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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
El Hunt

Anatomy of an EastEnders Christmas Special: from murder mysteries to high camp, here's the winning formula

Fretting about festive family fall-outs already? Whether it’s bickering over the correct gravy consistency, squabbling over board games, or having full-on meltdowns that you fear, there’s one sure-fire way to make yourself feel better about it all ‒ sticking on the EastEnders Christmas special.

Is there any other fictional place out there, after all, that has weathered more festive misfortune than Albert Square? Remember when Pat Butcher went out on the razz, mowed some poor woman down while drunk-driving, and served a couple of months in prison for manslaughter? Or when Pauline Fowler slowly sank to the floor and expired underneath the square’s communal Christmas tree after an especially ferocious row with Sonia?

Not to mention the entire Branning family watching in stunned silence as they viewed a cheating Max and Stacey’s sordid sex DVD, filmed on her wedding day to Max’s pure and perfect son Bradley no less! 

Last Christmas, EastEnders came out on top as the most-watched of all the festive soaps. It appears that multiple murders, self-stabbings, arsons, imprisonments, surprise babies, and dramatic gatecrashers still retain their seasonal draw. In my house, frantically trying to catch up with 12-months worth of drama in time to watch the Christmas special is an intrinsic part of the day’s tradition; though I stopped keeping up with weekly events on the show, long, long ago, there will always be a place in my heart for Sharon Watts, Phil Mitchell, Kat Slater, and the rest of the ‘Enders gang. 

“EastEnders has become known for its dramatic Christmas Day storylines, all the way back to when Den gave Angie those dreaded divorce papers in 1985,” says Chris Clenshaw, the show’s executive producer. As important as those jaw-dropping reveals are: “for me, what’s important is that the episode needs to be centred around family, as that’s what EastEnders does best,” he says. “It needs to have that high element of drama that viewers have come to expect, which is why big reveals – be it an affair or a murder – are always key components as the audience love to watch the drama unfold.” 

“I think it has to feel comforting, like a good Christmas dinner,” agrees Kellie Bright, who plays Linda Carter on the show. “There has to be an element of comfort and familiarity about it; as in, it has to mirror what everybody is doing on Christmas Day.”

Personally, I don’t usually spend the day trying to hunt down match-happy arsonists, dramatically resurrecting from the dead, or helping my best friend give birth in the middle of my hometown’s shoddily-built nativity scene, but Bright has a point. Before the extreme doom strikes, at least, there is still a sort of jolly cosiness to the advent on Albert Square: though there’s certainly a great deal of peril, there’s heaps of humour.

Remember when a tanked up Pat Butcher, complete with a skew-wiff Santa hat, tried to snog Dirty Den? Or when Ethel, Lou and Dot all got together to reminisce warmly about the good old days of “a nut and a tangerine” (not a euphemism). And who on earth, in their right mind, hides DNA results in a cracker? An extremely camp arch-villain, that’s who!

Like all of the best traditions, EastEnders endures because you sort of always know what to expect, and familiarity is weirdly festive: it’s the same reason that we keep on gobbling down turkey every year, and leaving out carrots for Santa. Even through all of the script’s twists, turns, red herrings and whodunnits, you can count on a handful of crucial key ingredients being there: a lingering sense of doom, camp, over the top theatricality, last-minute curveballs, and fans at home feeling slightly smug about how their own Christmases are going by comparison.

“Obviously, EastEnders is famous for having just absolutely horrendous Christmases,” says comedian and actor Sooz Kempner. “It doesn't matter how mundane your Christmas Day has been… tune in, and you will see absolute carnage. You want massive conflict, and something that can accompany the turkey sandwiches and the cheese board. That's what I'm there for.”

Kempner, who claims she hasn’t missed an episode of EastEnders in 29 years, plays a particularly important role in the run-up to the Christmas special. Even when she heads out on tour next year, she'll catch up first thing every morning on iPlayer. As well as being known for her stand-up, she's also become notorious as a bit of a Walford scholar; since 2019, she’s painstakingly put together a helpful thread on X (formerly known as Twitter) complete with screenshots, to bring more casual viewers up to date with proceedings in time for the hour-long episode.

The first ever thread, put together as a bit of a laugh, went unexpectedly “berserk” and she’s kept up the selfless act of public service ever since.

“This year will be my fifth. It’s a little bit like I’m imagining Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, the planning that goes into it,” she says. Proof-reading and fact-checking is particularly important. “One year I put Ben's name instead of Martin's by accident, and people were furious!”

As well as the bests-known ingredients, Kempner is always on the look-out for signs of the production team allocating large chunks of budget to the special. “It’s very exciting, because always, every year in Albert Square, there will be at least one crane shot," she says. “You’re guaranteed to see.. not even the best acting of the year, but the quantity of acting will be enormous. That’s worth seeing.”

For Bright, shooting festive specials is often a standout moment of the year. “It’s always been special,” she says. “I’ve been here ten years now, so this is my tenth Christmas Day. I always have a moment when I walk into the Square and it’s got all of the Christmas decorations up, and when we step onto the set knowing you’re filming the big Christmas stuff, there is always that nervousness.”

“I’ve had the privilege of directing four EastEnders Christmas specials during my time,” says John Greening, who has worked on the soap since 1996. One of the show’s most prolific directors, Greening’s festive episodes include the one with a loved-up Kat and Alfie departing a snow-covered square and pootling off into the sunset together in 2005, Stacey Slater fleeing Walford after confessing to murder, and a decidedly less loved-up Alfie returning from the dead (along with his secret child) to surprise Kat in 2018.

