If you wanted an object lesson in the disorienting and alienating effect on those of us who were brought up with proper public service broadcasting that today's television can have, last night's Eastenders would be hard to better. The first 10 minutes or so droned on in familiar airbus engine fashion. First, the bizarrely-brow tinted Pat Butcher* (Pam St. Orange-Juice-with-a-splash-of-lemon) telling the first ever baby-wielding Balkan beggar I've ever seen on 'Enders (surely there's more than one in the *real* Eastend??) with, as Jeeves would describe it, some depth of feeling, "No thanks, love" as she tried out her brooding pan-handling routine in the hope that some emotionally retarded bovver boy who'd just found out his baby was Downes Syndrome would hand her forty sobs. Cue** Billy Mitchell - the one man pre-Olympic warning as to what lies in wait for would-be visitors (assuming we ever get any of the facilities built) planning to come and watch the Games in 2012.
Then, already 40 notes to the bad, Billy heads off to find his wife has scarpered from hospital, leaving only a standard-issue, "sorry, I've just fecked off for the hell of it because I can't hack having a baby with a disability" card propped up on her bedside table. So begins Billy's long 20 minutes on a stationary tube of the soul. This was looking as if it was going to turn out to be the most compelling 20 minutes of British prime time TV since the last episode of Second City Firsts in 1979 (or whenever it was..) There it was, staring out at us, an oasis in the midst of the desert of TV dreck - the astonishing sight of......well, nothing much happening at all, really. Possibly because there'd been no script written, or perhaps because whoever was dictating his lines into Billy's earphone had been rushed off for an urgent hernia op. and the rest of the backroom staff were too busy buffing Pat Butcher's earrings to be able to stand in, this continued for quite sometime - Billy stalking the confines of his (for once) almost accurate in its ethnic mix tube carriage like a caged former member of the BNP who can't reconcile his former views with the massive stonker he gets from all those Beyonce posters for her new LP (Bidet? What sort of a title's that, btw...?)
Eventually, now reconciled to the fact that pointlessly slamming the tube carriage windows will only sustain the interest of the great British viewing public for *so* long, Billy and the stocky, besuited type opposite begin to engage in what seems - as near as dammit - in what can only be described as "improv". And it's gripping stuff. The scenario is taut and awkward - Billy spitting out grief-provoked barbs about the ethnically and socially transformed face of the EE, to the extent that the poker faced hijab wearing lady next to him feels she has to move seats (note to TV editors - see, it is possible to suggest that there are awkwardnesses between cultures without inviting armageddon...) The suit has back story, we just know it, but nothing is telegraphed. In fact, it's almost like proper drama - insinuating, exploratory, an interrogation of the characters.
And then, just as it looks as if there's going to be a bit of a barney and the useful-if-he-has-to-be lump in the suit looks to be on the brink of landing one on whimpy wuss-face Mitchell, the former crumples his face just shy of a blub, brandishes his 9/11 remembrance edition of the Standard at the oblivious Billy and ruins it all: "don't you know what day it izzz???"
A shame, because I was really beginning to think that this might usher in a new era of Steptoe-like grittiness in the TV soap drama. Instead, I'd let my 9/11 guard right down and they'd suckered me. Shameful really, because if 9/11 has taught us anything it's precisely that - don't let your guard down.
* Join her fan club here...
** Not "queue" as I originally posted - thanks to Spinny for the heads up. It's a class thing - us working class scum just can't spell is all..
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