‘EastEnders’ at 35: here’s 10 of the bonkers soap’s most iconic storylines

The BBC's long-running series first aired on this day in 1985

35 years ago, a man kicked a door down, moaned about the smell, then found a pensioner dead in his armchair. This, you might think, was a strange way to kick off an episode of American comedy drama The Golden Girls (also celebrating its 35th anniversary this year) – and you’d be right! This was the debut of BBC flagship soap EastEnders; then – as now – television’s most consistently provocative episodic show.

Today (February 19), with “explosive” surprises teased by producers, EastEnders celebrates 35 years in the game. What better time then, than for NME’s resident Albert Square obsessive James McMahon to count down the show’s 10 greatest moments <cue doof doof>…

10
Steve kills Saskia with an ashtray

When: 14 February 1999

Spandau Ballet bassist and sometime thespian Martin Kemp had portrayed a wrong-un as far back as 1990; this was the year he and brother Gary portrayed the Kray twins in Peter Medak’s really rather good gangster biopic, The Krays. And yet Kemp The Younger was only anointed the nation’s public enemy number one, not when he lamped the really quite annoying Saskia with an ashtray, but when he subsequently framed rodent-faced underling Matthew for the accident.

What happened next: Steve and mortal enemy Phil rowed for what felt like a thousand years, with Steve eventually dying in an explosion at the climax of a car chase. Last November, Steve’s wife, Mel, died in a car chase involving Phil’s wife Sharon. Oh, and Spandau Ballet reformed in 2009.

9
Mark tells his parents he’s HIV positive

When: Boxing Day, 1991

The Mark Fowler character, originally played by the late David Scarboro, returned to the soap in 1990; now he would be played by Todd Carty and his extremely expressive eyebrows. And there Mark/Carty stayed until 2002, where throughout a 12 year tenure the character was arguably the most visible HIV positive person in the UK. More challenging, provocative stories would follow, but Mark’s coming out on Boxing Day 1991 is about as powerful a moment as British telly has seen.

What happened next: Barrow boy Mark sold an awful lot of fruit and veg. And though it’s impossible to accurately quantify such a claim, did much with the character to break the many stigmas surrounding the illness.

8
Lauren learns Ian has been sleeping rough

When: 31 July 2012

As Ian Beale, Adam Woodyatt is the only actor to have been present on-set for the very first episode of EastEnders – aired 19 February 1985 – who remains a member of the cast today. In this time, there’s not a lot Ian hasn’t done. He’s been shot. He’s been married five times. His loins have sired a murderer. And so in 2012 the show’s writers decided he should have a stab at living rough. It was a heavy-handed treatment of a sensitive topic and really not one of the show’s finest moments, and yet the enduringly meme-able image of Ian during this period is unquestionably iconic ‘Enders.

What happened next: Oh loads of stuff; maybe, most notably, the ratings-grabbing whodunit involving Ian’s daughter Lucy in April 2018. Currently Ian – who’s long since shaved off his unkempt, ginger locks – is bouncing off the walls of the friend-zone with lifelong best friend Sharon.

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7
Dot Cotton’s monologue

When: 31 January 2008

When the actor who played Dot’s second husband, John Bardon, suffered a stroke in real life, EastEnders used the same illness to write off Jim Cotton, the character he’d long played on screen. It was a sad moment; at this point, Jim had been a patriarch of the Square for over a decade, his character evolving from racist bigot to beloved old goat. More upsetting still was the episode in which Dot – played by the immortal June Brown, with only a cup of cocoa and a tape recorder by her side – taped a goodbye message to Jim. It remains the only episode of the soap in which only one character features. It remains peerless, extraordinary telly.

What happened next: The performance saw Brown nominated in the Best Actress category at the 2009 British Academy Television Awards, in turn becoming the first soap actress nominated in the category since 1988, when Jean Alexander was shortlisted for her role as Coronation Street’s Hilda Ogden. She lost out to Anna Maxwell-Martin. It’s a shit business.

6
Janine pushes Barry off a cliff

When: 2 January 2004

Albert Square has seen no shortage of male villains in its 35 year run, but no woman has come close to causing the sort of misery that Janine Butcher has. Evidence of Janine’s cold heart had been present for years – as a teenager she’d accused Holocaust survivor Felix Kawalski of being a paedophile, which really isn’t on – but it took pushing hapless husband Barry Evans off a cliff-cum-large-hill in Scotland (and subsequently her watching him die) for us to know just how evil Frank Butcher’s beloved youngest daughter could really be.

What happened next: Four marriages, four funerals (three by Janine’s hand), Janine has been in prison since Christmas Day 2013. One day she will return. There will be blood.

