Things I don’t say often: ‘Keep the change’; ‘Surprise me’; and ‘Blimey, Eastenders has got its shit together.’
Actually, the first two I’ve never said, but the latter I suddenly find myself remarking with some regularity, and with specific regard to the (relatively recent) introduction, grounding and blooming of a marvellous pair of soapy villains. I speak, my dears, of Derek Branning and Michael Moon.
For the unfamiliar… meh. By which I mean, look, I can spend half my self-allotted time and space explaining what Eastenders is, or that, yes, it’s still on, and that, yes, I know, you only ever watch Planet Earth Live and Jools Holland, or I can assume you’re unbelievably hot and you understand that all subjects have their subjects and we all move on. ‘Meh’, therefore, but in a lovely caring way.
Soap opera villains – the career baddies who arrive as career baddies and are little else besides – are a pantomimic delight. And pantomime-like they’re part of a rich storytelling tradition that includes Shakespeare and Dickens and folk and fairy tales before and amongst. Arguably Dickens provided our richest clichés and some of the most (to our times) racially jack-hammered too, and served up also the template as we know it, complete with its strangely camp lexicon by which a criminal underworld communicates most effectively with their target market.Mock-indignation. Feigned surprise. Hurt feelings and wounded sensibilities. Rote quotations from Oscar Wilde, the Bible, The Kinks and from (‘rest her soul’) ‘My Old Nan’. “Oh, my dear, you misunderstand me. Oh, no, no, no, your accusations fair cut me to the quick, they do.” In Derek Branning the writers have created a beautiful specimen – specimen in its biological, zoological meaning, of that which represents, illuminates, the rest of all its kind. A deliciously crafted composite: chuckling, seething and artful; awash with private disasters and just a teeny bit self-aware.
Self-awareness, though, is where the magic of Michael Moon plays out. I genuinely love (and remember the context is soap operas) this character and the actor he’s brought along with him. From the coding of his top-buttoned shirts (a sartorial signal brilliantly shared with the other-how bonkers-ness of Tamwar Masood – and someone is so having fun with his lines), to his twitching cheekbones and perma-clenched teeth and those financially pragmatic but too-telling bonds with Jean – oh, the tension when they mention her Sausage Surprise – Michael Moon breaks the soap mold.Villain? Absolutely. Camply self-assured? Not likely, dear. The character is too darkly, comically and uncertainly complex. Somewhere I’ll bet there’s the episode already written, in which Michael Moon converses only with himself. Like the occasional experimentals they used to run on a slow Thursday – just Dot and Pauline in a Beckettian romp. Because we know that Michael Moon talks to himself, and we know that what ‘they’ are discussing, twitchily, is how ‘none of this will do’. And it will make for a fascinating half hour.
It’s as if the character himself has – somehow – found himself within a soap opera. That’s a rare and brave character goal, if goal it ever was, for any TV writers. I don’t even think Corrie has that equivalent act right now. Eastenders, see – has its shit together.
The only thing extra I would ask of Michael Moon (I know, I disappointingly mean of the writers who write him) is that he allows himself to turn to camera. Not all the time. Just now and again. Just so we know that he knows.
And what I’d have him do is this. When Derek Branning has just concluded one of his ‘oh dear, oh dear’ button-holing scenes with some patsy in the Square, I’d like Michael Moon to step into shot, look at the camera, indicate with his thumb over to where Derek is, and say – to us:
“He’s very good, isn’t he?”
And then his cheek would twitch a bit, and he’d walk away. To spend some time alone.
© Copyright, Steve Mitchell and Fisher Lane, 2012.