Eastenders by Alex Rhys Taylor

EastEnders_set

Following a recent opinion piece in the Telegraph, there has been lots of chatter recently about a particular species of urban change being labeled as “Shoreditchification”. Everywhere in London, if we are to believe the crudest analyses, is being transformed into a simulation of Hackneys most southerly ward. Even, it seems, televisual representations of the inner-city are receiving the treatment. Last month the BBC announced that her prime time soap opera, EastEnders, would also be getting the ‘Shoreditch makeover. The argument offered by programme makers is that the face lift will result in a programme that resonates better with the demography of contemporary London.

To be sure, as Eastenders stands, it does not reflect the demographic reality of East London. As the media coverage discussing this points out, property prices in Hackney – in which the show was once loosely set and in which Shoreditch nestles – are amongst the most expensive in the country. They are certainly not affordable to the community portrayed in the four-nights-a-week proletarian misery-fest. Even those clinging on to the Albert Square through housing support would be displaced by the triple whammy of benefits caps, bedroom taxes and a rapidly inflating property bubble. Such is the demographic upheaval underway in the real East End at present that in some places it is barely recognisable from what it was five years ago, let alone the thirty years since Eastenders first aired. The ‘Shoreditchificaiton’ that the opinion pieces bemoan is in many respects merely the cultural correlate of the reorientation of inner city economies around property speculation; (even if, as Joon Wong argues, Shoreditch itself is actually being Canary-Wharfised at present). Yet it is easier, it seems, for columnists in broadsheets to poke fun at the culture that is fostered in gentrified areas, than it is for them to offer a critique of the ideological maneuvers that it took for that culture to thrive.

Of course it is fun to imagine what the Shoreditch makeover of Albert Square might entail: presumably Mitchell’s autos would be priced out of the arches by a vintage clothing and record warehouse and The Queen Vic will start selling double fried pig’s ears. Instead of the classic car crash, characters will be written out having been knocked into a canal by a fixed speed bike. Walford market, once based on Hackney’s Ridley Road would morph into Ridley Road’s constitutive Other, Broadway Market. The greasy spoon cafe would be replaced by a hyper-real pastiche of a greasy spoon cafe, offering hard shakes alongside candied bacon and pancakes; redbrick supplanted by chromium, tinted glass and terra-cotta panelling.

Leaving aside the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel mockery of new Londoners, there are of course significant changes that would need to be made if these fictional representations of the city are to even vaguely reflect a reality. But why bother? Even when it first aired in the mid- eighties, the caricature of the East End portrayed in the soap opera was as crude and unrepresentative as the archetypes that fill any soap opera. Consider the fact that for the last three decades, the cast of the show has been, predominantly, what our census forms refer to as ‘white British’. That is, in a random sample of 200 past characters on the soap opera’s Wiki page, 10% of the show’s characters were representative of minority groups, and assortment of characters with Jewish, Muslim, Caribbean, south east asian, Italian, Turkish Cypriot Greek or eastern European backgrounds. No Vietnamese that I can recall. That leaves 90% of the cast over the last thirty years as ostensibly white British. If, however, we look at the demographics of Hackney in 2001 (16 years into the show’s lifespan) the majority of residents (56%) were of ethnic origin other than white British. London has never looked quite as white, nor the Thames as blue, as it has been portrayed in the drama.

Admittedly, 1 in 10 is a higher degree of minority representation than in some areas of the BBC’s output over the last 30 years, and perhaps reflects the national demography better than it does that of the old maritime metropolis. And it is worth noting that through the families such as the Taverniers, Massoods, and Kapoors, the show has boldly explored aspects of cross-cultural exchange, interracial relationships and integration : dramatising these issues for a wider audience, if only ever the bleaker side of these phenomena.

For the main part, however, as London was undergoing some of the most significant demographic changes in its history, it has been the mythical salt-of-the-earth-white-working-class cockney that we’ve witnessed being buffeted by an assortment of drug addiction, prostitution, dementia, adultery, violence, and jealousy. As engrossing as they’ve been, the tribulations of this archetype have sequestered the remarkable texture of the East End from whole generations.

The world of hard white geezers with soft hearts was the image of working class London I grew up with in rural Warwickshire, and is no doubt an important point in many a non-Londoner’s understanding of the capital and their relationship to it. But importantly, it is also the representation of East London that many people in East London itself grew up with, and shapes how they think about themselves. As the late Stuart Hall argued, identity is always constructed within representation1. This seems to be especially the case when those representations are beamed to audiences at prime time. While undertaking research in east London, I regularly saw a cab driver sidle up to a jellied eel van in Aldgate and every week, as he doused his mid morning snack with vinegar, he whistled the East Enders theme tune to himself.

Resident of Bow, the chart topping Tynchy Stryder, was recently asked to comment on the changes to the area following the Olympics. He responded that the thing he used to like about the area before the Olympic project was best encapsulated in watching telly like Eastenders! […] the whole cockney, east feel.” Even Tynchy, who pioneered a musical genre renowned for cataloging the complexities of 21st century urban identities, articulates his attachments through representations that the shows makers themselves say, have never really represented the East End.

Given then, that it has done so for decades, questions ought to be asked why now all of a sudden that East Enders “must reflect changing London”. Is the answer perhaps that the newest residents living in the actual geography being fictionalized have a particular utility in terms of ratings? They – or should I say ‘we’ – are after all, a new class of what Pierre Bourdieu refers to as petite bourgeois cultural intermediaries, figures that encapsulate and communicate the latest aspirational fashions and trends to a wider audience of consumers. Perhaps. Or maybe the programme makers will go down the route of using East London’s new residents as a source of ridicule and humour. Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker certainly found a wealth of satirical material in the original prince of Shoreditch, Nathan Barley. Done another way, the lampooning approach might, however, also shore up the national attachment to a mythical native East End culture. This seems quite a possibility when we consider that, alongside the makeover, the latest arrival on the show is a curmudgeonly old Billingsgate fishmonger; a man who yearns for another age. Playing into the mood of what Paul Gilroy refers to as ‘post-colonial melancholia’2 is certainly something the BBC seems quite happy to do as part of its effort to maintain the consent of license payers and governments alike. Or maybe, just maybe, the makeover is a genuine effort to bring some of the hot topics concerning real East Enders; soaring property prices, regressive taxes, displacement, stigmatisation, Islamaphobia, post Olympic lethargy and massively overburdened public services, to a wider audience.

There is enough misery for another three decades of scripts in just one day of the contemporary city, should they want to set it in aspic again. There’s even some love and joy there as well should anybody be interested.

1 Hall, S., 1990. Cultural identity and diaspora. Identity: Community, culture, difference, 2, pp.222–237.

2 Gilroy, P., 2005. Postcolonial Melancholia, Columbia University Press.

Dr Alex Rhys Taylor is Deputy Director of the Centre for Urban and Community Research.

Image by Gill Rickson licensed under Creative Commons

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