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The battle for ratings: how EastEnders saved the BBC

In the 1980s, the BBC devised a new weapon in its ratings battle against ITV: EastEnders. In part eight of our 13-part series on the history of the BBC, David Hendy explores how a mix of masterful publicity and melodramatic plots propelled the drama to popular success...

Cast and crew filming an episode of EastEnders in 1998 (Photo by Polly Borland/Getty Images)
Published: August 26, 2022 at 10:57 am
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One of the most unlikely episodes in British television history unfolded on an isolated Devon hillside one evening in September 1986. It was then that around 60 inmates at Dartmoor Prison, who had been spending “free association” watching the BBC’s hit drama serial EastEnders, started rioting. Chairs and tables were broken up, and lightbulbs smashed.

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Afterwards, officials launched an urgent investigation. Had the poor quality of food just served for supper triggered the outburst? Not, it seemed, in this case. It had been TV – or rather, its temporary absence – that had apparently caused the fracas.

On the night in question, EastEnders had featured one of the main characters, the teenage mother Michelle Fowler, jilt her sweetheart, Lofty, at the altar and declare her love instead for the father of her baby: the landlord of the Queen Vic pub, “Dirty Den” Watts. In soap-opera terms, it was a classic moment of high drama, and around 20 million Britons – roughly half the adult population of the entire country – had tuned in. At the crucial moment, all reception in Dartmoor Prison had been lost – the latest in a growing list of reception failures at the institution. By the time the picture returned to normal, all the inmates could see was Lofty crying alone in his bedsit.

In less than two years after its February 1985 launch, EastEnders had become compulsive viewing. Indeed, it had been designed by the BBC with this goal in mind – conceived as a finely honed weapon in an ongoing TV ratings war that the corporation desperately needed to win.

The broadcaster had been doing reasonably well when it came to peak-time programmes. Its evening schedule featured, among other hits, Dynasty, Top of the Pops, The Generation Game, ‘Allo ‘Allo!, Only Fools and Horses, Blackadder and The Young Ones. Yet by 1983, ITV seemed to be doing even better. While the BBC’s licence fee income was stagnant, advertising revenues for the regional commercial companies were buoyant, and they had used their wealth to splash out on big, audience-friendly series for the most lucrative mid-evening slots.

With a steady stream of programmes about 25 minutes or 50 minutes in length, the poor British viewer was left with an untidy schedule that was almost impossible to follow

The BBC was also being held back by programme starting times. Although it did not carry advertising itself, many of its series were being sold abroad and had to be made the right length for networks that did. This meant a steady stream of programmes about 25 minutes or 50 minutes in length, leaving the poor British viewer with an untidy schedule that was almost impossible to follow. ITV’s programmes, which started on the hour or the half hour, were much easier to grasp.

The result of all this in ratings terms was that five of the top six series were now ITV’s. It was a dangerous position for the BBC to find itself in. It might not be obliged to think only of ratings – but if its audience share ever dipped below something like 30 per cent, life could become politically very difficult.

How could the corporation carry on justifying a universal licence fee if a growing portion of the public were no longer using its services? A new peak-time soap opera – something that could perhaps take on ITV’s hugely popular Coronation Street – presented itself as the obvious solution: a programme that would have as its prime objective the maintenance of audience share.

A window on society

The idea of the BBC broadcasting a soap opera – or, to use the BBC’s preferred term, a “popular drama serial” – was neither new nor revolutionary. As was often the case, radio had led the way. The corporation’s wartime North American Service had featured Front Line Family, the ongoing story of the Robinson family’s gutsy determination to endure bombing, blackout and rationing.

Its producers had worked on the basis of a simple rule of thumb: “British in content, American in appeal,” and Front Line Family’s 15-minute episodes, beamed across the Atlantic every weekday, had provided US and Canadian listeners with what one critic called the “refreshing sea-breeze of strength and determination”.

In the decades since, two other radio serials had successfully woven their way into Britain’s own national culture: The Archers and Mrs Dale’s Diary. Val Gielgud, the BBC’s long-serving head of Radio Drama, loathed them both. Mrs Dale’s Diary, in particular, he dismissed as “sociologically corrupting” because it encouraged what he saw as a “mediocrity of mind” among listeners. He also thought the standardised “production line” approach that such serials required, with staff asked to make essentially the same programme week after week, year after year, was inimical to good morale and the overall quality of the BBC’s drama output.

The BBC’s head of Radio Drama loathed both The Archers and Mrs Dale’s Diary. The latter, in particular, he dismissed as 'sociologically corrupting'

Yet Gielgud failed to acknowledge their ability to dramatise real social problems. Mrs Dale’s Diary, for instance, grappled throughout the 1950s and 1960s with many of the issues that millions of women listening at home would have recognised: the conflict between the demands of home-making and the desire to go out to work, the pressures of motherhood, failing marriages.

