Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

December 27, 2006

Wendy Richard bows out of East Enders

Occasional JAM star Wendy Richard's last scene was broadcast on Christmas Day. I enjoyed this description from The Times newspaper.

It would be nice to hear her again on JAM - let's hope as she will now have more spare time.

We knew that the Wicked Witch of Walford was going to die in the usual goodwill-drenched Christmas Day episode of EastEnders, we just didn’t know how. But it had to be good. Pauline Fowler is one of only two surviving characters from the very first EastEnders episode in 1985. This is a significant sayonara.

Having successfully alienated everyone around her, Pauline was planning to go to America to join her daughter, ’Chelle. A taxi engine hummed outside, but it sounded more like a death rattle than the chariot to a new life. Pauline brooded in the burnt-out shell of her house while the voices of her (mainly deceased) family echoed like ghosts around her: “Mum, I’m pregnant,” (Michelle); “I’ve got a virus,” (Mark’s HIV); “Arthur, you’re an innocent man. You’ve done nothing to be ashamed of.”

The most resonant of these voices was that of her youngest son, Martin: “You’re going to be lonely, very lonely.” He was right. What a miserable old piece of dried toast Pauline had become. Her bitter decline culminated in pretending to have a brain tumour to scupper the revived relationship between Martin and ex-wife (turned lesbian, now turned straight again) Sonia. Pauline’s lie was uncovered, Martin and the rest of Albert Square turned against her. Someone scrawled “Liar” on her gate. Only Betty the dog remained devoted.

EastEnders has been bad for so long — risible characters you don’t really care about, even more risible storylines that make no sense — that it was a delight to finally alight on an episode, albeit a landmark one which they had to get right, that was so satisfying.

Simon Ashdown’s script drew indulgently on the show’s history. Wendy Richard as Pauline had the air of the departing diva, queen of all she had loved, lost and laid waste to, her face set in a silent snarl. Richard’s farewell as Pauline served only to emphasise how few long-serving characters EastEnders has, unlike Coronation Street, whose old-timers give their show its distinctive texture. (Indeed, Coronation Street’s Christmas Day episode hinged on an event which took place 16 years previously, when Gail nearly aborted her son, “Devil Child” David Platt.)

The really choking scene came in the launderette between Pauline and Dot. Here the two grand dames had worked, bitched and consoled for years. Richard and the wonderful June Brown played their final encounter as intensely as the characters deserved. “You’re the only real friend I’ve got,” Dot told Pauline, tearfully and desperately. She remembered Pauline as a little girl. “I can’t replace them years. No one can.”

It was probably one of the most moving scenes in a soap this year, and Pauline almost buckled. In a wonderful touch, she thrust the keys to the launderette into Dot’s hand, clasped her friend’s fingers tightly and said goodbye.

At home, the taxi was still rattling. Sonia, whom Pauline despises, tried to make her reconcile with Martin. She was “sick” not to want to share her son with the woman he loved. This elicited a vintage old-bag Pauline response, each word spat and curdled with hate: “I’ll tell you what’s sick. You. Daughter of a scrubber, lesbian, under-age mother who gave away her own baby. . .” That earned Pauline a well-deserved slap and she banged her head on the Fowler fruitbowl, the enduring symbol of her family, which smashed, significantly, into smithereens.

Sonia asked the question that has been bugging fans for so long: why couldn’t she be the Pauline Fowler of old? The gentle, tough matriarch. And in the last reel she did soften, resolving to stay in Albert Square.

Outside, as it only can on Christmas Day in a soap, thick snow fell. Pauline headed to the Vic to give granddaughter Rebecca her Christmas present. She rubbed her head. (Uh oh, you thought: that’s a headache that’s clearly more than a headache.) Just after touching “Arthur’s bench”, she collapsed beneath the Square’s Christmas tree.

The Fowler family abode has always been home to deadly weapons (Den murdered with Pauline’s doggy-shaped doorstop, Arthur thwacked with a frying pan for adultery) and now the fruitbowl — her family, the weight of their history — had helped to kill Pauline.

Now that’s what I call soap opera.


* Pauline Fowler was already in Albert Square on February 19, 1985, the first day of the BBC soap opera, as the chirpy launderette worker, above

* She and her jobless husband Arthur soon found themselves with an unexpected third child, and Pauline gradually became the archetypal East-End matriarch

* She stoically endured what, outside Walford, would be considered a spectacular run of bad luck, but in Albert Square is simply called life

* Arthur’s imprisonment and her son Mark, below, contracting HIV and dying; Arthur’s affair and her other son Martin’s spell behind bars all took their toll and her positive demeanour gave way to a world-weary outlook

* Her conversations with Dot Cotton became the stuff of legend, and her feuds with Peggy Mitchell and Dirty Den showed more vitriol than an acid refinery

* Hopes that Pauline would be rejuvenated by her marriage to Joe Macer, below, proved misplaced as she slipped into depression and refused to accept the reconciliation of Martin and his former wife

* She hit rock bottom when a cigarette set fire to her house. Perhaps wanting to be put out of her misery, she was consumed by the flames rather than call for help.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow, i never watched EastEnders, I only knew some stuff about it because of Wendy Richard's talking about it sometimes when she was on JAM. hey, maybe with the new producer it will open up the path for Wendy's return to the show. it would be great if she still had that fire on great display cuz it would be great to see a bit more drama into this show, I mean she was definitely not one to be put off by Nicholas and more than once would have to put him in his place, which was brilliant.

9:04 am  

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