If a character’s catchphrase is “Get out of my pub!”, a prequel about their pre-licensee years presents a tricky dilemma. The solution dreamed up by EastEnders (BBC One)? Simply have her screech “Get out of my house!” instead.
A bracingly bold episode of the Cockney soap opera saw the action flash back to 1979. Jaime (daughter of Ray) Winstone guest-starred as the young Peggy Mitchell – the much-loved matriarch played for 22 years by the late Dame Barbara Windsor – for a gritty period piece portraying the fearsome Mitchell family’s chequered past.
Winstone has played the young Windsor before, of course, in 2017’s BBC biopic Babs. The superior portrayal in that film, to my mind, was Samantha Spiro’s as Carry On-era Windsor. No matter. Winstone did a magnificent job here.
It was no easy task. This time she wasn’t playing Windsor but a proto-version of her long-running creation. In less talented hands, it might have felt like a naff tribute turn or act of mild sacrilege. It was to Winstone’s credit that within just half an hour, she made the character her own – respectfully nodding to Windsor’s incarnation but succeeding on its own terms. Her Peggy was a proudly doting mother, fierce but brittle, a rough diamond with hidden depths.
After a brief glimpse of the present-day Phil Mitchell (Steve McFadden), who has been coerced by obsessive DCI Keeble (Alison Newman) into “grassing”, we were whisked back to Limehouse during the winter of discontent. The economy was in crisis. Strikes were widespread. Perhaps the past isn’t another country after all.
Young Phil (the terrific Daniel Delaney) was sparring with brother Grant (Teddy Jay), while their beloved mother Peggy cooked pie and mash with madeira cake “for afters”. The trouble started when previously unseen patriarch Eric (George Russo) came home. He was violent towards his wife and a snarling bully to his children. Comeuppance was surely around the corner.
After Eric roped in his sons for an armed robbery of VHS recorders (very 1979), they were caught red-handed by a warehouse security guard. “Let him have it!” growled Eric in a nod to the real-life Derek Bentley case. Cue a crime from which ripples were still being felt four decades later.
Meanwhile, Peggy was paid a visit by Eric’s flashy brother Archie (Henry Garrett), styling himself as “suave, sophisticated and minted”. His long-suffering wife Glenda (Rose Reynolds) was clad in a fur coat (“it’s real Siberian lynx”) but self-medicating with vodka. As the women bonded over their abusive spouses, it recalled Coronation Street’s classic matriarchs. “Women like us, we’ve been taking a beating for years,” said Glenda. “You’ve just got to smile, put their tea on, and hope they get drunk and pass out.”
The Seventies were nostalgically evoked. Decor was unremittingly brown. Margaret Thatcher and Terry Wogan were on TV, Geoffrey Boycott in the newspaper. The production design didn’t look expensive – a vintage Transit van and a few dimpled pint pots were all it took – but even the camera angles were authentically retro.
Plot foreshadowing, in-jokes and origin stories were huge fun to spot. Even Windsor’s, ahem, physical trademark was slyly referenced. A late twist revealing the reason for Keeble’s vendetta was cleverly executed. It was less convincing how this fitted into the contemporary narrative. Why she was targeting hapless cousin Billy, rather than Phil himself, wasn’t adequately explained.
As a standalone episode, though, this was a pacy caper. It was Life On Mars meets kitchen-sink drama, sensitively weaving together past and present. A palpable labour of love and a fitting tribute to Cockney royalty. If only all our soaps were prepared to shake up their formula like this, perhaps ratings wouldn’t be plummeting.