BBC One plugs the EastEnders schedule gap on Tuesday evenings, while it’s on a pandemic-enforced break, with iconic episodes from the archive, and they don’t come much more iconic than the one chosen to launch the special season – the soap’s first ever two-hander from October 1986.
The format would become a tradition, but at first it was a pretty revolutionary move to focus on just two characters and play 30 minutes in real time, honing in on a particularly intense situation that warranted putting the rest of the storylines aside for a deep, dramatic dive.
Watching it at the the time (I’ve been an avid EastEnders follower since day one), I remember wondering when we’d cut from this typically tense breakfast in the Queen Vic flat to elsewhere in the Square.
Even at the tender age of 11, I was familiar with the format and rhythm of a typical soap episode (you’re never too young to be a soap fan, and eventually making a living from my obsession with the genre was clearly foreshadowed) – opening with a series of quick, snappy scenes as the day begins in various households, teasing plots and setting up motivations for the next half hour to keep the audience hooked enough not to switch over to one of the nation’s other three channels.
I soon realised this was not a typical episode.
Den and Angie Watts were the undisputed stars of the show’s early days, a backstreet Taylor and Burton who’s toxic marriage tales propelled the new soap on the block (it had started just over 18 months before to great fanfare) to the most watched, talked-about TV show of the day.
At this point ‘Dirty’ Den had already driven his alcoholic wife to a suicide attempt through his infidelity, and in this two-hander he finally told her it was over and he had chosen mistress Jan over her.
Drained by the constant fighting, Den’s delivery was surprisingly calm and almost sensitive, knowing how hurt his wife would be, but Angie’s hysterical reaction and bombshell she was dying of a terminal disease and had six months to live changed his mind.
By the time those famous doof-doofs sounded, Angie had got her man back as Den promised to stay by her side in her final days – but her manic, tear-stained expression shown in close up after Den took Roly the dog for a walk (another ‘Enders icon) wordlessly confirmed to the audience she made the whole thing up: desperate Ange had lied she was ill to stop Den leaving her for another woman.
It was a huge, game-changing plot twist that fuelled storylines for months, and a riveting insight into the psychology of two flawed, damaged characters, achieved with a handful of ingredients including a watertight script, one set and two actors with once-in-a-lifetime chemistry. Not counting the mute window cleaner who famously walked in at the most inopportune moments throughout, of course.
It was a risk, and urban myth tells us the two-hander was conceived as a way of freeing up the rest of the cast to keep up with hectic shooting schedule. But at that time only EastEnders, in its gritty, dark infancy, and only the wildly popular Den and Angie could’ve pulled off something so audacious.
Calling the shots behind the camera was Antonia Bird, who went on to become one of the most acclaimed, experimental directors in British film and TV. Subsequent projects such as Safe, Priest and Care dealt with homelessness, child abuse and religion with the same unflinching eye she cast over the landlord and lady’s eroding relationship.
The intensity, detail and simplicity used to let the material and performances breathe remains the bench-mark for the many two-handers that followed. It’s still a badge of honour for cast members to be gifted one, and the soap saves them for special turning point occasions that herald seismic shifts in the storylines.
Michelle confessing to Sharon that Den was Vicki’s daughter in 1989, Kat admitting to Zoe she was, indeed, her mother in 2001, and Stacey explaining to Max why she killed Archie in 2010 are three examples of plots so big they needed the dramatic duo treatment.
However, they haven’t all been about jaw-dropping twists to move the action on: we’ve also had the more lyrical, purely character-based ones typified by Dot and Ethel reminiscing about the war in 1987, the first to follow the original.
All soaps now employ the two-hander treatment when the time is right, but they still feel like EastEnders’ territory as they were the first to do it, shaking up a genre that was already decades old, even 34 years ago.
The template has seen a recent resurgence as TV drama adapts to a post-pandemic world, where focusing on a minimal amount of characters and a pared-down production environment has become a necessary practicality, but not to the detriment of the material – see ITV’s Isolation Stories and, reclaiming the format for soaps, Emmerdale’s compelling lockdown specials.
With little in the way of pre-publicity back in the day, the audience had no idea that evening’s episode of EastEnders would break new ground by featuring only two people, or about Angie’s flabbergasting fib that paved the way for one of the most watched TV events of all time just a few months later, when her lie was exposed on Christmas Day in front of around 30 million viewers.
But as time ticked towards the 8pm finish on that October Thursday in 1986, I went from confusion as to why we weren’t crossing over to the Fowlers’ or the cafe, to not wanting to be anywhere else other than the Watts’ battleground for the remainder of the episode.
I was also probably trying to avoid doing my geography homework.
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