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Filming at Elstree and beyond: EastEnders and Grange Hill
Dr Andrew O’Day
This talk centres around the representation of London in EastEnders and Grange Hill filmed at BBC Elstree Studios as well in London itself – in addition to elsewhere in the United Kingdom and even abroad. In 1983, the BBC purchased Elstree for its new soap opera EastEnders. David Buckingham wrote a seminal book on the programme titled Public Secrets: EastEnders and Its Audience (1987). The set for EastEnders was constructed and, as Buckingham notes, it was felt that the programme should have a regional identity for the BBC even though the Corporation had a national role, and that as Independent TV companies had soap operas set in their own regions so should the BBC (1987: 12). It would have been possible to make the programme at Elstree and set it in say Manchester but this was opposed by co-creator Julia Smith since it would be cost prohibitive to move actors from Manchester to London (1987: 12). Moreover, as Buckingham explains, in January 1984, the BBC’s Broadcasting Research Department conducted an audience survey which amongst other things assessed the appeal of different settings with London appearing to have the most widespread appeal (1987: 13). So EastEnders’ Albert Square was based on a genuine Square in London.
What Buckingham does not discuss is the practical reason for constructing this set at Elstree. EastEnders is an example of television form’s continuing serial where it was at its outset broadcast twice-weekly on Tuesdays and Thursdays all the year round (this would be expanded to 3 episodes a week in 1994 and later 4 from 2001 - apart from during the pandemic - with additional episodes shown during the Christmas and New Year period). Closure was denied in the genre of the soap opera. It would not have been practical to film in a real London location (unlike say the detective series Morse filmed around Oxford) and, as with Coronation Street, somewhere would be needed to film uninterrupted. So this is what led to the construction of an outdoor square, with a central garden, and a car lot, and surrounding streets, while indoor sets at Elstree were used for many interiors. There are exceptions over the years such as filming canal scenes at the Grand Union Canal in Alperton, West London, filming outside churches, and filming inside prisons such as Dartmoor Prison in Devon as with the Dirty Den scenes that aired in 1988 and 1989.
Also, Buckingham does not discuss the fact that the opening title sequence for EastEnders features a map of London (with the Thames clearly visible and the Millennium Dome added much later), as do the end credits, and that London and indeed the East End are very large spaces. As with many, many television programmes the format’s focus is on a small setting and group of characters. One can think of the US prime-time soap opera Dallas, a huge city but where the focus is on the Ewing family and their feud with the Barnes’ as well as their wheeling and dealing in the oil community. As I’ve already noted, it was important for practical reasons that EastEnders had a smallish set and there was also a small group of characters. In the soap opera genre this would enable a focus on the community and character relationships with one another. Domestic spaces enabled family relationships to be explored, while public spaces, like the caff and the laundrette (both located on Bridge Street) and especially the pub, the Queen Vic, on the corner of the square, allowed for members of the community to come together with dirty laundry often being aired in the Vic. This community was from the start multi-cultural (with the Turk Ali Osman, the African Carpenters, the Pakistani Jefrreys, who ran the mini-supermarket on Bridge Street, and the East End Jew, Dr Legg whose surgery was located in the square). The series also featured the cockney and, as Buckingham notes, cockneys are not solely defined by dialect (as heard by Pete Beale on the Bridge Street market) but are character types, displaying cheerfulness in the face of adversity and being working-class (1987: 95-7). Early on, middle class characters like Debbie, Colin Russell, Den’s mistress Jan and Mr Wilmott-Brown with the Yuppie pub, the Dagmar (and later Arthur Fowler’s mistress Mrs Hewitt), contrasted with the more working-class figures (see Buckingham). In this community, social issues such as teenage pregnancy, rape, adoption, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, alcoholism, domestic abuse, and knife crime would be explored. The community would also enable female networks to be probed as discussed by Christine Geraghty in her book Women and Soap Opera (1991).
Also not mentioned by Buckingham who wrote in the early years of the series, the format of the programme furthermore meant that this main setting has not been removed over the past 37 years while characters leave and new characters are introduced to the set: these may be legacy characters related to some of the programmes original characters such as Ian Beale’s children (Pete Beale’s grandchildren), Sharon’s son Denny (Den and Angie’s grandson), for instance, who met a nasty end by drowning, or Martin and Sonia’s daughter Bex, for example, who is Pauline and Arthur Fowler’s granddaughter, or may be new families who move into Walford (like the Mitchell’s, the Taverniers, the Evans’, the Di Marco’s, the Slaters, the Trueman’s, the Moon’s, the Miller’s, the Branning’s, the Carter’s, and Taylor’s).
