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Friday, 27 February 2015

'EASTENDERS: WHO KILLED LUCY?' // The BBC's long-running TV soap reaches a 30 year high with a broody live week of red herrings and incendiary killer reveals!

**PLUS** Why bright young 'Enders: Hetti Bywater, Jacqueline Jossa, Eliot Carrington, Maddy Hill and Ben Hardy - could all be future stars of the big screen too!


The BBC's long-running TV 'soap opera' reached something of a peak during the week beginning Monday, the 16th February. Not just a peak in viewers - but in headline grabbing storylines that, for over 30 years of end-of-episode cliffhangers (including the most famous: Queen Vic landlord 'Dirty' Den serving alcoholic wife Angie with divorce papers in the pub corridor after what seemed like a brief reconciliation) has never earned such a frenzy of media interest as this.

It's all down to the 'Who Killed Lucy' storyline that ends a 10 month-long run of red herrings and cockney confessions and gave viewers what is, perhaps, the most shocking reveal possible - and surely the least expected. That the killer of Lucy Beale, was not just a little boy - but also her brother; the new resident bad seed of TV drama.

Following the tangled love lives and often murderous intent of the ragtag residents of Albert Square, deep in the heart of the East End of London, the show started (back in 1985) as it meant to go on -  with a dead old man being found in his own armchair by some of his less than sorry neighbours. Suspicions went straight towards local druggie, racist, mother-abusing (and every other bad boy fill in the blanks you can think of) local ruffian - Nick Cotton.

In a smart link to the past - the EastEnders episode screened just before the week long 'Who Killed Lucy' celebration, first  said farewell to Nick Cotton's character that - since the very first episode ended with this man's fist through the window of the Queen Vic pub, has returned every so often to whisper: "Ello ma . ." at his long-suffering mother, Dot (played by a sneeringly laconic and lamenting June Brown - a true tour de force of jittery, fag ash-dusted, character acting).


Times change, but life - and storylines - on the Square haven't much. There's still criminal sorts running the Queen Vic pub and plenty of murder after hours or unsavoury affairs behind closed curtains - even the kind between lecherous dads and the nubile daughters of their closest neighbours; a tradition started by Leslie Grantham's legendary character of Dirty Den in the show's formative years (now continued by the equally 'dirty' character Max Branning, who - this week - was seen being tempted by Lucy Beale in the pivotal murder flashback episode with the line: "You like them young don't you? And I won't stay this way forever.").

But EastEnders has always flirted dangerously close to the bone of good taste; rightly so for a drama that has consistently pushed boundaries in its storylines and felt able to tackle drug abuse, rape and teenage pregnancy alongside other frivolities without taking much of a pause for breath, or a swig of weak lager. The death this week of Nick Cotton, in a burnt out ruin of a house; and in the same chair as the old man he once killed off on that first day the show was broadcast, exactly thirty years ago - was truly historic TV in the making. If only because - you just didn't see that one coming.

Long-suffering mother Dot, once loyal to her scheming son (who has previously tried to con and kill her on a repetitive basis) - finally snaps, and the cord is cut. As Nick lies dying; his body destroyed by smack - confessing to all the people he has killed, our Dot decides not to call an ambulance for help, but to let Jesus decide whether her son lives or dies. In other words - see ya!

It was a brave, perhaps crazy step by the producers not having anyone save the character at the last; not even religion, because Nick Cotton's reappearances over the years have provided essential links to the past - between old and new viewers. His death; and final, whispered, hushed, apology to his old ma - was deeply affecting. Even if - like myself - you haven't watched the show in over a decade.

All pictures on this page are © BBC.
Of course - Nick and Dot Cotton weren't the only longstanding cast members appearing in the week of specials. Both Sharon Watts (daughter of Dirty Den) and Ian Beale appeared in the very first episode - as spotty teens. OK, even if they weren't actually spotty - it sure felt like they should be!

