On EastEnders' 25th anniversary, where else to visit but Albert Square? Walford may not exist, and E20 may be but a figment of the scriptwriters' imagination, but surely London boasts an Albert Square somewhere? As it turns out, it boasts two.
It's not quite proper East End, but near enough. This Albert Square's in Maryland, on the non-Olympic side of Stratford, in a part of town no tourist would ever go near. And it's not a square. This Albert Square's an elongated "L" shape, more like half of a very long rectangle, indeed more like an ordinary terraced street than a centrally-focused hub. The Square's Victorian in origin - it would have to be with a name like Albert - and a couple of the older rows of houses bear datemarks from 1875 and 1877. There's a wide range of dwellings along its length, the majority being tight-packed bay-windowed terraces. A huddle of chimneypots on the roof, a mesh of net curtains across the windows, a flank of peeling walls that have all seen better days. Some residents treat their homes like little castles, but in this Albert Square the houseproud are outnumbered by the weatherbeaten. There are wheelie bins everywhere, at least one in every tiny front garden, their lids wedged open by pizza cartons, bags of newspapers and empty detergent bottles. If you ever need proof that EastEnders on the telly isn't real, the lack of overflowing wheelie bins should be the dead giveaway.
There are no Cockney knees-ups on these pavements, but there's life enough. Two excitable kids wait at the garden gate for their mother to emerge and take them to the park. A pair of young women totter back from the shops carrying non-designer carrier bags. A blue-van man climbs into his driving seat and stares at passers-by suspiciously before eventually daring to drive away. They take Neighbourhood Watch very seriously around here. Since my last visit, five years ago, a couple of plots have undergone a radical transformation. The patch of wasteland at the Square's dogleg has been built upon, big time, taken over by a timbered block of over-bold yet homely flats. They've had to number them 61A-61F, as a hint to current householders of how little space each actually owns. Meanwhile at the other end of the Square, overlooking the main railway, there used to be a pub called the Albert House. Later there was even a "Queen Vic" pub sign outside, but that's gone now, and so's the pub. In its place is a particularly characterless newbuild called Basle House, no doubt comfy enough inside, but it doesn't serve pints or host darts matches or boast a brassy blonde barmaid. This Albert Square's genuine enough, but it's no integrated community.
On the other side of town, off the northern end of the Clapham Road in sunny Stockwell, there's a very different Albert Square. The surrounding area's characterised by a hotchpotch of diverse residential styles, jammed randomly together as though some Lambeth town planner filled each block by rolling a dice. If so, then Albert Square's the local 6. It's a proper Victorian square (OK, oblong, truth be told), surrounded by a wall of prim stucco townhouses. Each is two storeys too high to be part of the EastEnders set, and rather too posh as well. An unbroken ring of arched windows encircles the square at ground floor level, with access to each front door via a balustraded staircase. These elegant dwellings could all have been divided up into flats by now, and some have, but most remain owner-occupied and aloof. Roger Moore grew up in one of them, don't you know, and Joanna Lumley's a current resident here or hereabouts. Albert Square E20, by comparison, can boast nobody more famous than Barbara Windsor.
At the heart of the Square, as befits so desirable an enclave, lies an extensive private garden. I say garden, it's more a patch of waterlogged grass at the moment, surrounded by a perimeter of railings, shrubs and mature trees. Once tended by pioneering botanist John Tradescant, this garden's now firmly padlocked at each entrance, presumably because the residents association wouldn't want any old local to venture inside and exercise their mutt on the lawn. There's no playground here, nor even a lovingly-tended flowerbed - the only amenity is a single wooden bench with its back to the hollybush. Dearest Arthur is commemorated with a blue plaque nearby - that's Arthur Rackham the children's illustrator, not Pauline's philandering husband. Had the Fowlers ever lived here they'd have been holed up in Regency Court, the ugly 60s block on the corner (near the speed humps), whose sole redeeming feature is that you can't see Regency Court out of the window. Other than these modern flats, Albert Square SW8 is a place with true character and history, and even boasts its own blog. But very definitely not a launderette, nor a used car lot, nor a gaggle of screeching East Enders.
So when you're watching E20 tonight, remember, 25 years, that's nothing compared to the real thing.