Despite only taking charge from Dominic Treadwell Collins as EastEnders’ Executive Producer (the individual who leads the cast, crew and production team of the show, as well as the general direction of storylines and show content) back in July 2016, Sean O’Connor barely even managed to last a year at the helm before leaving with immediate effect in June 2017, not even a full year after his appointment.
During his time as EP, Mr O’Connor, or SOC, as he was often referred to as, brought widespread change to EastEnders, revamping the shows tone and bringing it back to its more grounded roots, making many changes to the cast and implementing some big, long running storylines. While he did his best to change things about, unfortunately a lot of what SOC tried to do with EastEnders proved to be unpopular, with many long term viewers (like myself) and critics alike, claiming that things were too boring, that many of the characters were unlikeable and difficult to relate to and that the show in general was on a downturn. Sadly all of this combined with declining viewership figures and a lack of awards at the 2017 British Soap Awards, were probably factors in SOC’s departure, well before he was able to implement all of the changes he had planned to.
With that said, Sean O’Connor’s reign as EP did have a lot of good points and I have honestly found the programme improving and getting better every single month, even though most of those improvements happened before it was too late to save his job. In today’s post I’m going to offer five positives and five negatives that in my opinion, Sean O’Connor’s reign had on EastEnders. Remember, this is all my opinion. These positives could be more like negatives to you and vice versa but that’s okay.
Positive #1: Normal Characters in my EastEnders? It’s More Likely Than You Think!
The Vincent Hubbard who was introduced by Dominic Treadwell Collins couldn’t be more different than the character he was under Sean O’Connor. Originally introduced as a gun dealing, generic villain who had issues with the Mitchell family because his mum did (it’s a long and boring story, don’t ask), the brilliant Richard Blackwood seemed destined to be out of a job again when Sean O’Connor took over. SOC clearly doesn’t believe in destiny because instead, he managed to turn Vincent into a warm and affable character who was devoted to his wife and daughter. SOC somehow managed to make Vincent into a positive asset to the show without completely taking away the characters’ backbone and now would be sorely missed by me if he got axed.
Sean’s handling of Vincent is the way he handled a lot of characters during his tenure. For the first time in what feels like years we actually had a handful of characters who were notable because they were normal, decent people who loved their friends and family. Of the top of my head, Stacey, Johnny, Derek, Honey and of course Vincent were all improved by just allowing them to behave like normal human beings and while some people probably found this boring, I thought it helped provide a nice balance to the craziness that happens in Walford. Two life threatening disasters happened in the space of eight months for goodness sake!
Negative #1: Dreadful Denise
SOC did decent work with some EastEnders’ characters but one character that he did a massive disservice to was Denise. Over the years Denise has been one of my favourite characters. Strong, independent and resilient, even when life constantly threw bad things her direction, I always admired the character and wanted to see her onscreen as much as possible. Unfortunately since SOC took charge, the opposite has happened and I’ve begun to grow tired of her and I think it’s fair to say that most viewers will have seen their opinions of her at least slightly drop over the last year.
To be fair, DTC also did some negative character work on Denise, with her unwillingness to admit that she had savagely attacked Lucy Beale on the night she died particularly damaging but his version of Denise was a wonderful example of great character writing in comparison to Sean O’Connor’s. Throughout the year we seen Denise act like she was high and mighty in comparison to everybody else because she was studying for a part time GCSE, end up on benefits because she was too stubborn to admit to being in the wrong to keep her job, only for her to be fine and in a high end office position in a matter of weeks and embark on a relationship with Kush, in what felt like one of the most forced and unnatural relationships in a long time.
Okay, I understand that her benefits storyline was important and showed that you can only be a few bad decisions away from having to rely on a food bank to survive but even a storyline of that importance left her coming across as an even worse character. From whinge to cringe, most of 2016 and 2017 was not a good period of time for Denise.
Positive #2: Weyland & Co
There has been times that I’ve been pretty critical of this storyline but my main reason for being against it, especially at the start, was for its lack of transparency. A bit of mystery isn’t a bad thing and fans should never have everything spoonfed to them but, for a while this story made little sense and was so hard to follow. Max was shown to be working for this business called Weyland & Co and for some reason they wanted to tear Walford down in order to redevelop it and turn it into a better place but a lot of things weren’t made clear for a long time and it all felt kind of muddled and pointless.