5
Phil gets addicted to crack

When: 9 August 2010

Not so much an episode as an era, the clip above – while very good – cannot be expected to contain the full wonder of seeing the Square’s resident hard nut off his head. Guardian writer Stuart Heritage memorably described actor Steve McFadden’s portrayal of Phil on crack, in said episode, thus; “the world’s most uncanny impression of the dancing Ally McBeal baby, but with added whisky-swigging, shadow-boxing and visible appreciation of The Who circa 1966-1971”. It remains McFadden’s finest moment, until… Look, just do a Google image search for ‘Steve McFadden Sea Life Centre’ okay?

What happened next: Mum Peggy locks Phil in the Queen Vic in an attempt to starve him off drugs. He repays her by burning the place down. The roof falls in on him. As the great man says/slurs himself; “none of them will ever beat me!”

4
Grant discovers Phil and Sharon’s affair

When: 24 October 1994

October 1994 saw the professional debut of tennis prodigy Venus Williams. The release of nu-metal pioneers Korn’s self-titled debut album. The first screening of Quentin Tarantino’s second feature film, Pulp Fiction. And yet registering highest on the pop-culture-o-meter was Sharongate, whereupon Grant found out his big brother Phil had been shagging his wife and subsequently beat him within an inch of his life. Former executive producer of EastEnders and BBC’s Head of Drama Serials, John Yorke, has described the narrative as a “Tristan and Isolde story”. We’ll just go with, “cor, that was ace!”

What happened next: Flash forward 25 years and it was revealed Sharon had been cheating on Phil with toyboy Keanu Taylor. And people say there’s no karma.

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3
Frank Butcher and the bow tie

When: 2 October 2000

Should mankind ever make it into distant space, and should we ever connect with extra-terrestrial life, it’s likely even ET will be aware of the none-more-iconic scene in which beloved ‘wheeler dealer pilchard’ Frank Butcher woos lifelong love Pat, behind current beau Peggy Mitchell’s back, by popping around to her house, stark naked, clad only in a spinning bow tie. Do note: this isn’t recommended romancing in 2020. Heck, it wasn’t really the done thing 20 years ago. But it was very funny.

What happened next: Pat and Frank decide to elope. Pat changes her mind. Frank however has already written a goodbye note to Peggy, who reads it aloud in the Vic one day, resulting in public humiliation for both Pat and Frank and the palm of a Mitchell matriarch imprinted across both their faces. The bow tie is never seen again. Mike Reed, as Frank, appears just a further three times before his sad passing in 2007.

2
Max and Stacey’s affair is revealed

When: Christmas Day, 2007

It’s often forgotten that the complicated, torrid, pseudo-incestuous relationship between Walford’s most ginger and Stacey began moments after sex-mad Max first arrived on the Square in 2006 – the teenager was first to meet Max, then hunched over his broken-down motor. What then followed was a lusty affair with ample juice in the tank. In the months that followed, Stacey had married Walford’s second most ginger, Max’s son Bradley, while also having it off with Max frequently behind her estate agent husband’s back. Christmas 2007 saw all concerned receive a Christmas present none of them wanted; the fallout that day created ruptures in the Square that have never really ever healed.

What happened next: Tears, pain, suffering; all the EastEnders staples. On 19 February, at the climax of a live episode filmed to celebrate the show’s 25th anniversary, Bradley would leave the show, dead, after falling off the Queen Vic’s roof. All together, “Braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaadley!”

1
Den tells Angie he wants a divorce

When: Christmas Day, 1986

Regularly voted number one on ‘Best Christmas Telly, Ever’ lists and still – with a whopping 30.1 million viewers – the most watched episode of EastEnders, ever, this showdown between the Vic’s incumbent King and Queen remains the show’s most iconic moment. The backstory goes thus: worried she’s going to lose her philandering husband, Angie decides to lie about having cancer. Angie, fond of a drink or 10, drunkenly shares her problem with a barman. Den overhears. What does Angie get for Christmas in 1986? Here’s a clue: there is no Scalextric for Angie. Den’s spite still sizzles all these years on.

What happened next: Angie leaves the Vic, taking adopted daughter Sharon with her. Den gets to keep Roly the poodle. Angie becomes landlady of the Queen Victoria’s rival, The Dagmar. There’s some off-and-on reconciliation between the two. Then in 1988 actress Anita Dobson decides she’d like to spend more time with her rockstar husband, Queen’s Brian May. Angie leaves Den and E20 for good. She moves to Spain. Everybody in EastEnders moves to Spain when they leave. This should have been the premise for Eldorado, the flop TV soap birthed by EastEnders co-creator Tony Holland. In 2002, the Angie Watt’s character dies off screen, succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver. RIP QWEEN.

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