Not discussed by Buckingham, the parameters of the programme have been established by characters often, but not always, arriving and – when they are not killed off – leaving Walford in an infamous black cab. Characters like Billy and Jamie Mitchell in 1998 and Shirley Carter in 2006 were introduced away from the square but already had family connections in Walford. Other modes of transport, besides the black cab, are used to bring characters into and away from Walford such as, in the case of Mark Fowler in 2003, a motorbike, mirroring Todd Carty’s first scene as Mark in 1990, or via the Walford East Underground station, which was seldom seen until 1994. Furthermore, in 1999 Bianca Butcher leaves London Euston on a train for Manchester, much later in 2014 Janine Butcher is seen picking a man up at a rail station saying that she is celebrating getting away with murder; and various characters have been seen leaving from an airport (for instance, Grant Mitchell in 1999) or actually on an aeroplane (for example, Kathy Beale when she went to South Africa earlier in 1998 before returning and leaving again in 2000; and Stacey Slater in 2010). In 2018, Ben Mitchell indeed left on a ferry for France and was seen arriving through customs on the French side with he thought a case filled with loot from a robbery. Many of these characters have since returned to Walford, the series’ focus.
The setting is larger than Albert Square and Bridge Street and has also been expanded over the years but the focus is still on a small community. Many streets have been mentioned. But some other key streets have been seen. George Street, which was rarely portrayed at first, houses a restaurant which has changed identity over the years. Turpin Road was once location to Strokes Wine Bar and the Dagmar and then to various nightclubs and salons which have changed hands many times, as well as to the chip shop. On Turpin Way there is a playground and community centre in front of the Mitchell arches. Walford Police Station is located on Victoria Square and Walford General Hospital is situated on Elwell Road. Filming in these various settings gives the impression of one unfragmented area. It is moreover important to note that an updated set including Albert Square was constructed, costing £87 million (Singh, 2022), which premiered in the ‘Gray’s comeuppance’ week in March 2022 with high-angle shots showing off the locale. This highlights the BBC’s investment in the series.
However, although the characters come from this small community, the soap does follow them away from Walford, again a point not made by Buckingham. Spaces of Central London are represented such as when in 1990 Diane Butcher runs away from home and joins the down-and-outs, an idea which was repeated in the case of Zoe Slater in 2002; a tender moment occurs in 2001 when Jim Branning proposes to Dot Cotton on the London Eye; in 2016, Peggy and Phil are seen on board a boat on the Thames shortly before her demise; and more recently for the programme’s 35th anniversary week in 2020 there was a party on a river boat on the Thames which ended in disaster with the boat sinking (with underwater scenes filmed at the Elstree studios and in an underwater tank). Not only is wider London represented but also are spaces further afield: to give just a few examples, recently in 2022 the Jean Slater mental breakdown storyline took the programme to Southend which has been used as a location on numerous occasions (as far back as Mark Fowler being discovered there in 1986) as have places like Dorset where Shirley Carter was introduced in 2006; and the programme has gone abroad such as in 1986 when Den and Angie go to Venice and travel on board the Orient Express on their second honeymoon; in 1993, Michelle Fowler, Mark Fowler, and Shelley Lewis travel to Amsterdam, a location which would be used again in 1999 for Barry Evans’ stag do; earlier in 1997 the Fowlers journey to Ireland, in scenes shot in Dublin, to meet long lost relatives; in 2002 Pat Evans and Peggy Mitchell journey to Spain as they believe mistakenly that Frank Butcher is deceased; earlier in 1997 Ian Beale and the Mitchell brothers travel to Italy to take Ian’s children away from Cindy and back to Walford; and, mirroring this, in 2003 Phil Mitchell pursues Lisa Fowler to Portugal to take his baby daughter Louise back to Walford, showing how overseas filming leads back to the square.
