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'EastEnders' murder mystery grabs Britain's attention

British TV soap 'EastEnders' celebrates 30 years

For the last week, the unsolved slaying of a young woman has gripped Britain.

Families have been pinned to their television sets each night. Bookmakers have been taking bets on the killer. Newspapers have dedicated countless column inches to the story of the untimely demise of a 21-year-old named Lucy Beale.

Britain's latest national obsession is not a real murder mystery, but a whodunit played out on one of the nation's most popular soap operas, "EastEnders," which came to a dramatic, live-action climax this week to mark the show's 30th anniversary.

"EastEnders" is as British as soccer, cups of tea and the Union Jack, and even for those who are not avid watchers, but only casual observers, it has been impossible to avoid the high drama of it all.

From moody BBC trailers plugging the week's latest suspenseful turns to the rampant social media buzz, there has been only one question lately that Britons really want the answer to: "Who killed Lucy?"

Nearly 11 million people, more than 1 in 6 in Britain, tuned in to watch the two Thursday night episodes that culminated in the big reveal of the killer's identity: Lucy's little half-brother, Bobby.

More than a million tweets were sent during the two shows, making them the most tweeted-about episodes of a British soap ever, according to social media analytics company Kantar Social TV UK. The power utility, National Grid, reported a surge in electricity consumption.

The long-running soap is set around a fictitious square in the East End of London with bustling market stalls, a fish and chip shop, and cafe, complete with a beloved boozer.

If Albert Square were real, it would be one of the most dangerous places in the world. It has been the setting for killings, arson attacks, drug deals, domestic violence and pedophilia. Its residents have been involved in abortions, prostitution, gangs and more divorces and extra-marital affairs than can be counted.

It portrays the gritty lives of working-class Londoners who often struggle financially and reel from one calamity to the next.

"It's so part of the cultural fabric and national identity, it's a common ground between us all," said Emma Bullimore, critic for TV Times magazine. "You're forced from an early age to watch it, in a way," she said. "You see them grow up as you grow up. They're kind of part of your life."

Characters like Dot Cotton and Ian Beale, Ricky and Bianca, are part of the national tapestry. Viewers have seen them mature, get wrinkles and sometimes meet unpleasant deaths, played out over as many as four nights a week.

"However bad your life is, it's not as bad as 'EastEnders,'" Bullimore said. "I think maybe it's part of being British. I don't think we like to be too showy or fancy. If we're having a rough time we don't like to see people being much better.… Somehow, it kind of works for us."

Show producer Alexander Lamb points out that the show's pervasive doom often gives way to "dark gallows humor."

"It's that cockney London humor — a sense that goes all the way back," he told Britain's Telegraph newspaper recently, referring to the German air assaults during World War II. "People have just been bombed out in the blitz, but they put on a smile, they get down to the pub. It's the heritage of the East End."

To mark three decades of the show, the week's episodes have been interspersed with live scenes, culminating in one fully live episode Friday.

Viewing the show in real time in an era of "on demand" TV added another layer of drama. Audiences waited for actors to slip up.

A few did, with one actress mistakenly referring to a character by his real name, but it was a mostly flawless performance.

"EastEnders" is not Britain's longest-running soap; that honor goes to "Coronation Street," which celebrated 50 years in 2010. As for "EastEnders," no one is expecting that the revelation of a killer will mean the demise of a British institution.

There are always more tribulations on the storyboard.

Boyle is a special correspondent.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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