Hed: Going Back to Walford
By A.S. Berman
Stepping off the double-decker omnibus of the mind,
what struck me most about my return to the world of
Albert Square wasn't the sea of new faces that I
encountered, but the many I recognized from years ago.
It had been nearly 10 years since I left the Walford
Gazette-my first professional writing job-and ceased
eavesdropping on the lives of those in Walford so as
to finally begin a life of my own.
In July, Editor/Publisher Larry Jaffee suggested I
watch a couple of recent episodes that he'd taped in
New York, curious to see what the Walford of today
looked like to someone who had not seen every seismic
shift that had gotten it to the state it now finds
What I expected to see was the same old plotlines: a
Mitchell in trouble, somebody sleeping with somebody
else's wife, a Robbie Jackson-like character
pimple-deep in some comic relief subplot-repeat until
30 minutes has passed. What I found was a storyline
that hit uncomfortably close to home.
When I switched EastEnders off for the last time in
1996 or thereabouts, Frank Butcher had just returned
to Albert Square, Arthur Fowler had died in prison,
and my own life was just starting to get interesting.
At 24, after three years of writing for and laying out
the Walford Gazette and British Television magazine, I
landed a reporting gig at The Journal Newspapers in
the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
Within a few months, instead of watching car-lot
arsons and murders take place on the Elstree Studios
lot, I was checking them out firsthand in my own neck
of the woods as part of my job.
In the intervening years, I went to work as a writer
and editor for USA Today and got married, tuning in to
the show once or twice when I could find it. WETA's
constant fiddling with the schedule had always made
finding the program something of a challenge.
During this time, my life, as lives are wont to do,
got more complicated. It was a lesson I had learned
well, watching life unfold in Albert Square.
When I sat down to watch EastEnders again in July, I
did so camped out in the living room of a sublet that
I'd managed to finagle for the summer, waiting out a
six month separation before qualifying to file for
divorce. The furniture around me was strange, the town
was strange, and most of my life was crammed in a 10 x
10 storage unit a few miles down the road.
During my separation, I'd found myself increasingly
dipping into old interests from the past: music from
my high school days, books I hadn't read for a while,
etc. It seemed only fitting that I should return, if
only for a couple of episodes, to a show that had been
such a large part of my life at one time.
Dipping into the first episode, I saw the familiar
face of Natalie Price and had to smile. During her
brief stint on EastEnders in the '90s, she'd been one
of my favorite denizens of Albert Square. This
probably had as much to do with the time I interviewed
actress Lucy Speed for the Gazette as anything else.
Her admission that she and her mates used to frolic
around the Albert Square set after hours had always
led me to smile when I saw her in a serious scene
In this most recent episode, it quickly became
apparent that Natalie was:
a) in the club (not surprising)
b) married to Barry Evans (very surprising, indeed)
c) unhappy (never surprising for those in Walford).
As the episode unfolded, I quickly relearned the
rhythm of the show: that flitting fly-on-the-wall
casualness in Walford wherein the camera never stays
with one group of people for more than five minutes.
I'd forgotten just how effective that technique was
for moving an episode along.
After Natalie, there came a parade of new faces: Lisa
(a pleasant surprise to see Press Gang's Julie all
grown up), Terry, Margaret, Janine (good heavens, is
that Frank's girl?) among them. But there were also a
number of familiar ones: Sonia, Ian, Mark, Pauline,
Dot Cotton, Phil, and...what had they done to Sharon?
(Certainly I realize Britain's in the common market
now, but is that any reason to do Letitia Dean up as a
German serving wench? Hasn't the poor girl suffered
Life remained a series of ups and downs in the Square.
Phil being Phil was mixed up in an upcoming court
trial, Ian was trying to launch another
entrepreneurial endeavor in the form of a traveling
fish n' chips wagon. And Mark, ever the master of the
slow burn, seethed when Phil swung by to talk to wife
Lisa about the aforementioned trial. I was amazed to
see that during this scene, actor Todd Carty,
hunch-shouldered and unshaven, resembled Bill Treacher
in an oft-printed publicity still from around the time
that Arthur was wrestling with a mental breakdown in
But it was Natalie's storyline that I couldn't get
past. Jilted by Ricky years back and still obviously
affected by her selfish, resentful mother, the girl
who had first appeared in Walford in a Raggedy Ann
outfit that sartorially summed up her existence thus
far, had opted to marry bumbling-but-unthreatening
Now she was three months along and, as she told her
doctor, felt like "this alien's invaded my body and I
just want it to go away.... Everyone's telling me how
natural this is and how great it's going to be but I
just don't feel that way."
I turned the tape off and looked around the living
room that wasn't mine.
One of the things that sparked my separation and the
divorce to follow was my wife's desperate desire to
have a child, and my equal desperation to avoid
parenthood at all costs.
Hitting PLAY again, I recognized it all: Barry's
enthusiasm, Natalie's depression, and the countless
paeans friends and strangers constantly sing to
parenthood. One scene struck me as particularly
Natalie is walking through the Square, attempting to
come to terms with what she's feeling, perhaps even
trying to talk herself into having the child after
all. At that moment she happens upon a mother trying
to rein in her own screaming brood, and the look on
Natalie's face tells you that she realizes then that
this isn't a case of nerves, it's a complete rebellion
of the soul at the very idea of becoming a parent. I'd
seen that look a few times before. In the mirror.
Certainly things have changed in Albert Square since I
last sat glued to the set nearly a decade ago. The
plotlines have gotten slightly more daring (the
Kit/Zoe/Uncle Harry relationship one-ups the
Michelle/Dirty Den/Vicki familial train wreck nicely),
and there are a few more incidences of grievous bodily
harm than I remember.
The one thing that hasn't changed is EastEnders'
ability to reflect the truism that there are really
only three states of life: We are either wading
through a crisis, have just emerged from one, or are
about to be plunged into another. Yet it also shows us
that our neighbors are in precisely the same boat,
which somehow makes it all bearable, and our
perseverance, in the end, that much more beautiful.
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