Soap operas such as EastEnders are national institutions, and watching them on a daily basis has been part of our telly schedules for as long as most of us can remember.
That’s why it came as a huge shock when it was announced that production was stopped on such programming as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A world where EastEnders isn’t in production? An alien concept, surely.
The charm of continuing dramas is that, for lack of a better expression, they continue no matter what, and therefore fans were desperately hoping that rationing out the completed episodes would ensure the soap remained on the air.
Ultimately, EastEnders disappeared from our telly schedules on June 16.
The enforced hiatus was met with some criticism, with several viewers arguing that if Coronation Street and Emmerdale managed to stay on air, then EastEnders should’ve too.
However, if tonight’s return is proof of anything, it’s that the break was the right call, as it allowed producers the opportunity to bring the BBC One soap back in as strong a form as possible.
Making drama of any kind — let alone a continuing one — in a post-Covid world brings with it many challenges.
Human interaction is EastEnders’ lifeblood. From simple duologues, to steamy romances — not to mention animosity-driven feuds a la Peggy and Pat’s many showdowns — the soap thrives on such interaction.
In essence, it’s all about faaaaaamily, and — like the 35th anniversary marketing campaign kept telling us — family means everything.
With social distancing guidelines enforcing a two metre gap on set, the family aspect — and therefore the soap itself — would be no doubt compromised.
The inclusion of the pandemic — and lockdown — within the soap’s fictional universe solves this problem to some degree, but not for characters who live in the same households — again, families.
In reality, such characters wouldn’t have to socially distance — and they could kiss or fight as much as they’d want — but the actors portraying such characters naturally have to adhere to guidelines.
Could you imagine EastEnders without a busy market? Or the Taylor clan socially distancing in the tiny flat that is 23b Albert Square?
Doesn’t quite feel right, does it?
Executive Producer Jon Sen aimed to ensure that EastEnders was still as ambitious as ever — both narratively and visually — and therefore he sought to come up with a solution and find a way around social distancing.
And find a way around it, he absolutely did.
Yes, alongside a group of the soap’s core directors, Jon devised a series of creative methods in order to ‘cheat’ the social distancing guidelines.
However, these methods would ultimately take time to test, implement and perfect, as actors and directors would basically have to adapt to a whole new way of life on set — hence the hiatus, and the now shorter instalments.
CGI is one of the many methods used to cheat distance. Characters are brought closer together via the use of plate shots — which means that the respective actors shoot their scenes in isolation, and then they’re digitally put together in the editing process.
Perspex glass also allows actors to move closer together, while real-life partners — and, in some instances, the perspex — allow for kissing scenes.
Experimentation of such nature in a soap is practically unheard of, and doing so required extra time which, in addition to to ensuring the cast and crew’s safety, no doubt played a part in the continuing drama going off the air.
While we all missed our regular trips to Walford, tonight’s episode — which featured a number of the aforementioned techniques — demonstrates that this risk was absolutely one worth taking.
Mick and Linda Carter’s (Danny Dyer and Kellie Bright) little conversation in the cafe springs to mind, as it was seemingly created using a plate shot — as was Dotty Cotton (Milly Zero) and Ian Beale’s (Adam Woodyatt) confrontation at the Queen Vic’s bar.
In both instances, actors were filmed separately and then brought together in the edit, but you’d easily be forgiven for thinking the stars had flouted the social distancing rules and moved closer to one another!
What’s more, clever directing ensured that any social distancing that did occur was well hidden, and close-ups were utilised more often than before.
Interestingly, such shots — which might feel a little alien in this particular soap — ultimately benefited the narratives, as they assisted in ensuring the stories were told visually, as well as via the script.
Close-ups on Chantelle (Jessica Plummer) aided in demonstrating her distress, for example, while Sharon’s shock at several points throughout the episode benefited greatly from closer shots.
The soap also boasts a more filmic look now, which goes hand-in-hand with the relaunch, and aids in dramatising the ‘new normal’ of a post-pandemic world.
There’s no doubt that Jon’s experience as a director played a role in devising these clever techniques, and — had the pandemic occurred in the middle of another producer’s tenure — the soap might not have returned in such a strong fashion.
In short, EastEnders looks great, and because the social distancing — and the method used to cheat it — isn’t noticeable, the focus remains on the drama.
Speaking of the drama, it’s as on point and as relevant as ever. In fact, a post-lockdown world makes the serial drama even more relevant, as its able to use the pandemic as a backdrop to strengthen pre-existing stories and tell those which need to be told.
For example, the domestic violence narrative featuring Chantelle and Gray (Toby-Alexander Smith) is all the more important in a post-pandemic world.
Removing EastEnders from the air wasn’t without risk. While soaps are the highlights of many people’s day, some merely watch out of habit, and therefore taking it off the air was a gamble.
However, with the soap in a much stronger position than one could have imagined given the current pandemic, it’s safe to say that this is a gamble that has well and truly paid off.
EastEnders continues Tuesday September 8 at 8:05pm on BBC One.
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