Murder, domestic violence, infidelity. And shouting. Lots of shouting. They don't sound like the ingredients for a much-loved soap opera which regularly attracts over 10 million viewers in Britain, do they? But, as many British people will tell you, EastEnders somehow manages to turn these grim elements into gripping television, four times a week. Tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of its first episode. In the UK, the occasion will be marked with the broadcast of its first ever live episode. But this is a celebration, EastEnders-style. There will be no cake or happy-go-lucky parties at the soap's famous Queen Victoria pub. Just the tiny matter of finding out the identity of yet another murderer in Albert Square.
All of which is really rather apt. EastEnders has never aspired to provide the kind of glamorous escapism that is familiar from soaps around the world. But its gritty appeal is not just limited to the UK. It's shown around the world and even has its own channel on YouTube. The very first episode began with three men kicking down the door of a bedsit in Walford, a fictional borough in the East End of London. Slumped in his armchair, Reg Cox had been bludgeoned to within an inch of his life, and would soon die from his injuries. No wonder, as a 10-year-old, I was banned from watching it. No wonder Mary Whitehouse, that famous guardian of traditional values in the 1980s, denounced it as a "violation of family viewing time". But what did that make me do? Sneak upstairs and devise plans to watch it all the more. As the gossip on the Square surrounding Cox's murder increased, I was dragged deeper into EastEnders' murky, messy world.
In a way, then, I grew up with the show. Was it because its mean streets, with its punky single mothers, licentious landlords and wheeler dealers, were a strange kind of escapism? Perhaps. But the real reason I and millions of people watched it was because it was great drama, populated by larger-than-life, believable characters you cared about, in some cases empathised with, and sometimes absolutely despised.
And who better to despise (and naturally, be magnetically drawn to) than one of the three men who found Cox on that fateful first day. Den Watts. Or, as he would soon be dubbed by the tabloid press, "Dirty Den", the original landlord of the Queen Vic, best known for his love-hate relationship with his first wife, Angie. He was one of the soap's original 23 characters and central to many storylines. He was so spectacularly appalling to everyone near him, there may as well have been pantomime boos when he walked into a scene.
An incredible 30.15 million people tuned in on Christmas Day 1986 to see Dirty Den finally serve divorce papers on Angie - that, staggeringly, is over half of the population of the UK. And so crucial was he to the folklore that built up around EastEnders that he was reintroduced to the soap a full 14 years after he was shot and "killed" in 1989. Naturally, he was murdered once again in 2005. EastEnders specialises in deaths, you see. This small square has seen 78 of them in 25 years. And if you weren't murdered, for a while it seemed you were sent to the provincial outpost of Norwich. As I had grown up there myself, that seemed like a fate worse than death.
So far, so murderous. But the glue holding these nefarious characters together has always been the strong female figures. "Nasty" Nick Cotton might have been despicably cruel to his own mother, the tragicomic Dot. He even planned to poison her. But the chain-smoking mainstay of the launderette, who is still in the show at 82 years old, never stopped loving him. It's one of the most dysfunctional relationships in all of Soapland.
Pauline Fowler, meanwhile, had one HIV-positive son, another who hated her and a daughter who was a teenage mum. It made her thoroughly miserable, true, but she endured, heroically, all that life threw at her. And most memorably, the actress Barbara Windsor resurrected her career by playing Peggy Mitchell, the landlady of The Queen Vic from 1995. Married twice, having beaten cancer, her biggest challenge was to put up with everything her sons Grant and Phil threw at her. "Get outta my pub!" would become her catchphrase- and you wouldn't mess with Peggy in that mood.
This is just a snapshot of some of EastEnders' most memorable characters. A look back through 25 years also reveals that while there have been cliffhanging scenes of high drama, EastEnders was the first to confront the issues that other soaps wouldn't, initially, dare to approach. There have been awareness-raising storylines on homosexuality, Aids, unemployment and mental-health issues. Thankfully, the show's makers have also attempted to make Walford more reflective of the ethnically diverse East End of the real world as time has gone by. It hasn't always worked: the infamous Ferreira family (supposedly from Goa) seemed parachuted in, had terrible storylines, and were denounced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission as being stereotypical. But last year saw the first episode featuring solely black actors, and the recently introduced Masood family, of Pakistani origin, have also become hugely popular.
And that's been a feature of EastEnders over the years. The cliffhangers are a part of the fabric of the show - so much so that, when combined with the iconic closing music they even have their own name: the "doofs". But there have also been moments that have truly redefined what a soap opera can do. They began with the famous Den and Angie episode in 1986, which featured no one other than the warring couple, talking head-to-head. It continued a year later with Dot and her friend Ethel reminiscing about their lives as friends during the Second World War. The latter episode was tear-jerking, stirring stuff. Since then, almost every time there has been a crisis point in EastEnders, all the superfluous stuff about life on the Square is stripped out, and 30 minutes is dedicated to, for example, Grant and Phil Mitchell patching up their relationship after one brother had had an affair with the other's wife.
But the real proof that EastEnders is genuinely unique came with Dot Cotton's monologue episode of January 31, 2008. For one night, the only action was this weathered but wise washerwoman recording a tape of her memories for her sick husband. Even the theme music was stripped away in favour of Dot's favourite song, Pretty Baby. This was heartbreaking, classic drama, and rightly it won the actress June Brown a nomination in the Best Actress category at the Baftas. It was the first time a soap star had enjoyed such an honour in more than 20 years.
It was virtuoso stuff and even if one doesn't watch every single edition, these appointment-to-view episodes are the reason why EastEnders is still top of the tree. A quick look at the rest of the UK soap scene helps to explain why. Coronation Street - which coincidentally is 50 years old this year - is Northern English life played for laughs. Emmerdale is the country cousin where a plane crash can wipe out the entire village it's set in. Compared to those, EastEnders is not realistic exactly - after all, this is a soap opera - but it has that exceptional knack of immediately immersing its audience in the world of its Albert Square setting.
More surprisingly, there has only been one major blip in the show's popularity. A hazardous combination of some poor storylines and the rise and rise of Big Brother in 2004 and 2005 saw ratings plummet. Why bother with the made up - and increasingly unbelievable - shenanigans of a bunch of Londoners, when there was real life soap opera in the Big Brother house on the other channel? But, thanks to changes behind the scenes and a return to classic, long-running storylines EastEnders, it has been an upward curve since then. The figures for tomorrow's episode are likely to be immense.
Sure, EastEnders is a serious anachronism: it celebrates a Cockney life based around the pub, the market and, for a long while, the launderette. Any visitor to the East End of London today will see that these views are all seriously under threat - if not gone forever. There are no tower blocks overlooking Albert Square, no scenes in council estates. But perhaps that's why people like it. It celebrates a form of London life that is based around - as Peggy Mitchell would memorably say - "family", one that perhaps was last seen in post-war Britain. OK, so these families might cheat on each other and fight with each other, but in the end, we're completely enthralled by them. EastEnders is here for keeps.
EastEnders screens on BBC Entertainment in the UAE.