Is Albert Square the most miserable address in the country? Are the inhabitants of the London borough of Walford the most unhappy in England?
I was a student in London. Admittedly, it was thirty-five years ago and my visits since have been few and far between, but my memories of Londoners are of chirpy, upbeat people. There was banter and laughter, smiles and constant chat. Bus drivers spoke, cab drivers spoke ceaselessly. There was a self-confidence, a pride that they lived in one of the world’s leading cities. People who were downbeat, people who were pessimistic, people who were miserable, were rarely encountered. Perhaps my experience was atypical and I missed those who were grumpy or moaning or hostile. Perhaps I was so taken with being in the capital that I saw only the positive things. Perhaps it has all changed since those days of the early 1980s.
Somehow, I must have completely misjudged the place, or the producers of Eastenders must know a city entirely different from the one I encountered, for what other explanation can there be for a television series that is so irredeemably miserable? Is there a single episode that passes without a row, or a threat, or an estrangement, or a crisis? Is this really representative of everyday life in the city? Are there really communities within three hours drive of Somerset who live in such a miserable way?
Perhaps such a place of discontent as Albert Square does exist, or perhaps the television serial is a merely a conflation of all the situations that ordinary people might experience, conflated to hold on to viewers, for it seems that television audiences delight in misery.
Eastenders is part of a wider phenomenon. There are booksellers who have “Tragic Life Stories” sections among their shelves. People will buy a biography on the basis that it is filled with sadness and grief and pain and misery. Eastenders is fiction, one wonders how sad a real life might need to be in order to pass the criteria demanded for its story to be categorised as “tragic.”
Assuming that schadenfreude, joy in the misfortune of others, is not a general feature of the population, one wonders why miserable story lines are so effective at retaining viewers. Does unhappiness in the plot create a greater sense of empathy with the characters in the story? Or is there a sense of security and well-being derived from watching stories where people’s hardships are far greater than one’s own?
There is a sense of satisfaction in avoiding Eastenders as often as possible, there are enough people who seem to enjoy being miserable without adding to their number.