The Queen Vic, and barmaid Kat Slater spraying a customer with a fire extinguisher – that is my first memory of watching EastEnders, aged just five.
I’ve been hooked ever since.
That was 19 years ago, and this week the BBC’s long-running soap opera celebrates its 35th birthday.
Since kicking off in 1985, EastEnders has provided enough drama, emotional moments and OTT Christmas specials to keep fans like me and my family tuning in.
I got into EastEnders thanks to my mum, Meera – who’s watched it from the very first episode – and my elder brother, Nilesh, 29. So it’s fair to call us a family of superfans – most weeknights you’ll find us glued to the screen – taking in the latest twists and turns from Albert Square.
Nilesh’s first memory is “mum getting pretty emotional” when a character called Nigel Bates, a school friend of Phil and Grant Mitchell, found out his wife had been killed.
“Back then, we had one TV in the house with five channels – EastEnders became a staple because mum watched it,” recalls Nilesh.
We used to hate missing an episode and would even ask friends to record it for us (on video tape) when we were away on family holidays.
‘A good ice-breaker’
Growing up, it was just something everyone chatted about. In high school and sixth form, I’d always hear “did you watch EastEnders last night?”
Whether it was just discussing epic cliffhangers like – Who Killed Lucy? – or doing the perfect Phil Mitchell “I’ll kill him” impression, it was always a good ice breaker – like being part of a fandom.
It was the same for mum, when she was working in the 1980s and 1990s.
“It was a routine that every lunch time we’d talk about what happened the previous night,” mum says. “It brought everyone together.”
EastEnders is still the thing that I look forward to after a long, stressful day. Getting lost in other people’s fictional life dramas is strangely relaxing.
Part of its appeal, is that there’s always another episode around the corner. You could say, it’s the ultimate binge-watch.
Sure, there are streaming services like Netflix packed with addictive shows, but most of the content on there has an end. With EastEnders, from the minute the famous theme music kicks in, you know there’s never long to wait until the next episode.
My personal highlights have included everything from explosive storylines like Max Branning’s affair with his son’s wife, Stacey Slater, Phil Mitchell’s problems with addiction (or anything to do with the Mitchell clan) and more recently, the death of Shakil Kazemi, who was stabbed in a powerful storyline about knife crime.
I’m not ashamed to admit that Shakil’s funeral episode made me emotional – especially when they showed the families of real-life knife crime victims gathered around the grave. Mixing reality and fiction was bold – and I thought it really paid off.
Diverse and relatable
Ultimately, it is the storylines and characters, which have made the show so relatable to so many viewers over the years.
“The way people were living their lives, jobs, going to the market and the struggles they were facing, it was things we could relate to at that time,” my mum says.
And, for me, the show’s diversity has helped me feel connected to it. Coming from a South Asian background, I’ve not always felt represented on TV – and EastEnders hasn’t been perfect.
But from the early years to now, there has been significant representation. Mum says that seeing families on-screen like the Karims and Kapoors, “at a time when society wasn’t as inclusive as it is now” made her feel included. They were Asian families looking to settle into Western culture.
So, it feels fitting to watch EastEnders while eating rice and dhal for dinner.
‘It’s not Christmas without EastEnders’
In our house, Christmas is incomplete until EastEnders has aired. Dinner is even scheduled around the hour-long special. It brings us all together – as cheesy as that might sound.
We all share in moments of high on-screen emotion, like Queen Vic owner Mick Carter finding out his wife Linda had been raped by Deano Wicks – his secret brother.
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“Let’s be honest, is it even Christmas Day without EastEnders?” Nilesh says.
And the one thing you’re guaranteed with these big episodes, is that the group chat will be on fire.
‘There’s something to learn’
On a serious note, I really think there are things you can learn from some of the show’s big characters.
Whether that’s Peggy Mitchell’s leadership – nobody’s bossed around punters in a pub quite like her – Phil’s ability to bounce back from being left for dead (several times), Dot Cotton’s community spirit or Calum “Halfway” Highway’s honesty.
These are qualities I’ve seen on-screen growing up, which I’ve tried to build into myself as a person.
So while I’m not likely to be saying “Get outta ma pub” anytime soon, I’m looking forward to spending many more nights curled up with my family and my favourite soap.
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