Ian Beale (played by Adam Woodyatt) is the only cast member to have been in the show continuously since the start, and this week of special episodes, rightfully - was his big moment. He's put on a few pounds compared to the skinny teen he once was, but his face looks remarkably the same - equally creased when smirking or sobbing; both harassed and hassled; loser and winner in equal measure.
Ian has gone from scrawny pop band wannabe to successful businessman, down and out - and now restauranter. But one thing that maybe kept him sane were his children; Peter, Lucy and Bobby. And Lucy - who turned into something of a coke-sniffing seductive Queen Bitch, it seems, by the end of her life; as befits the daughter of an often heartless and calculating wheeler dealer (if one with some fragility, and heart) ended up dead in an episode screened some 10 months back - her body dumped in a local woodland. Since that discovery, the investigation was narrowed down to 'just' 14 prime suspects - cast members past and present.

This week was the big reveal; a mixture of live and recorded scenes and one big showstopper of a half hour finale at the end of the week, in which we would - at last - find out the answer to the question of 'who done Lucy in?'.


Pretty Lucy Beale may well have been 'brown bread' for ten months; but the BBC's striking spectral advance publicity campaign for the show's 30th Anniversary week brought the character and the actress vividly back to life. Before this, there had been a slightly odd - but effective and chilling glimpse of the dead girl in a Comic Relief sketch in which Ian sees various characters, past and present, from the show appear before him in the local launderette after banging his head. It was like a sudsy 'A Christmas Carol'; all ending with the sight of a ghostly Lucy as good as announcing that the killer would soon be brought to justice.

Promos on the BBC, in the last few weeks, have had a waifish, head-cranked-to-one-side, Lucy Beale looking down on Albert Square from up high; looking for her killer while a music box (the same one that we find out later actually killed her) plays a haunting childlike melody - a pretty big clue in retrospect!


All the teaser trailers - including a later one screened in the 30th anniversary week complete with a Dot/ June Brown voiceover lamenting that real evil walks among us (as the show's main characters are seen hurrying around the Square and up to no good) - were genuinely effective; among the most memorable advance publicity spots a TV drama, let alone a soapy one, has ever been given on British TV.
Even if you don't watch EastEnders, or even if you hate the show - you could still very likely have been heard talking about it to someone at some point in the last few weeks. Even those telling others how little they cared, were still interested enough to have an opinion with what the BBC and show producers must regard as a positive, healthy kind of apathy! And for those who were hooked in - strayed viewers rejoined the cult of Albert Square to find out that all the advance fuss, didn't prove to be a storm in Dot Cotton's teapot after all.

Jacqueline Jossa as young Lauren Branning proves the catalyst for the week's rapidly unfolding events. She's found something out about the identity of Lucy Beale's murderer from the girl's own letters - but not telling what! There are plenty of suspects, from Lauren's own dad - Max (who had an affair with Lucy - who was also Lauren's best friend) to wayward boyfriend Peter Beale (who finds out, on the night his sister is murdered, that Lucy has always been his dad's favourite - overhearing a conversation in which he tells her this).

And breathe!
Or was it our nasty (if far too predictable a suspect to be properly considered) resident pantomime villain - Nick Cotton? Or even more shockingly - could it be someone closer to home; like desperate dad Ian himself? Lauren looks like she suspects everyone, leading to an even more incredible thought (for me anyway) that it could be an Agatha Christie-style denouement where it turns out that - yes; they all did it!
In the end, the truth turns out to be perhaps only slightly less plausible than a resurrected Dirty Den being the killer. But maybe that's what the fans like most about EastEnders - the fact it likes to take things too far; and take a few risks with those soapy scripts!

Jacqueline Jossa as amateur sleuthing Lauren proves that she can take centre stage in a prime time drama with an off-kilter, quirky performance throughout the week - one full of sheer desperation, divided loyalties and real fear. She really holds the rest of the week's interwoven structure together; like a tightly wound knot - and proves a compulsive focal point. I can see Jacqueline moving on to cinema screens before too long - in a decent horror perhaps, or at the very least a good gangland Brit flick! With her wide-eyed innocence alternating between tough steely-eyed stances and conspiratorial, furtive gazes - she's something of a revelation, especially when freed from the bonds of the usual plotting familiarity and structure.

