diamond geezer

 Thursday, February 19, 2015

On EastEnders' 30th birthday, let's explore the BBC soap's East London inspiration. All the usual suspects, and then some.

The Square: Fassett Square, E8
Albert Square is closely modelled on Fassett Square, a garden square in Dalston, located roughly halfway between Hackney Central and Dalston Junction. The original set designers scoured the area to find the ideal residential enclave for their new drama, and settled on Fassett Square just off Graham Road. At one time they'd hoped to do all their location filming here, but soon realised that a reconstruction at Elstree Studios would be more practical. They brought along a cherry picker to get aerial shots of the square and took measurements of the houses and their period features in order to help them build a slightly smaller model on set. And although the end result was in no way a perfect match, if you stand in the right place and look the right way, the sense of déjà vu is uncanny.

Fassett Square's not square, more an elongated rectangle, with two stumpy cul-de-sacs at the northern end leading down to the Overground. But these dead ends and two sides of the Square are lined by some very familiar-looking houses. Two-storey brick terraces in pairs, fairly ordinary at first floor level but with ornate arched porches decorated with semi-classical plasterwork, each alongside a bold bay window. They may be narrow and Victorian, but the going price for one of these Beale/Fowler households is now the best part of a million pounds. Round the corner I spotted another E20 terraced duplicate, this time with a set of steps leading up the front door, and ideal for tumbling down dramatically when shot. Just don't turn to face the western side of the square, where the much more modern facade of The German Hospital breaks the fourth wall, totally out of character and another reason why the soap could never practically have been filmed here. Meanwhile fenced off in the centre is a private garden, beautifully maintained and well used by the angelic offspring of the families hereabouts. I suspect they're tired of sightseers, especially at anniversary-tide, but echoes of Walford remain strong in Fassett Square thirty years on. [4 photos]

The Market: Ridley Road Market E8
EastEnders' producers wanted a market at the heart of the show, despite the abject failure of Granada's Albion Market which was plunging down the ratings at the time. For inspiration they turned to Dalston's Ridley Road Market, located a cauliflower's throw from the back of Fassett Square. It's a highly traditional street market, or would have been, consisting of one long road along which traders sell from wheeled stalls every day except Sunday. The speciality is food rather than clothes, which in 1985 would have been standard fruit and veg but today is anything but. These days Ridley Road is a Caribbean hotspot, with plantains and ackees amongst the staple foods on sale, and a string of low-rent shops and lockups behind selling meat in trays and fish on slabs. It's the fish that leap out, not literally of course, with considerably more vendors than you'd think any Hackney neighbourhood needs. It's also a much longer street than E20's Bridge Street Market, with everything to fill a West Indian shopping trolley, and still the hubbub that the sound engineers found when they dropped in on that initial recce. [3 photos]

The Name: Walford Road, N16
There is a school of thought which says that the name Walford derives from a combination of Walthamstow and Stratford. And that's what I used to believe, until I heard the name of the street in which Tony Holland, one of EastEnders' co-creators, was living back in 1983. It was he and Julia Smith who came up with the concept of an East End community in a compact square, and at the time he was resident in Walford Road. This is a street on the edge of Stoke Newington, near to Shacklewell, lined by three storey Victorian terraces. It's not especially Albert Square-ish, but the 19th century flavour is strong, and there is an open rectangular playspace at one end. There's also a sturdy pub on the corner, now a trendyish bar and grill, and a row of houses by the synagogue that looks especially Branningesque. OK, so the postcode's N16, but E8 begins a couple of streets down, and E8 was EastEnders' initial working title. With Ridley Road Market and Fassett Square within half a mile, it's easy to imagine the forty-something scriptwriter taking inspiration from his surroundings, and from Walford Road. [3 photos]

The Pub: The College Park Hotel, NW10
After all that East London-ness, the pub that inspired the Queen Vic is nowhere near. Instead BBC set designer Keith Harris was inspired by a pub at the top of Scrubs Lane, Willesden, which he used to drive past on his way to work. That pub was The College Park Hotel, located on a hectic street corner where Brent turns into Hammersmith and Fulham, with Television Centre lying about a mile and a half down the road. BBC economies led to the three storey pub being reimagined one floor shorter, but the trademark facade with its entrance on the bend in the middle is still highly recognisable. Alas it's not a pub any more, the decaying property having been converted into ten flats in 1999, and five houses built in the beer garden for good measure. The sign for the Saloon & Luncheon Bar remains as a period detail, as well as a shield with the pub's name on, but it takes some imagination to picture this marooned ex-boozer as a busy local. [3 photos]

The Station: Bromley-by-Bow, E3
As every pub quizzer knows, Walford East station takes the place of Bromley-by-Bow on the tube map. The TV cameras don't focus in on the line diagrams often, if at all, but rest assured that Walford East lies between Bow Road and West Ham on the District line. We never see the platforms, only the terracotta entrance and ticket hall, but the occasional special effects D Stock rattles over the bridge whenever the producers want to blow their budget on realism. In reality Bromley-by-Bow is one of the East End's uglier stations, more a bleak 1970s portal, and opens out onto the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road (whose racket would be unsympathetic for filming). Another big difference is that you walk down to the platforms rather than up, hence the bridge in E20 had to be based on the railway bridge over Wood Lane W12 instead. Bromley-by-Bow has been on TfL's step-free list for years, without the project ever coming to fruition, with completion currently scheduled for 2017. Instead they made much fuss yesterday regarding a rather fun stunt whereby actor Danny Dyer pre-recorded some right geezery station announcements which were played out over the tannoy. Whatever you might have heard on social media, I arrived home last night to Danny announcing "a good service operating", and nothing pukka, bang on or proper. [4 photos]

The Location: Teviot Estate, E14
And finally, to the thorny question of where precisely in the East End Albert Square is supposed to be. Bromley-by-Bow station is a big clue, and there are sometimes reference to characters popping off to Bow, Stratford or Canning Town. But there was an episode five years back in which the doof doof finale was accompanied by a swirling aerial shot rising rapidly into the sky, and this conformed a location at the very top of Poplar close to the Limehouse Cut. More specifically the Teviot Estate, which is one of Tower Hamlets poorer quarters, and which looks absolutely nothing like the set of EastEnders. Most of this part of London is postwar estate, with pretty much everything Victorian wiped away by the Luftwaffe or the regeneration after. These streets are characterised by lowrise flats from a hotchpotch of decades, nothing any estate agent would crow about, but a bedrock neighbourhood all the same. The main shopping parade, such as it is, boasts a minimart, unisex hairdessers and kebab shop, and the Cycle Hire docking station outside is one of the most underused in the capital. [3 photos]

If the producers of EastEnders based their soap on the population of the Teviot Estate, the ratio of white to Asian characters would be approximately the inverse of what's in the show today. Many of the main characters wouldn't be speaking English to one another, there wouldn't be a lot of money flashing around, and the local open space would be a landscaped mound of crocuses frequented by angry dogs on long leads. There'd be no obvious focus to revolve the show around, no cafe, no laundrette, and very definitely no pub. Canary Wharf would be visible on the near horizon (an omission the producers finally rectified in Tuesday's episode), and a run of newbuild flats overlooking the canal would culminate in a brand new tower for professional incomers seeking affordability. Were EastEnders genuinely set here, you wouldn't watch. But the genius of any long-running soap opera lies in its characters, and for that the East End has surely inspired three decades of the best.

» from 2015: 20 photos from the locations above [slideshow] [map]
» from 2010: Two Albert Squares, E15 and SW8
» from 2005: The real EastEnders, E20 at 20

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