“But my standout would have to be Archie Mitchell’s last Christmas,” Greening says, “as it kickstarted the iconic ‘Who Killed Archie Mitchell’ storyline and allowed us to start playing jeopardy on screen with the characters who could have been responsible for his death.” 

The infamous Albert Square whodunnit began on Christmas Eve 2009, with master manipulator Archie Mitchell’s festivities taking an unexpected grisly turn. After a day of unfortunate run-ins with a number of antagonists (a lot of people hated his guts) Larry Lamb’s character is finally left alone in the Queen Vic with only a snowglobe for company… or so we think! Lurking behind the bar, however, is one last enemy who really has it in for him: they silently shove the pub’s iconic Queen Victoria bust right onto Archie’s head in glorious slo-mo, and he’s fatally crushed. Happy Christmas, everyone!

The murderer’s identity remained a closely guarded secret until it was dramatically revealed in the soap’s first ever live episode, two and a half months later; only seven members of the entire EastEnders team knew that Stacey Slater was responsible, and the cast rehearsed multiple endings.

“At the time, I had no idea on the identity of the killer as it was a heavily guarded secret,” Greening says, “much like this year’s storyline.”

For Greening, his approach differs each time, but one key ingredient is high drama. “As a director you’re always looking to find a balance of light and shade, but there’s no drama without conflict, and I think the audience have grown to expect lots of drama in Albert Square at Christmas time.”

Dirty Den heartlessly serving Angie with divorce papers on Christmas day may well be the soap’s most miserable to date, shortly followed by Mick Carter – aka. Danny Dyer – ransacking the Queen Vic in 2014 after finding out that Dean Wicks raped his wife Linda. Just when things couldn’t get any more intense, Shirley makes things even more complicated. “He’s your bruvva!” she bellows, channeling the essence of the equally iconic line “YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO, YOU AIN’T MY MUVVA!......” “YES I AM!!!”.

For Kempner, the standout is 2012’s more underrated special, in which resident villain Derek Branning suddenly drops dead from a heart attack after wreaking unimaginable chaos on the square. “We were all gearing up to be like, someone’s going to kill him! And then he just dropped dead on Christmas day. The room fell silent as the credits rolled, we couldn’t believe it.” She’s also a fan of any and all plots involving Danny Dyer, whose character Mick is currently lost at sea and most likely dead (though if he does come back to life, it wouldn't be the first time in the show's history). 

“All the stuff Danny Dyer has done is so good, because he and Kelly Bright, who plays his wife, Linda, they’re such good performers and had such good on screen chemistry. So any of the stuff with them; we know we're gonna see some proper big action now.”

The events of this year’s special are tightly guarded, though we already know to gear up for another gruesome murder. Way back in February, the soap first revealed that a male character would be dramatically killed off on Christmas in ‘Enders’ first ever flash-forward scene. Denise Fox, Kathy Beale, Linda Carter, Sharon Watts, Stacey Slater, and Suki Panesar – collectively nicknamed The Six, and frequently featured on a promotional graphic that looks a bit like Taylor Swift's poster for the Eras tour – will all play some kind of mysterious role in the whodunnit. Bright’s character Linda is among the potential key players. 

Though she’s obviously not able to say a great deal about what’s coming in the special for viewers: “I don’t think they’ll be disappointed, put it that way! It’s got all of the elements,” she says. “It’s got some classic EastEnders moments in there. I love the threading through of the stories leading to the point where we’re going to reach that flash-forward moment. It’s very clever.”

Similarly, Clenshaw is staying tight-lipped, but hints at yet another explosive episode. “I’m proud of all of our storylines this year, but I’m incredibly proud of this Christmas, and the positive fan reaction to the flash-forward and The Six storyline since February. It’s been a long time in the making and the Christmas Day reveal really is an episode to watch live,” he says. “We’re thrilled with the buzz around it. It’s exactly what we hoped for; we hoped people would chat, we hoped people would speculate, we hoped that everyone would come up with their own theories and share those theories with one another and from what we are seeing, that is exactly what is happening!”

So, pour yourself a pint glass of Baileys, fire up Sooz’s annual thread, and watch the doom-fuelled chaos unfold. It’ll at least throw the intensity of your own family dramas into stark relief.

The 5 Most Iconic EastEnders Christmas Specials of All Time

5. A festive family viewing of Max and Stacey's steamy DVD

A word of advice; if you decide to have an affair with your husband's dad, maybe don't whack concrete evidence onto a DVD, and then leave it within easy reach for your family to accidentally watch on Christmas day.

4. Mick Carter trashes the Vic

In 2014, Danny Dyer did a sterling job of trashing the Queen Vic after learning that Linda's rapist Deano is actually.... his secret brother. A revelation bellowed by Shirley at the top of her lungs in the middle of lunch.

3. Kat and Alfie live happily ever after (for now)

One of the few truly joyful moments in EastEnders' festive history, this one trades in the standard dum-dum-dums in for a velvety rendition of The Very Thought of You by Nat King Cole

2. Archie's Last Christmas

Archie made one too many enemies on the square in 2009, and met a sticky end under the heft of the Queen Vic's royal bust. A months-long who-dunnit ensued.

1. "Happy Christmas, Ange!"

So villainous, it's actually a masterpiece.

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