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A new low! Shrieks the headlines. Apparently there’s been a baby-swapping storyline on Easties. Except, to add an extra layer of perversion, one of the Christmas babies is, um, dead.

A silly plotline, but then EastEnders has had a few of those over the years. Granted, soap operas shouldn’t feel the need to uphold public morals and provide good, clean fun all the time (there’s always The Archers for that), but there always been tales to make you tremble in Albert Square.

I used to be a soap widower – someone who endured the crap relay from Hollyoaks at 6.30 right through to Easties at 8.30 on weeknights (not including weekend omnibuses), in the forlorn hope that I’d be allowed to watch a bit of football later. Luckily, I’ve long ditched that dark half, but the memory of some of those plotlines clings to me. They’re a bad experience in their own right.

Just off the top of my head, there was Trevor, the Mad Scot, tenderising Little Mo at new year with his bare hands after lightly seasoning her with gravy. The ladies in my house – preparing to go for a night out – cheered when Little Mo fought back by putting a couple of creases in Trevor’s baby-faced coupon with an iron.

What is this? I remember thinking. Some kind of sick panto? Am I meant to cheer on Trevor – is he the underdog now, like when Captain Hook’s being chased by the Crocodile? Come on wee man, get up! Hit her back!

Ah, Trevor. A godsend – especially if you’ve got an accent like mine. “Awright Mo?” I used to say. “Just you and me, eh?”

And then there was Dirty Den’s more recent fall from grace. No, I don’t mean Leslie Grantham’s online wanking thing which saw him get his jotters (isn’t it ironic that both Dirty Den’s high-profile exits were accompanied by gaudy splashes just off-screen?).

No, I mean the plot the character hatched with his estranged son’s ex-girlfriend to try and get his son back onside. It boiled down to something like this: “Okay, here’s what to do. I’ll get you pregnant; you tell Dennis Jnr, and then you abort it, but you pretend to have a miscarriage…. he’ll come running!” The young lady in question agreed to all this, too.

I’ve written some sick stuff in my life, but if I came up with something like that I would seriously doubt my mental health.

Sometimes these narratives have the tinge of Grand Guignol theatre to them. They’re horror stories, really, urban nightmares served up to millions of people as family entertainment.

We shouldn’t be surprised at anything EastEnders shows any more. It’s got the form. At least when Corrie chooses to depict tram crashes and Rita-bludgeoning serial killers, it seems more authentic because you actually give a damn about the characters. They’re not afraid to have warmth and kindness as well as the sass; hell, they even crack a few unforced jokes.

EastEnders’ residents are feral, fox-eyed demons by comparison, sly and craven enough to, say, swap their dead kiddie for a living one next door.  Corrie’s always had heart to it; I can happily sit through an episode. Not so for EastEnders.

Serious question: have you ever fancied anyone on EastEnders?

Seriously?

In the post-modern world, it’s become impossible to say with any authority that something is crap. For every reason you could give, there’s some sort of irony (perhaps wielded by Little Mo) that can be used to bat it aside. Everything can be turned into a gag or a throwaway line, especially if the tricky issue of morality appears. EastEnders isn’t really a family entertainment show. Actually, it’s an urban horror story.

In the same news bulletin tonight that informed us that a few thousand people have complained about EastEnders’ big wow storyline, we also heard some updates on the Michael Jackson death case in the United States. I couldn’t help but think that our modern icons and idols’ stories inevitably turn into horror shows, too – the more gothic the better.

Think of poor old Elvis straining his last on the throne in Graceland; Marilyn Monroe, one of the world’s most adored women, dying alone in the dark. And Michael Jackson, breathing his last in his freakshow mansion, surrounded by toys and empty amusement arcades. Is there anything creepier than an empty playground? (Don’t answer that, Jacko fans.) And to think Michael Jackson once wanted to star in a movie as Edgar Allen Poe! Mate, you were living the dream.

So it goes with modern true-life narratives, especially when it comes to celebrity. Plastic surgery freakshows, leaked sex tapes, yo-yo dieters, trips to rehab for being an arsehole, Big Brother and faked love affairs. Our stars: Katie Price, Kerry Katona, the dearly departed Jade Goody and poor old Britney. Contains nightmarish, X-rated scenes too upsetting for children. It’s small wonder Frankie Boyle gleefully swipes at these people; he can hardly miss those targets.

And then we’ve got the True Stories that stare out at us from magazines, the sort of stuff that wouldn’t even pass for a B-movie catering entirely for sickos. “I was raped by Santa – and I’m keeping the baby.” “My mother stabbed me, but I forgive her from the afterlife.” I made those up, but they’re probably not half as bad as some of the headlines you might see down at the newsagent’s today.

Are people really this preoccupied with such dayglo trash? Does it provide escapism from some people’s own horrid situation, or do they just like to have a sneer at anyone with a worse set of circumstances than theirs?

Or is it all – that horrid phrase – so bad it’s good? Is it all, like, a good laugh? Perhaps EastEnders’ new plotline is a simple extension of our own preoccupation with domestic horrorshows.

Maybe I’ll check into Albert Square to see how things are going, next time round. I do love a good horror story.

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