But, as with The Archers, the overall tone was certainly one of cosiness and respectability. And when BBC Television dipped a very tentative toe into the same brew in 1954 with the launch of The Grove Family, the portrayal of life in their Hendon home had much the same feel.

EastEnders was designed to be altogether more gritty. And the high stakes involved meant that little was left to chance. Two existing TV drama series – Triangle and Angels – were axed so that a ring-fenced budget of more than £1.6m could be deployed on a dedicated set in Elstree.

New directors were hand-picked rom London’s top theatres. Casting, rehearsals and scriptwriting went on for months, and a full-time producer and scriptwriter were recruited: Julia Smith and Tony Holland, who had worked on Z Cars together.

In focus: EastEnders’ Christmas special attracts the highest ratings of the decade

In 1986, staff from the social research organisation Mass Observation asked thousands of volunteer diary-keepers to record how they spent Christmas Day. The replies proved – if anyone still needed convincing – that, in many homes, Christmas meant Christmas TV.

And, this year in particular, it meant EastEnders. Since it was already the most popular programme on British screens, the BBC opted to treat viewers to not one but two instalments, the first just after 6.30pm, the second at 10pm.

Programme details in Radio Times offered tantalising clues as to what would unfold across the evening by including two short snatches of dialogue. The first was apparently from Angie, whose husband “Dirty Den” was the landlord of the Queen Vic pub: “Nothing can go wrong, Den. I want this to be the best Christmas we’ve ever had.”

For the second instalment, the magazine’s listings featured an altogether darker line: “They should bring back hanging for people like Den Watts.” What on earth was capable of provoking such a terrifying outburst after that initial display of goodwill?

The diaries reveal a nation of viewers on tenterhooks. “Ate Christmas pudding with cream and sauce in lounge in front of TV,” wrote one, “Watched EastEnders with great glee and everybody determined to watch second half at 10pm.” “9.35pm: more conversation then more TV as we were all waiting for the day’s second episode of EastEnders,” another recorded. “We all agreed that the Beeb had been very crafty.”

By 10.30pm, all had been revealed. Den had discovered that Angie had lied to him about being terminally ill, and now served her divorce papers in cold blooded revenge. If that wasn’t dramatic enough, Pauline Fowler had also discovered that Den was the father of Michelle’s baby – another long-running plotline that had sparked much audience speculation.

It was melodrama with the dial turned to maximum. But it proved to be a ratings winner, too. Thirty million of us watched – the biggest television audience of the 1980s.

Compulsive viewing

The programme they created had all the classic soap-opera elements familiar to viewers of Coronation Street: strong female characters, a pub at the centre of the community, and in Albert Square a working-class neighbourhood that, whatever the personal fallings out behind closed doors, remained closely-knit at heart.

Yet EastEnders added to this familiar mix a touch of the “Blitz spirit” and storylines that self-consciously tackled pressing social issues such as unemployment, imprisonment, rape, drugs, racism, homophobia, and suicide. For now, the BBC’s new serial also went considerably further than Coronation Street in capturing the increasingly multicultural character of late 20th-century Britain.

What perhaps distinguished EastEnders most of all from its BBC predecessors was the hard-headed publicity machine that helped to ensure that half the British adult population would soon be watching regularly. A stream of gossipy titbits about cast members or up coming plot twists was fed to the tabloid newspapers so that it became “the soap opera they cannot stop writing about”.

“[Coronation] Street is old-fashioned and corny,” the editor of the News of the World said. “EastEnders with its violence, sex and crime is much more like the real world.” The result of saturation coverage was that the so-called “Dallas effect” kicked in: the serial became so talked about that viewers felt they were missing out if they failed to watch.

In less than 12 months, the journalist Andy Medhurst wrote in the Observer: “‘Who was the father of Michelle’s baby?’ had replaced ‘Who shot JR?’ as the country’s favourite soap question.” It was Medhurst, too, who later put his finger on what all this meant for a BBC under constant attack from Margaret Thatcher’s government during the 1980s.

Popularity was the shield which allowed the corporation to also pursue quality. It would, he wrote, “only be a slight exaggeration to say that it was EastEnders which kept the BBC safe from privatisation: every time you’re grateful that a film, football match or opera isn’t scarred by the intrusion of ads, it’s the inhabitants of Albert Square you ought to thank.”

David Hendy is emeritus professor at the University of Sussex. His latest book is The BBC: A People’s History (Profile, 2022)

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This article was first published in the August 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

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