I love East Enders. I’ve watched it pretty much from the start. Its characters have at times almost been real people – I remember being picked up from school in my teens and having my mum go on about Arthur having been stupid and realising part way through the conversation that she was talking about Arthur Fowler rather than someone we actually knew.
So, I’ve been horrified by the recent, random and bizarre introduction of Derek Branning to the series. He has appeared from nowhere with no support from earlier plotlines over the years to come and dominate the show. He is killing it.
Of course, it is part of the nature of soap operas to bring in new characters and to use sometimes desperate measures to change the direction of the show if it is going into a dead end – from the mundane regular use of catastrophic explosions (Emmerdale), tram-related carnage (Coronation Street), and arson, often for insurance scams (East Enders) to the extreme of Dallas writing off a whole series as a dream.
However, the rise from nowhere of Derek Branning takes this artifice to another level. How did Carol, Jack and Max manage to have a major gangland figure in their family without anyone knowing? When Max agonises over his relationship with his father, Jim, after his stroke, remembering him as a terrible bully in his childhood, who mentions Derek? When Max is being buried alive by Tanya and she’s going off with Jack, why isn’t Derek riding in to preserve his family (was he in prison – if so, how come he hasn’t come and done Tanya in first off on release?). How on earth did Jack get into the Police with such a rogue in his family? Why isn’t Derek hunting down Jack’s ex wife for doing him wrong? Why is anyone giving him the time of day?
The problem is that Derek has no nuance even as a vehicle for bringing in extra gangland grit. The Mitchells have been developed well as a family over the years. There is real complexity about Phil Mitchell and his relationships with his children, partners and alcohol. Much earlier on, Grant Mitchell’s response to his experiences as a soldier in the Falklands provided a balance to his violence and mental state in civilian life. Archie Mitchell was built up into being a monster gradually so that it was believable that people had ambiguous relationships with him. Andy, the last big non-Mitchell gangland boss to be introduced, was also more than a caricature in his relationship with Kat.
Within the Branning family, there are internal conflicts in the lives of Jack, Max and Carol which are believable and real. They all hope to be principled in a way but are ultimately slaves to their passions. Derek has none of this depth and the meagre attempts to fill in his motivations aren’t even believed by the other characters (eg Carol’s incredulity at Derek harbouring a grudge against David Wicks for having spoilt his teenage relationship with the only girl he loved – the writers will probably heap on the cliché now and make him gay).
He’s a pointless, unappealing, random character with no credible link to the family he has installed himself as the head of. The sooner the writers come up with the inevitable set-piece violent death that they must surely be planning for him, the better.