The week's extended episodes mix recorded segments with live sequences; there are a few murmured lines but all the cast prove themselves more than capable of real-time TV theatrics and hushed glances - furtive scene steals signalling impending doom. One fluffed line calling actor Adam Woodyatt by his real name, instead of character 'Ian' causes some merriment across social media, but it's all part of the fun!

The marriage of Ian to rekindled love of his life (again) Jane (a brilliantly drained and twitchy performance from Laurie Brett) proves another focal point alongside Lauren's fast-approaching reveal of the killer as she darts between suspect's houses and hides along dimly lit streets - later threating to spoil the night's big nuptials with a carefully placed wedding card and message to Jane (the week of special episodes all take place on the same night - a 'night of the long lies').
The wedding goes ahead, but shortly after Ian and Jane say: 'I do - or I think I do', the body of Nick Cotton is discovered - and Dot Cotton is arrested for his murder. It's clearly going to be one of those nights . .
Meanwhile, in the Queen Vic, Mick Carter - the new(ish) landlord, does the kind of thing that actor Danny Dyer enjoys doing in many of his big screen roles; stamping on the neck of a rapist, pyromaniacal boyfriend of his nubile young daughter until the man dousing the pub cellar with petrol (until found by Mick down among the beer barrels) croaks (it seems) his last.

"I only stamped lightly on his gullet."
Dyer, perhaps not a man known for subtlety when playing it rough, still elicits certain sympathy and warmth in a pivotal scene - appearing just before his big moment of proper violence - where he discusses the ease of murder with a questioning (and rapidly realising the identity of his own daughter Lucy's killer) Ian Beale outside the Queen Vic. One minute almost a shoulder to cry on - the next, sharpening his macho credentials again with a spot of especially brutal (for pre-watershed) violence the next.

But the week belongs to Adam Woodyatt as Ian - a man endlessly being tossed around in the washing machine of life. One minute he's happily spinning away, and the next: tugged out, wrung out - and left out to dry.  As soon as the killer secret is let out of the bag and Lucy's murderer is unmasked at last - Ian has a realistic breakdown on screen (reminiscent of that suffered by original character Arthur Fowler - played by Bill Treacher - in a memorably traumatic episode from the show's past). The character of Arthur is remembered in the live week by a shot of his bench in the Square and a close-up of the plaque remembering how much he 'loved this place'. It's a fitting tribute to one of the show's great characters.


Ian's breakdown as he finds out who the killer of his daughter is (a gut-wrenching scene, convincingly played by Woodyatt and filmed live) is as traumatic to watch as the breakdown of his own Uncle Arthur's was, 29 years ago. 
The week of uncertain, teasing instalments ends with concrete, shocking scenes as Ian discovers that his new wife has been covering up for the killer of his daughter (who, if the previous bombshell wasn't enough - turns out to be his own son). The screen is seeped not only in floods of tears but the babbling lunacy of a man in complete meltdown - especially in the closing minutes; when Lucy's final letter to her dad, and a promise to change for the better, is read to him out loud. Ian turns to face the camera and reacts, in close-up, to the news - for live TV it's astounding well crafted and heart-breaking to watch. The longest serving member of the cast - Woodyatt fully earns and deserves his crowning moment.


13-year-old Eliot Carrington as Bobby Beale; child killer of Lucy Beale (or at least - the little boy who clobbered his big sister over the head to stop her from causing any more cocaine-fuelled chaos to the family home) gets a few lines to say live, including the big one - the killer revealing cliffhanger, and he never falters.
There's real sympathy being earned by Carrington's portrayal of Bobby as he finally starts to realise that what he did 10 months ago to Lucy is far worse than he ever imagined (there's also a slightly scary look about him in the closing moments of the episode that was compared on Twitter, not unreasonably - to the look of the boy from horror classic The Omen!).

