Richard Ord: Why EastEnders needs an injection of misery

EastEnders banter: One of us will be abused, one shot, and another dead before the year is out. Its what the viewers want. Drink anyone?
EastEnders banter: One of us will be abused, one shot, and another dead before the year is out. Its what the viewers want. Drink anyone?

At the end of a particularly harrowing EastEnders this week, a helpline number was revealed for “anyone who has been affected by the issues raised”. I rang it, but they said there’s nothing they could do about nausea brought on by terrible storylines.

There was a time when, after a lousy day at work, you could rely on the cockney soap to lift your spirits with 30 minutes of unremitting misery.

By all accounts, the writers these days are running out of ideas faster than they are running out of viewers.

Latest figures show the soap lost almost two million in less than a year. I tuned in this week to see if I could put my finger on what might be going wrong. Turns out I didn’t have enough fingers.

I settled on putting my finger on two particularly poor storylines (apt, since the scriptwriters are putting two fingers up to the audience). They were: a dog on the loose and a funeral parlour sign being unveiled.

You may think such mundane occurrences left little room for drama. But, back in the days of yore, when Dirty Den was baring his lower set of gnashers and barking at Angie to “sling ‘er ‘ook,” you could have bet your bottom half a sixpence that those storylines could be spun into soap gold.

The runaway dog when Pete Beale was glugging a pint of Churchill’s from his pewter tankard would have caused a car to swerve and a key character or two put in a coma, while the funeral parlour sign would have swung loose to reveal Nick Cotton hiding in the eaves with the cash from the Queen Vic Pearly Queen retirement fund in a swag bag under his arm.

So what did the writers do with the runaway dog and the funeral parlour sign?

Well, the dog bit a handbag belonging to Denise. She pushed it off and it fell in a pond. It jumped out, but the owner, a 16-year-old schoolboy, said he would report her to the police (was wetting a dog ever an offence?). Denise went round to the boy’s house to apologise, but the boy’s mum said the dog deserved £500 for the distress it so obviously did not suffer. Rather than see her stump up the £500, market stall holder Kush said he’d take the rap.

Meanwhile, the funeral parlour sign was unveiled. It didn’t collapse or decapitate a mourner. Was there anyone hiding behind the sign or did the sign reveal that Mick Carter is really Dot Cotton’s love child? No. You know what the dramatic denouement turned out to be? The new sign was smudged.

To be fair to the writers, there may have felt there is only so many times that you can go back to the well of unrelenting torment and despair for the soaps characters. But without it, on the evidence of this week’s show, it’s the viewers that suffer.

Word is the producers are looking at darker storylines to bring back viewers including a family abuse scenario, the death of a prominent lead character and a shooting.

If it’s success they want, they should start by shooting the scriptwriter.