Its slanging matches and dodgy market goods make Eastenders one of Britain’s best-loved TV programmes. But what is the original East End market that inspired the soap really like? Ben Hewitt and Michael Haddon went to find out
The sun beats down on a thriving East End market full of packed stalls and colourful characters. An iconic picture of a famous female monarch hangs over the pub door, and the familiar square looks picturesque in the spring sunshine. You might be expecting Dot Branning to hobble down the road puffing on a cigarette, or Peggy Mitchell to eject a rowdy punter on to the street. But this isn’t the BBC set for the fictional television soap. These are the real EastEnders and they are from Hackney.
Strewn around the streets of Dalston are the real-life inspirations drawn on by show creator Tony Holland, who once lived in the area. The EastEnders market, at the heart of the much-loved soap opera, is based upon its vibrant counterpart in Ridley Road. The Queen Vic pub, where all the characters constantly prop up the bar, is modelled upon the Queen Elizabeth pub, and the residential area of Albert Square is eerily similar to Fassett Square.
But how much similarity is there between fiction and fact? And what do the real life EastEnders think of their on-screen doppelgangers? Larry Julian, chair of Ridley Road’s Market Association, dismisses the idea that the show offers an accurate depiction of real East End life.
“They created the market after talking to traders from Ridley Road, so we’re part of EastEnders,” says Julian.
“Unfortunately, EastEnders ain’t nothing like Ridley now. We’ve been brought up by people that have actually worked on stalls and have learned from the old school.
Even though the show’s working title was E8, the postcode for Ridley Road and its surrounding area, the current market traders laugh off the idea that their lives are similar to the on-screen characters. They don’t have the luxury of going to Ian’s cafe for hours at a time during the day, or drinking at the Queen Vic late into the night: they have to work long, demanding hours instead.
Perry Newman, who runs a fruit and vegetable stall in the market, says: “On the show, the people running the fruit stall always seem to be giving someone else their money bag and putting them in charge while they go to the cafe. If you did that here you wouldn’t have a penny left in the till.”
Elaine Serian, who has been working on the market for four years, adds: “It’s much harder in real life. There’s no way we could stay in the pub all night like some of the characters do. We have to start work at 5.30am.”
If life on the EastEnders market is much more relaxing on screen than in real-life, the disparity between Albert Square and Fassett Square is even wider.
Despite being the backdrop for many of the show’s most dramatic moments, including the deaths of Tiffany Mitchell, Dennis Rickman and Pauline Fowler, it’s much more sedate in real life according to long-time resident Nobby Clark.
“It’s not so gloomy here as it is on the show”, says Clark, who has lived on the Square for more than 30 years. “It’s a lot more peaceful and quiet. You can’t even get into the main garden part of the square unless you’re a resident and have a key.
“At one time all the different people from the show used to come round, and the actors used to pose for photos, but no-one even talks about it now.”
However, even if the real-life EastEnders are unimpressed with their television connections and scornful of their on-screen counterparts, there will always be some people seduced by the glamour and glitz of TV’s most successful soap.
Samantha Allen has just moved to Walford Road, the inspiration for the show’s fictional borough. “I’ve only lived here for a week, and my family keep laughing about the Eastenders connection,” she says. “I didn’t realise this road was the inspiration for the show, that’s amazing. It’s going to make my life that little bit better.”
Like Stacey Slater, Elaine Serian is the market’s most glamorous female trader, but she isn’t happy with the comparison.
“She gives female traders a bad name,” Elaine says.
“We don’t drink as much as her, and definitely don’t see as many men!”
Perry Newman is as much a fixture on the real market as Mark Fowler used to be in the fictional one, but Perry thinks Mark’s two-wheeled transportation is a rotten way of getting around.
“You couldn’t get a motorbike if you were on a market, because you wouldn’t be able to get stock on it in the morning – never mind come back with it all.”
Mark Watkins bristles at being likened to Ian Beale, who runs the Square’s fish and chip shop.
“We both sell fish, but that’s the only fishy thing about my business.
I don’t do dodgy deals like he always does.”