The big shock reveal at the end of the week; that a young boy committed the murder that so many have been guessing about, causes some disbelief; both in the media and among fans in the days ahead - but the revelation is handled with enough subtlety, ambiguity (to being more of an accident) and lack of killer instinct, to not be exploitative.

The week after the 30th Anniversary celebrations and the media frenzy of the week before has at least partly subsided. Back to the show's usual pre-recorded format and we now get what is perhaps the most affecting performance of all - in the shape of Peter Beale (fast-rising 24-year-old Ben Hardy). Having to cope with both his dad and now his new stepmum covering up for the death of his beloved sister (by his own freakin' brother no less!) it's probably no surprise that he's now skulking around the Square looking like a furtive night vampire uncomfortably hanging out in the daytime - broodily hooded and lowering his head in both shame and horror of what his family are doing - keeping the identity of Lucy's killer permanently secret. It's another acting tour de force among so many other impressive turns this week.

With Ben Hardy now set to leave the show - his character heading off to New Zealand with girlfriend Lauren (or maybe to link up with Lord of the Rings film director Peter Jackson - who knows!) future big screen roles for the young heartthrob of the Square, seem certain.

The 'Who killed Lucy' week of EastEnders showed off the BBC TV drama at its best - developing real innovation in launching a whodunit storyline that was easily picked up for new fans but still respectful to long-term followers of the show. The eerie, haunting promo campaign broke new ground in reimagining the familiar characters as vengeful spirits or voices of doom.

Perhaps most commendable of all, was the combining of live and recorded sequences and not showing the joins. The week-long, slow build to an edgy finale surprised and shocked - and, in the unexpected reveal of the killer being a young child; caused at least a bit of outrage.

While familiar faces of TV, stage and screen: Adam Woodyatt (Ian), Laurie Brett (Jane), June Brown (Dot), John Altman (Nick), Jake Wood (Max) and Danny Dyer (Mick) ooze class and confidence, the week long specials have also proven that newcomers Hetti Bywater (Lucy), Jacqueline Jossa (Lauren), Eliot Carrington (Bobby), Ben Hardy (Peter) and also Maddy Hill (as Nancy Carter - the charismatic daughter of Vic landlord Mick who impresses in the week long specials when threatened in the pub cellar by an unexpected guest and later worrying just what it is that Dad Danny Dyer did to him after she got away!) have what it takes to make the jump to those elusive big screen roles.

"Dad - did you kill him?"
Hardy, especially, could be 'the next big thing' of screen angst - a member of the Young Broody Brits club of the future. There's even an announcement, a few days after the 'Who Killed Lucy' week - of a role for Hardy in the next X-Men movie - 'Apocalypse'. Things are moving already . .


So, the big whodunit soap bubble didn't burst in Albert Square this week and TV drama of the sudsy kind proved itself to be alive and still well (when not bludgeoned to death) at the BBC (memories of Eldorado all but forgiven).

And you know, Wendy Richard as Pauline, will be hanging up her washing with pride . . 


Barbara Windsor as Peggy will be screaming at the local ruffians to "get outta ma pub" (as - in a delicious cameo opposite Danny Dyer this week - she had said back to her for a change!) . .

Pam St. Clement as Pat will be dangling those famous huge earrings around on her ears; the most tacky she can find to celebrate with . .


. . and Dirty Den will still be out walking Roly the dog when not bedding his best friend's teenage daughter and getting her pregnant, trying to avoid wife Angie's murderous glare when he gets back home  - or dodging gun nozzles poking out from bunches of daffodils held by a hitmen down by the canal!

Yes, it's been a good 30 years down in Albert Square . .

One of the last shots of the 'Who Killed Lucy' week lingers on the names 'Tony' and 'Julia' carved into a fence with a heart shape in the middle - a nod to original show creators Tony Holland and Julia Smith, and a touching bookend to a compulsive week of rare live drama on your Auntie Nelly*.

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

All pictures are © BBC.

* 'Auntie Nelly': cockney for 'Telly'

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