on a limb here, but you might just have seen next year’s BAFTA winner for best TV actress.

Alas, this column is unlikely to make soaps a regular feature. There’s simply not the time. Watching soaps today is almost a full-time job. From being a twice-a-week half-hour commitment, you now need devote most of your waking hours.

It is a case of having too much of a good thing and I’ve long thought the audience figures would be higher if they reverted to a twice weekly schedule. It would also reopen the prime time slots to new content. Just saying.

On the other side of the pair of theatrical masks is the happy, smiley face of comedy. In recent years, television sit-coms have been left behind by the explosion of quality drama and a good laugh is hard to find, but Upstart Crow (BBC1) is the first to put a chuckle on my face in a while.

Written by Ben Elton and starring David Mitchell, Upstart Crow is the tale of the ambitious William Shakespeare. As with Blackadder, Elton has infused Upstart Crow with an array of modern pastiches and tilts.

Yes, you do need to have a working knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays and the cultural history of the sixteenth century to get the most out of it. But then it’s not for nothing, we force kids to do Shakespeare in schools. They get dragged kicking and screaming though Macbeth so they can answer the odd University Challenge question and enjoy Elton’s comedies.

It’s good to see Mitchell acting again too. His talent, along with so many of the current TV generation, seems to be seeping away through the cracks of endless panel shows.

Not a bad week for the Beeb. A bit of tragedy and a bit of comedy. What more could we possibly want for your licence fee?