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Wednesday, 16 February, 2000, 18:51 GMT
Happy Birthday EastEnders
Today's EastEnders cast is celebrating 15 successful years
For many TV fans, life without EastEnders would be hard to imagine. But 15 years ago, on 19 February 1985, the soap was the much-hyped new kid on the block - the show to rival the 25-year reign of Coronation Street on ITV.

Try a blast from the past from our EastEnders picture gallery

Now, 36 awards and years of consistently high viewing figures later, the BBC is celebrating because time appears to have proved it right.

Like Coronation Street, the new show boasted well-developed and varied characters.
Walford trivia
Two members of the original cast remain from 1985: Wendy Richard (Pauline Fowler) and Adam Woodyatt (Ian Beale).
But two cast members came from school drama Grange Hill: Susan Tully (Michelle Fowler) and Todd Carty (Mark Fowler).
Gillian Taylforth was turned down for the part of Kathy Beale (now Mitchell) because she was "too pretty".
However, in contrast to its good-humoured competitor, EastEnders set out specifically to offer more drama, intensity and realism - although its setting, Walford's Albert Square, was just as fictional.

Sure enough, as the curtains drew back on a small community in London E20, the first, unromantic words to be uttered were "Stinks in 'ere".

They were spoken by the Queen Vic's then landlord, "Dirty" Den Watts, and his circumstances were just as insalubrious as his prose. He had broken into pensioner Reg Cox's flat, only to find him murdered in his armchair.

The long-suffering Arthur and Pauline Fowler take on another child
Later in the same episode, Pauline Fowler discovered she was pregnant (with Martin) at 41 - so setting the emotionally stressful tone of the series.

But as raw, even depressing, as that first episode was, millions of viewers stuck with it - and the years of grittiness to come.

Hard times

The cliffhanging, even tear-jerking moments in EastEnders have come thick and fast.

Den and Angie Watts: The happy times were few and far between
Few can forget the pitiful drink and drugs suicide attempt of Den's cheated wife Angie in 1986. A year later, downtrodden Arthur Fowler - the soap's eternal loser - went into inexorable decline after never truly recovering from the shame of being jailed for theft.

In the 1990s, the drama became even less uplifting, starting with hardman Grant Mitchell's torching of the Vic - for insurance money to pay off some local villains.

Death was just one the recurring themes of misery throughout the decade. Gill Fowler, Pete Beale, Arthur Fowler, Cindy Beale, Debbie Bates, Tiffany Mitchell and Saskia Duncan all made a sticky exit from the soap.
Tiffany and Grant Mitchell's torrid affair ended with her death
The recent life and death situation of HIV-infected Mark Fowler also threatened to make him - one of the most established members of the cast - the first death of the new millennium.

Mark succumbed to an acute case of pneumonia brought on by his already vulnerable state of health.

Social conscience

Viewers are, by now, accustomed to Mark's HIV status since he found out in 1991 that he had contracted the virus from his first wife Gill.
Mark Fowler: His character confronts the difficulties of life with HIV
At the time, however, the soap's decision to tackle the issue of HIV and Aids was something of a landmark for prime-time television.

Nonetheless, it typified the soap's readiness to cover controversial, real-life issues.

Rape, adultery, teenage pregnancy, racism and anorexia have all been met head-on.

One thorny storyline was the gay relationship between 30-something graphic designer Colin Russell and the young barrow boy Barry Clark in 1987.
Barry and Colin broke TV taboos
As residents of Albert Square gossiped in hushed voices about the true nature of their friendship, some viewers were soon balking at EastEnders' first gay kiss.

By the time the smooching between Simon Raymond and Tony Hills came to Walford in 1997, fewer feathers were left to be ruffled.

Unforgettable residents

Causing the occasional stir undoubtedly boosts viewing figures, but any soap worth its salt knows that good characterisation is what keeps them high.
Dangerous Lothario Steve Owen and Melanie Healy
One of the first - and arguably most popular- characters in the Square was Dirty Den. Corrupt and cruel as he could be - particularly with Angie - there was always the hint that he was something of a rough diamond.

The role of the loveable villain was taken on by Grant Mitchell in 1990 who, despite his fondness for threatening behaviour, cried real tears over loved ones.

Now it's Steve Owen, with his psycho-blue eyes and irresistible charm who's causing trouble and breaking hearts.

The character everyone really loves to hate is EastEnders veteran, the money-mad Ian Beale. While the saddest EastEnder of all has to be Bianca Butcher with her permanent frown and plaintiff calls of "Ricky".

In 15 years, some 300 characters have passed through the Square. But when programme-makers first devised the series there were only 24.
Bianca Butcher carried the world on her shoulders
Back then, however, a lot of about EastEnders could have been very different. The original setting for the drama was a toss-up between shopping setting or a mobile home park. The names suggested were London Pride or Round the Square.

But now, one thing is for certain. After a rollercoaster first 15 years, the increasing competition between the soaps means the residents of Albert Square will not be able to expect an easy ride in the future, either.

See also:

17 Feb 00 | Entertainment
Vintage Albert Square
27 May 99 | Entertainment
EastEnders killing too 'macabre'
24 Mar 99 | Entertainment
EastEnders loses its Grant
06 Sep 99 | Entertainment
Square win for Eastenders
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