Walking out of an old life into a new one

EastEnders: 09/9/10
EastEnders: 10/09/10

Even for EastEnders, this was big.

The soap that does big momentous set pieces like no other (sorry, my beloved Coronation Street) is seeing off Peggy Mitchell - the First Lady of soap - in style. Because not only is Peggy going, but the Queen Victoria pub is too.

American readers (who make up the bulk of this blog's readership) probably don't quite get how important soap is to contemporary pop culture in the UK.

It's universal - a form of almost religious communion - and EastEnders in particular unites all. Black and white, young and old, gay and straight. It's genuine watercooler television, and everyone watches it. Immediately after (and during) transmission, everyone's Facebook status was about The Fire. Even those who don't watch it had something to say. 'Anthony' said, "Wow I think I should start watching eastenders a lot more, a whole leap of passa passa !!!"

Anthony really should tune in a lot more, because the sheer resonance of tonight's events would have largely been lost on him. Okay, it's a soap, so everyone's got some storyline behind them, but the main players in tonight's epic drama have had some corkers recently, stretching back years (even decades). That's what makes soap in Britain so thrilling - the awful weight of history bearing down on everything (in the case of Coronation Street, fifty years worth). And yet it's all so current, and so loved by The Youth.

The sickening depths to which Peggy's son Phil has sunk takes centre stage tonight. The one-time East-end hard-man, and latter day family man, has lost everything. From alcoholic to crack-head in a soap minute, but Steve McFadden is more than convincing in his role (the actor shed pounds for his latest storyline) and his cruel taunting of Peggy is gruelling to watch. It really is grim, grim stuff.

The other players - Stacey Slater, and Janine Butcher - have histories stretching back more than twenty years, and it all comes into play tonight. But they're just a sideshow, really. The Queen Victoria pub is a character in its own right, and although it isn't the first time it's gone up in flames (Phil's brother Grant torched it in the early 90s) its cremation marks the end of an era, as the Mitchell dynasty is finally finished off.

The destruction of the Queen Vic takes its cue from disaster movies, and in particular, The Towering Inferno. There's a party, full of joy and celebration, then a horrific fire, just like Inferno. The camera holds on the banner above the bar, 'Under New Management', as it goes up in flames, recalling the  flaming 'We Build For Life' slogan in Inferno. Gay Muslim character Syed is trampled repeatedly by fleeing revellers (pick any "humanity ditching its humanity" tale).

There's some other beautifully poignant shots: the Queen Victoria bust in extreme close-up, Peggy brooding in the background. Just before her confrontation with Phil, there's a solo close-up of the iconic bust, with the party noise in the background. It speaks volumes, a stoic, world weary premonition of impending doom. There's one final shot as the Vic burns around her.

The initial explosion (fire and liqour - not a good combination) is profoundly shocking. Seeing Peggy crawling around behind the bar is akin to seeing one's own mother in a similar situation. Stacey cradling her baby upstairs as flame sweeps across the ceiling is another jawdropper.

Of course, the fire - the big, crowd pleasing set piece of the week - was never going to be Peggy's exit. Everyone thought it would be, but really, who would want that? Callous disposal by violent despatch of much-loved characters ain't what EastEnders is about. The giveawway was The Great Fire of Walford going out on Thursday: the cremation of the Queen Vic was the prelude to Peggy's exit, not vice versa.

A good friend of mine has always written Barbara Windsor off as a bad actress. But I always knew she was playing Peggy exactly as she should: Peggy is an actress, putting on a performance for her public. Putting on a front, whatever's going on behind the scenes. Keeping up appearances.

Peggy Mitchell is summed up in her last little scene with Sam, Ronnie, Roxy and Billy, just before she walks out. It's one of the most poignant moments you're likely to see on TV (it's right up there with The Wire's most heart-rending scenes), just Peggy talking about her old Mum, her childhood, the old East End:
"I'd rather walk. You see my mother taught me that - she was a tough old bird, but you had to be, didn't you, in those days. And sometimes, when I was a little one, we couldn't pay the rent, and she'd run in and say, 'Kids! We gotta get out of here. So c'mon, pack now!' So we'd stuff all our things into our bags and run out the door, as fast as we could. Mum, Sal, and me, walking down that road fast, fast, walking out of an old life into a new one, and then Mum would suddenly say, "Oi, stop! Stop! And look back girls - go on, look back, and remember what you see. So we'd... we'd turn round, and we'd take it all in, and we'd store it away up here. Then we'd turn round and walk on. Just keep going, never giving up. Yeah - that's how I was brought up. That's how I was brought up."
Her last scenes - a solo trek across the Square, and past the Vic - beautifully echo that speech. It's a far cry from the screeching harridan with her battlecry of "Getouttamypub". Barbara Windsor is simply stellar, as the facade drops and the real Peggy comes out: the diamond hard, sometimes cruel, occasionally nasty, loud Duchess of Walford.

In losing Peggy Mitchell, we've lost our nightly audience with Barbara Windsor. Old East End, real East End, and TV royalty.

They just don't make 'em like her no more.

Watch Thursday's episode here
Watch Friday's episode here


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