There's an old Hollywood superstition about the role of Superman being cursed. George Reeves, who played him on TV in the 1950s, died aged 45; Christopher Reeve, who played him in film, died at 52, after being paralysed some years before. Bud Collyer, who voiced the character in a 1966 cartoon, died three years after he took the job. Even Lee Quigley, who only appeared as a baby Superman in 1978, had his life cut tragically short by a solvent abuse incident.
I'd like to hypothesise that there's an equivalent part on British TV: Ben Mitchell off Eastenders.
Thankfully, none of the actors who have played Albert Square's most exquisitely shit hardman have experienced fates anywhere near as terrible as some of those who took a turn as Superman – but the part has become cursed in a different way.
It's the dramatic equivalent of a game of Pass the Parcel, with no less than six different people being drafted in to play Ben since 1996. The fifth and most recent, Harry Reid, was written out of Eastenders last year, but it was recently announced that Ben will be back soon, via yet another artist's interpretation of this most complex of characters. New cast member Max Bowden has big shoes and some terrible, terrible glasses to fill, because – as loyal Eastenders viewers will know – Ben Mitchell is objectively one of the best British soap opera characters of our time.
Charlie Jones – who played Ben from 2006 until 2010 – was there for his most iconic four years, when Ben reentered the show after leaving as a toddler.
Charlie's Ben is portrayed as partially deaf and, unrelated, a physically weak disappointment to his big bastard of a dad. It was soon revealed, however, that Ben's babyfaced appearance hid violent depths, when he became embroiled in a bullying storyline with another child on the Square, Jordan Johnson.
This led to what is probably Ben's most famous ever scene – that is, the moment when he stands over Jordan in the middle of a garage, wielding a spanner, and utters the immortal words: "You need slappin' down."
Eastenders is known for lines like this, its interpretation of real life so bizarrely heightened that it could never be classed as anything but a kind of specifically British camp. Cast your mind back to the time Phil Mitchell was addicted to crack for a few weeks ("I need…crack"); when Kat Slater extolled her slagginess ("I didn't become a little bit of a slag… I became… a TOTAL SLAG"); Ian Beale crying on Phil's lap ("I've got nothing left"); Janine killing Barry by pushing him down a hill ("I pretended to care about your IDIOTIC nervous breakdown"); or Max Branning's inexplicable reign as the top shagger of Albert Square. The list goes on.
However, You_Need_Slappin_Down.mp3 stands head and shoulders over all of these, simply because every aspect of it is so utterly ridiculous: Jones' performance, his tiny limbs holding the massive spanner aloft, his eyes like fag burns, the line itself the sort that no childhood bully has ever uttered to a victim in the history of mankind – all of it coalesces into a perfect storm of total absurdity.
Long may we cherish it.