Soap Opera, Narrative History and Memory: The passing of ‘Fat Pat’.
Call it slow blogging, call it retrospective writing, call it being too darn busy, I want to write about some television that happened 3 months ago. We often write about TV we experience on DVD, the narrative whole of the prestige drama consumed in a gulp. But soap opera seems so ‘now’, almost live in our daily flow, that it feels strange writing about events from a distance, but here I go.
As 2012 arrived Pat Evans (or ‘Fat Pat’, previously Harris, Beale, Wicks and Butcher – the latter how we really remember her) departed Albert Square and EastEnders. Dying at home surrounded by family, final words written by the masterful Simon Ashdown, born tribute by a very rare re-writing of the credit’s theme (like Peggy’s departure this is a reworking of Julia’s Theme, which I discuss here). Around this time, the sadly cancelled US daytime soap On Life to Live was featuring nostalgic flashbacks and going out in flames of meta-narrative, which made me glad that British prime-time soaps are in such rude health, the centrepiece of our schedules. With the death of Pat prompting EastEnders to look back on it’s own history, it got me thinking about soap’s engagement with narrative history and memory. I wanted to chronicle how this played out to mark the loss of Pat.
A beloved character – along with the recently departed Peggy Mitchell, the reigning matriarch of latter-day Albert Square – Pat had been with the show since 1986, about a year after the programme began, but so steadfastly woven into the show I always thought she’d been there all along. The tribute documentary airing after her last programme showed her striding onto the street all bleach blonde hair, dark glasses, trench coat (knowing Pat, with a garish dress underneath) and the ever present earrings. Oh those earrings, one of my favourite memories of television watching was when, after a row her Roy, her husband of the time (the couple shared my parents names, which always gave them a special place in my heart) he told her he’d never liked her earrings. My living room roared with laughter and through the walls of our victorian terrace we heard the neighbours either side do the same.
But this post isn’t a tribute to Pat, who I loved dearly in all her ballsy fire and strength, second only to Stacey Slater in my devotion. It’s about the storytelling that EastEnders wove around her passing. After surviving a string of heart scares Pat succumbed to pancreatic cancer, whose symptoms the heart problems had disguised. As she lay in her bed, in the house she’d held onto by her fingernails whilst caught up in the ever-present money troubles of her extended family, she was visited and comforted by visitors present and past. Her son David returning at the very last minute (as the character departed in 1996, the actor now busy playing a doctor on Saturday night medical soap Casualty) to seek forgiveness crouched at her side, whilst raging at her failure as a mother (Pat, was once on the game, the bedrock of her tart with a heart character and the source of her sorrow at her failure as a mother). Her other son Simon returning outside the narrative, shown post-credits in a later funeral episode, laying flowers and a goodbye at her grave under cover of night, never to be seen again (the influence of current showrunner Bryan Kirkwood, longtime Hollyoaks chief, is shown here in this event’s coda structure. But that’s another blogpost). Janine – her step-daughter by Frank Butcher – their relationship the very definition of love/hate – sought comfort and forgiveness, before curling up on the bed alongside her (I didn’t really care about whether David made it back, this is the resolution I really needed for my cathartic cry).
Pat’s passing demonstrated both the emotional power of soap opera, but also its storytelling depth. Around her death was woven a string of storylines, resolving themselves and unfolding anew. At this point I was teaching the programme with my first year students, and we charted a week’s storylines on a long, long piece of white paper, the stories starting, stopping, connecting and forking off in ever shifting patterns. The pleasures of teaching come in the look on dismissive students’ faces when they realise the complexity of the storyworld. Quality TV be damned, this is real narrative complexity.
As Pat’s death demonstrated, whilst EastEnders is at pains to represent contemporary culture – its value as public service programming – it is also steeped in the histories of the square and its entangled families. Sometimes in the history of the London East End itself – as in the first of its celebrated two-handers where Dot and Ethel recalled their shared youth in post-war London – for what is soap if not location and family. New characters rarely arrive without connection to existing family structures, characters return after years away, bringing with them audience memories of their pasts. The recently returned – after a 17 year absence – Mandy Slater, in possession of a shady past herself, paid tribute to Pat’s past kindness to her dressed in a fur coat that echoed Pat’s own, suggesting a passing of the baton. Phil Mitchell has been pursued with steadfast determination by DCI Marsden, who pops up to try to nab Phil once and for all with each criminal act he gets tied up in, the Javert to Phil’s Jean Val Jean. This reliance on audience fondness for past characters could demonstrate poverty of imagination, the inability to develop new distinctive blood, but these references thicken character interactions and histories, rewarding the steadfast viewers – a central narrative pleasure of soap. In Interpreting Television Karen Lury talks eloquently of her television memories of locations in the Square, and past events haunt each space I see on screen.
Pat’s death – like the off-screen death of her ‘great love’ Frank Butcher a few years ago – was a chance for EastEnders to revisit its past in eloquent ways. The programme loves this – particularly in its two-handers, where characters often dredge up and work over their shared past – but here something more complex was constructed. 3 layers of history which stretched beyond the audience’s narrative experiences. Surrounding her death and in the week that followed, characters processed their grief by speaking warmly of their own past with Pat and particularly of her relationship with Frank. These were stories audiences could recall from their own memories, narrative history that we’ve experienced together as a viewing community. But into this was woven another narrative, of the distant past, built from fragments of anecdotes and passed-down tales, a story of Frank and Pat’s first meeting as teenagers in 1950s Essex seaside town Clacton, unfurled in tearful fondness by family members.
Mo Harris – an similarly brassy pensioner and dodgy-dealing antagonist of Pat, based on long held grudges since teenage years and beyond – tearfully returned the sash she’d stolen from Pat after the latter won a beauty contest on the trip. But central to these memories was the holiday romance between Frank and Pat; the night they’d spent together, falling fast in love before Frank parted to return to his pregnant girlfriend, later to be wife and mother of Ricky and Janine. 3 layers – today / narrative past / character memory, 2000s / 1980s & 1990s / 1950s – all playing out at once. Pat’s narrative past was complex and unweildly (which allowed her death and the emotion surrounding it to be so fraught, precipitating screaming fights in rain drenched streets, pleaded entreaties in cramped hallways). The Pat in bed was a whispering ghost of herself, the surrounding narrative of her death filled with sorrow, but this youthful Pat built from a patchwork of memories and stories was dazzling and full of life. Here Frank and Pat – who in viewers memories had a passionate and turbulent relationship, troubled by adultery and mental illness – are crystalised and cemented as star-cross teenagers, a great love that was destined to be. Pat’s family and the viewers were heartened with the knowledge the characters were finally together wherever EastEnders characters go when they die.
This Easter saw the similarly beloved Dot Cotton questioning her faith after a friend’s death in a series of beautifully written scenes by Daran Little. Dot is frail and birdlike, she’s getting on. I’m a bit worried about her dying. But I know when she does, it will offer another chance to weave the history of her life in the East End with my own televisual history, just like Pat’s.