Eastenders, Underscore and Julia’s Theme
As a long time Eastenders viewer I’m slightly obsessed by the rare (but on the increase) appearances of ‘Julia’s Theme’, what I like to call the ‘piano lead-in’. This soft, modulated version of the Eastenders theme, appearing as underscore whilst an episode concludes in a significantly sad moment or that rare happy ending, replacing its iconic doof-doofs. Its use signals a narrative closure rather than the ongoing cliff-hanger of the doof-doofs; The conclusion of Frank’s funeral, Dot accepting Jim’s marriage proposal on the Millenium Eye (the first time I noticed it), Stacey talking to her newborn baby.
The doof-doofs are arguably the most iconic element of Eastenders – a dramatic drum motif that plays over the held reaction shot that concludes each episode, the pause after a dramatic revelation -“You ain’t my mother” “Yes I am” (from 0:57 below). When I tasked students to create a scene from the soap for a critical practice exercise, all chose a scene that lead into this sonic moment (although all learnt that the soap’s actors need a degree of skill to realistically hold such a lengthy reaction shot!). Leading into the end credits and the ringing pub-piano-style theme, the drum motif supports each episode’s cliffhanger in the programme’s only moment of non-diegetic sound.
This motif recalls the ‘dun-dun-daaa’; that dramatic reaction musical motif stretching way back to stage melodrama that we all use now to parodically react to a dramatic cliff-hanger (I used it regularly whilst watching early Heroes episodes with friends). Used together with the staged wait of soap’s cliff-hanger reaction shot, whose tight televisual close-up that acts as a form of punctuation, it forms a bumper between narrative and credits. The doofs (like a faltering heartbeat) signal this moment as dramatically significant, the pause leaving a residue of emotional intensity that remains over the credits and draws the audience back for the next episode. It is the pause before a moment of dramatic action, the consequences of which we tune in to see.
But the doof-doofs are tied into the dramatic reveal, the impact of a reaction or the dramatic action of which the audience are the only witness (the latter figuring the doof-doofs as the audience’s own reaction). These are built for soap’s melodrama, its moments of shock, the never-ending dramatic momentum of the continual serial. So what happens with moments of contemplative sorrow or the elusive soap opera happy ending? Those moments of pleasure, of quiet delicate emotion, that bring tears (happy or sad) and narrative closure.
These don’t lend themselves to the dramatic pause and sonic break-in of the doof-doof and often are composed of lengthy shots rather than the usual quick reaction cuts. This is where the piano lead-in comes in – played softly underneath action and dialogue, rather than over the wordless reaction shot like the doof-doofs. Unlike the US soap’s composed score and the increasing use of non-diegetic popular music in Hollyoaks (drawing from US teen TV), Eastenders offers only diegetic music, sourced from pub or café stereos. Occasionally this bridges the diegetic gap, when a recent sourced rendition of “My Way” cheekily underscored Peggy’s speech about reclaiming her pub (Eastenders’ version of Scarlett O’Hara’s “As god as my witness”), but the soap does not use composed underscore.
As a result, the piano lead-in is marked as significant – both as rare underscore, and as replacement for the iconic doof-doofs. Compared to the doof-doofs’ drums of abrupt dramatic rupture, the piano lead-in’s soft modulation of the end credit’s theme smoothes the movement between narrative and credits, its melodic modulation resolving as it flows into the recognisable credits theme. Therefore we don’t have a dramatic pause, rather a slower reflective build, as the melody begins quietly underneath action, rising in volume (like the audiences swelling heart or rising tears) until it finally resolves into the credit theme.
Experienced viewers will immediately recognise its rare appearance as marking an emotive and positive moment (often referred to in fan circles as a character ‘getting’ the Julia Theme). The unaccustomed appearance of an underscore’s soft melody takes away the threat of the doof-doofs’ dramatic pause, allowing them to relax into the pleasures of the cathartic emotional moment. And maybe a little tear as Stacey – after enduring a emotionally wrecked year – is finally alone with her new baby. Scared of what lies ahead, bonding with her child and embracing motherhood (soap’s ultimate female identity) as she and we are gifted a rare moment of peace. Compared to the short rupture of the drum motif, the piano melody pauses on and elongates this final moment, its length and scarcity signalling it as special within the ever-onwards march of the soap opera narrative.
 Feuer, Jane 1994 ‘Melodrama, Serial Form, and Television Today’ in Television: The Critical View 5th ed. Horace Newcombe (ed), New York: Oxford University Press, 551-562 : 557