Moving on and the idea for Grange Hill was sold by creator Phil Redmond to the Children’s Drama Executive Anna Home in 1976 and began on BBC1 on the 8th of February 1978, lasting until 2008 (Marcus, 2018). Set in a comprehensive school in the North London borough of Northam (unnamed), it was not until 1985 that filming took place at Elstree, the programme having previously been filmed at real London schools: Kinsbury High School in North West London (Series 1 and 2), Willesden High School (now Capital City Academy) in Willesden Green (Series 3) and Holborn College (now Fulham Preparatory School) on Greyhound Road, Hammersmith with much interior filming taking place at BBC Television Centre (Kavanagh, 2019) except for slight indoor filming taking place at the Greyhound Road site. In 1985 (Series 8), in the narrative the Grange Hill school merged with Rodney Bennett and Brookdale and a 1960s office block at Elstree was the Lower School (Kavanagh, 2019) with Holborn College being the Upper School. In Series 9 the Upper School building was unusable following a fire and the discovery of asbestos, and production, including studio work, moved fully to Elstree. In 1990 a new school entrance was unveiled and used with modifications until 2002 and real schools were employed again (St Audrey’s School in Hatfield, Nicholas Hawksmoor School, and Bushley Meads School) (Thistelwaite, 2021). Unlike EastEnders, then, a complete set was not at first built at Elstree, though in 1990 a set was built at the back of the building. But the main building Neptune House was appropriate (Kavanagh, 2019) with its glass entrance stairways and views of the outside from windows, and the building was used for other programmes such as the reception in Holby City.
While the primary setting in Grange Hill’s early years was the school, there were school trips (for example, on a ferry as far as France, to St Albans, to the Isle of Wight and to the Greater London Chessington Zoo) but most importantly to this paper the surrounding London area of realistic run-down council estates, council houses, shopping precincts, newsagents and so on featured as did double decker red buses to take characters to school. Creator Phil Redmond strived for Realism in programmes like Brookside, Hollyoaks and Grange Hill and he says ‘I found…that people will accept and actually want programmes that tell the truth and show society as it really is’ (quoted in Geraghty 1983: 137). One of the storylines in Series 9 of Grange Hill was Zammo’s descent into using heroin. One scene features Zammo in a cold tunnel used by ‘junkies’ waiting for his latest fix of drugs and the setting is itself realistic of that used by London drug users. Moreover, in Series 9, Robbie takes Ziggy from Liverpool on a tour of London which involves them using the London Underground and boarding a boat on the Embankment. In 2002 (from Series 26), however, Phil Redmond’s production company Mersey TV took over production of the programme which moved to Childwall, Liverpool (unnamed, 2003) where Ziggy would indeed have felt more at home.
Buckingham, David. Public Secrets: EastEnders and Its Audience, London: BFI, 1987.
Geraghty, Christine. Women and Soap Opera: A Study of Prime Time Soaps, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1991.
Geraghty, Christine. ‘Brookside – No Common Ground’. Screen 24(4-5) (1983) 137-143.
Kavanagh, Joanne. ‘Back to school. Grange Hill where and when was it filmed, what was the theme tune and who was the cast and where are they now?, The Sun, 3 April 2019, www.thescottishsun.co.uk/tvandshowbiz/3242052/grange-hill-where-and-when-was-it-filmed-what-was-the-theme-tune-and-who-was-in-the-cast-and-where-are-they-now/ , accessed 22 April 2022.
Marcus, Laurence. ‘Grange Hill’, 2018, www.televisionheaven.co.uk , accessed 22 April 2022.
Singh, Anita. ‘EastEnders set rebuild cost hits £87m as bricks are shipped in from India’, The Telegraph, 1 March 2022, www.telegraph.co.uk, accessed 22 April 2022.
Thistlewaite, Ben. ‘The Grange Hill Discussion Thread (1978-2008), Digital Spy 2021, https://forums.digitalspy.com/discussion/2419425 , accessed 27 April 2022.
Unnamed. ‘Grange Hill’, TV Tropes, https://www.tvtropes.org , accessed 22 April 2022.
Unnamed. ‘Grange Hill makes Mersey debut’, BBC News, 28 January 2003, www.newsimg.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/2701443.stm?msclkid=18ad673ac30511ec9c3f43d772bfe3b5 , accessed 22 April 2022.
Andrew O’Day, PhD, is an independent scholar. He is co-author (with Professor Jonathan Bignell) of the book Terry Nation (2004) and editor of Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour (2014), Doctor Who: Twelfth Night (2019) and co-editor (with Dr Brigid Cherry and Professor Matt Hills) of Doctor Who: New Dawn (2021). Andrew has published widely on television including the article ‘I Know You Killed Lucy: Soap and Prediction for EastEnders 30th Anniversary’ for the Television Heaven website. He can be found on the Web at www.hrvt.org/andrewoday
Text © Andrew O'Day and used with his kind permission. This page was compiled by Tim Harris.
This page was first published to the internet 18 August 2022.