When the dinner has been eaten, the presents have all been opened, and the big row over your dad getting smashed and knocking the pigs-in-blankets on the floor has been very much had, there’s only one Christmas Day ritual left to observe. Come 9PM, households across Britain gather around the television, anticipatory faces lit by the brilliant glow of the telly, as they await the EastEnders Christmas episode. An special hour-long instalment of the east London soap, it's an extra-marital-affairs-and-death extravaganza – not to mention a yearly landmark in the Christmas TV calendar.
Over the years, EastEnders has developed a reputation for its bleak Christmas storylines, with plots ranging from domestic abuse to infidelity, and that one year when Archie Mitchell was bludgeoned over the head with a bust of Queen Victoria. For the simple reason that it almost doesn’t feel like Christmas unless someone’s been brutally beaten up on Albert Square, EastEnders tends to be the most-watched soap on Christmas Day. In 2018, it drew in 5 million viewers, beating the likes of Emmerdale and Coronation Street. Its festive dominance, however, can probably be traced back to the 1986 Christmas episode, which saw Queen Vic landlord Den handing divorce papers to his wife Angie, and is the most-watched instalment of a British soap ever, attracting over 30 million pairs of eyeballs.
With expectations on the show at their very highest this time of year – indeed, at a recent press screening in London, the BBC’s head of continuing drama Kate Oates observed that “EastEnders Christmas is up there with all the greatest traditions, like sprouts and family annihilation” – the Christmas episode takes a great deal of preparation. But what exactly does that involve? As one of the millions who insists that the festive proceedings are not complete if I have not balanced both a cheese plate and a box of chocolates on my lap while shouting at Phil Mitchell on the telly, I decided to find out.
Soaps on terrestrial TV channels offer two hours of telly per week, regardless of the news cycle or current events. As such, they are tightly run ships, with storylines conceived and written well ahead of airing schedule. This means that in the case of EastEnders and many other soaps, the ideas for Christmas are in motion long before we start opening advent calendars.
Simon Ashdown, who works on EastEnders, and was its series consultant from 1995 until 2013 (he’s been responsible for memorable Christmases like the aforementioned Archie Mitchell whodunnit, and the excruciating reveal of Max Branning and Stacey Slater’s affair) tells me that the timescale for a Christmas episode is massive. “You’d be thinking about it probably over a year before,” he says. “But I would say three months ago, there were definite things being planned, all the proposals. People start pitching stories.”
Ashdown details exactly how that works: “Every three months, there are story conferences, which are essentially just three-to-four day conferences in a hotel – everyone together, pitching stories. You talk about all the characters, you talk about all the big stories of the year, what is working, what isn’t, what needs to change – all the big stuff. The stepping stone before Christmas is what they call the ‘autumn launch,’ which is around September. So, that’s when you usually fire off a shot – you launch these big stories. So, once you know what Christmas is, it helps you answer the question about what the autumn launch will be. It’s so integral to the year, I think.”
EastEnders’ executive producer Jon Sen describes this year’s Christmas plotline as “one of those classic EastEnders stories,” featuring “iconic characters, iconic families,” and which I will absolutely not be commenting on in any detail because I’ve signed an NDA. Because of the show’s production calendar, the Christmas episode is usually filmed during the summer. This year, Oates remembers, “We were reading the storylines at the weekend and then talking about them on Monday morning, and Wimbledon was on.” When it’s hot outside, it can be difficult to get into the correct mindset, Sen adds, so some festive concessions are needed: “When we’re planning, we always do the planning in Christmas hats. It gets you in the spirit. We have two days where we’re planning Christmas, and you’ve got to feel Christmassy. So, we get all the decorations out and hats on.” Pete Lawson, who wrote this year’s Christmas Day episode says that “it’s always a bit strange writing Christmas scenes in the middle of summer – I always put Christmas music on to help get in the mood!”
Despite this early filming schedule, the EastEnders Christmas episode mirrors a real Christmas Day, doing justice to characters that viewers have watched develop over the year. Ashdown notes that because fans want this rounded experience, as a writer, the festive special is often one of the trickiest to pull off.
“Christmas has got a ritual,” he tells me. “There’s lunch, presents, there’s all that stuff. So, there is kind of a structure to the day that you cannot avoid – and you also want to see a bit of Christmas joy, you want to see the other characters – which is quite hard.” For Lauren Klee, who wrote 2019’s Christmas Eve episode, however, it’s an enjoyable challenge: “The job of the Christmas Eve episode is to tee up for the big day – you're pulling the various strands together for a final cliffhanger, leading to the epic emotional explosion over the turkey,” she laughs. “They're fun episodes to write, as you have to balance out the drama with a sense of community and warmth, as well as infuse it all with some festive cheer.”
While that festive cheer is certainly present, the drama is usually the decisive factor, with major plotlines frequently coming to a head at Christmas. Lawson tells me that this year’s episode features “a story that’s been simmering for about 18 months, and passions are ready to boil over.”
For the show’s actors, then, being involved is a treat. Tilly Keeper, who plays Louise Mitchell (daughter of the legendary Phil), says: “Everybody wants to have a Christmas episode on EastEnders and I finally got to do it. I was really excited by the scripts.” Letitia Dean – who plays the indomitable Sharon Mitchell, arguably now the show’s head matriarch, in the grand tradition of Peggy Mitchell and Pat Butcher – adds that this year’s scenes are some of the best she’s filmed, though cites 1994’s “Sharongate” (for the non-heads: when Sharon was recorded on tape admitting to cheating on Grant Mitchell with his brother Phil, and this tape was played aloud to the punters at the Queen Vic) as her favourite ever. “I’ve been blessed, I’ve been in the show off and on since I was 16,” she says. “Honestly, I just love it with a passion.”
Certainly, she’s not the only one, as the many soap fans (and non-fans!) who can’t help but flick on the show for their annual dose of festive screaming matches will attest. Ultimately, Ashdown thinks its appeal lies in the fact that the EastEnders Christmas special – itself a part of the festive furniture for so many – shows the characters moving through their own Christmases. “Christmas is brilliant – it’s the most specific time,” he says. “You have just had your Christmas dinner and then you’re watching people experiencing Christmas. It almost feels like a real parallel to the real world.”
A few more “SLAAAG”s being flung around in Cockney accents than I am used to in the real world, to be honest – but close enough.