EastEnders replaced BBC plan to make ‘geriatric caravan park soap opera’

Lord Grade says he was initially anxious that EastEnders might have easily turned out to be a flop
Lord Grade says he was initially anxious that EastEnders might have easily turned out to be a flop - Kieron McCarron/BBC

It has given viewers some of British television’s most gripping moments, from Den handing Angie their divorce papers to Peggy discovering she has breast cancer.

But EastEnders almost failed to make the screen in favour of a soap opera set in a geriatric caravan park.

The long-running series featuring the lives of ordinary families living around Albert Square was pulled out of the bag as a last-minute alternative.

Michael Grade has revealed that when he arrived at the corporation in September 1984, as controller of BBC One, there had been plans to run a drama series set on a caravan park for the elderly in the North East.

The idea was quickly canned and replaced by a drama featuring the gritty lives of ordinary East Londoners, in what became a deliberate answer to the success of ITV’s Manchester-based Coronation Street.

Speaking to Boom Radio about how Eastenders came into being, Lord Grade says: “They had decided they were going to do a soap opera on BBC One. There was one in development when I arrived, and I asked to see the head of drama series, Jonathan Powell. I said, tell me about this alleged soap opera. And he said: “I’ve only just taken over... the show I’ve inherited is set in a geriatric caravan park in the Northeast.”

“My face fell. I said, ‘Really? Where is that now?’ He said, ‘I’ve binned that. We’ve got a show called EastEnders, based on a square in the East End of London.’ ‘Oh’, I said, ‘that sounds a bit better than a geriatric caravan park... I’ll leave it to you’.”

Leslie Grantham and Anita Dobson as Den and Angie Watts in EastEnders
Den handing Angie their divorce papers was a popular storyline - BBC

Lord Grade says he was initially anxious that EastEnders, which has now been running for 39 years and more than 6,820 episodes, might have easily turned out to be a flop - until he was sent the first episode.

“I remember with some considerable trepidation. Putting the cassette in the machine and thinking ‘Oh my God, you know, this is a year’s commitment . . this could be horrible,” he said. “And as the music and the opening titles played, I knew it was okay.

“You always know from the opening titles and the music, if the producers and the director, if they really, know what they’re doing. I knew immediately this was going to be alright.”

Lord Grade, who became BBC chairman in 2004, said EastEnders was vital for the corporation’s output in the face of commercial television.

“ITV had Coronation Street, which of course was through the roof every night, and Emmerdale Farm, and Crossroads. And the BBC felt that the schedule needed it absolutely needed it. And, and they were right,” he said. “They were lucky to have Jonathan Powell to pick it and choose Julia and Tony Holland to write it.

“People don’t realise this now — but Coronation Street was very gentle and fluffy . . and nothing horrible ever happened. It does now, but that’s a response to what we did on EastEnders. It became much more socially conscious, dealing with social issues and real hard pain in families. And Coronation Street eventually followed suit.”

Lord Grade said that the Albert Square and Queen Vic setting of EastEnders was deliberately envisaged as a southern alternative to the northern culture of Corrie’s Rovers Return.

“Very different culture, yes,” he says. “The great thing about a soap opera is you go into another world for half an hour. Coronation Street is brilliant at that. You feel part of the neighbourhood. It was the same with EastEnders, there was a sense of community, a sense of place.”

Cast members standing in Albert Square
The long-running soap has been on our screens since 1985 - PA

Lord Grade also told how in 1988 he moved the newly acquired Australian soap Neighbours into a late afternoon slot after his daughter was caught watching it at school.

He said that after buying Neighbours, BBC One originally screened it at 9.30am and 1.30pm five days a week.

But he soon had to change tack.

“I got home one evening and my daughter said, very usually as she was quite a swat: ‘I got into trouble at school today, Dad.’ I said, ‘Oh, what have you done?’ And she said, ‘Oh, we were all caught watching television during the break.’” he said, adding that as Controller of BBC One, his natural concern was what she was watching.

“She said: ‘Neighbours.’ Oh my God. I’ve got it in the wrong slot!” said Lord Grade, adding: “So the next day I went into the office and said ‘we’re moving Neighbours to 5.30 so the kids can watch it when they get home from school.’

“So on a sample of one, never mind market research, I rescheduled it and the rest is history.”

*The Open The Box show with Lord Grade will be broadcast on Boom Radio at 9pm on Sunday 21st April.