Who these people were was revealed at what felt like a snail’s place, we were given zero reason to care about anybody at the company and when I heard that this story was meant to last for three years I really started to dread it but my stance on the plot has changed in recent weeks. Fi has been shown to be vulnerable and to have her own hangups (her mother committed suicide and she found her body), Josh has genuinely fallen for Lauren and has struggled with his feelings for her, Luke, the other brother, has been only recently introduced but already has a tonne of potential and everything is pulled in together by Max, a character well on his way to legendary status, being heavily linked with the family. The recent reveal that the menacing 1980s vilain James Willmott-Brown is the head of the company and the driving force behind the whole story has only made it even more compelling viewing and now I’m finding myself hoping that it’s allowed to continue and flourish under John Yorke. It reminds me of the bigger gangster based stories of the early 2000s that had stakes that extended beyond Albert Square and I can’t wait to see how it’s all going to unfold.
Negative #2: The Launderette Closes Down, Dot’s farewell party is Attended by NO ONE
I think it’s fair to assume that at some point, a BBC executive took Sean O’Connor aside and told him that, since it’s now 2017, the use of the launderette as a prominent location in EastEnders needed to end. For as long as I can remember I have seen memes and jokes online about how unrealistic it is that nobody in Walford seems to have their own washing machine, so even though I loved the use of the launderette, I can excuse Sean O’Connor for getting rid of it and even for forcing the elderly Dot into retirement. What I can’t excuse however is the limp and lame way that the closing of the launderette was portrayed on television.
In what could only be described as insulting, Dot arranged a party to mark the changing of the launderette into a dry cleaners, as well as her last day on the job and disgustingly, a grand total of zero people attended. It wasn’t like some sort of disaster happened on the day or something to divert attention away either. Everybody just kind of forgot and shrugged their shoulders when they were chastised for it by Dot later on. A location that has seen so many iconic moments take place deserved so much more and I remember feeling incredibly disappointed in Sean O’Connor at the time. It felt like the whole thing had been done as stupidly as possible to deliberately rile fans of the show up, something that was a recurring theme during his first few months on the EastEnders hot seat. Don’t even get me started on the fact that mere months later, Sylvie Carter had a farewell party that almost every available character on the square attended, like she was some sort of long standing icon. Okay I got started.
Positive #3: Steven Beale
When my only criticism of Steven Beale’s final run in EastEnders is that it was cut tragically short, then you know he was handled exceptionally well. After a slow start, where he was involved in a tame plot as he tried to siphon money out of his dad Ian Beale’s restaurant and was shown to struggle with being a dad to his girlfriend Lauren’s baby, since the baby’s father was his brother Peter, Steven found his niche as a controlling, possessive boyfriend who went to desperate lengths to keep Lauren in his life, even as it became more and more obvious that she wasn’t in love with him.
Steven began to get more and more creepy, piercing holes in his condoms in an attempt to get Lauren pregnant, setting up a secret phone app so he could track her whereabouts at all times and then ultimately lying that he had an inoperable brain tumour to keep her from leaving him and while he began to exhibit increasingly reprehensible behaviour that turned off some people, it became captivating viewing. The week where Steven attempted to kill Jane Beale in order to keep his tumour lie a secret, before dying seconds after he found out he was going to become a father to Abi Branning’s baby was in particular, great television and it’s so disappointing that this arch and the character as a whole is now completely done with. Special credit has to go to Aaron Sidwell who played every nuance of his crazy exceptionally well. It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if the character just had to be written off so the actor could go on to bigger and better things. Steven Beale is going to be missed.
Negative #3: The Introduction of the Taylor Family
I’m kind of disgusted that the iconic Keegan wasn’t included in the press release photos of the family (his inclusion in the family was kept as a surprise) but I digress. Even though, spoiler alert, the Taylor Family are about to be listed as a positive as well, I found their first few weeks to be so bad and groan inducing that it deserves to be counted as a misstep. The Taylors were introduced in a stereotypical, EastEnders cliche way by turning up as basically the noisy neighbours, blaring loud music from their flat at all times, being rude and offensive to everybody, including the police and even going as far as to steal Arthur Fowler’s memorial bench. The latter part was particularly baffling to me. Here is a brand new family that we are supposed to take to and like and yet they were portrayed as people who thought it was humorous to steal the memorial bench of a dead man. It didn’t work and fortunately that plot was dropped in a few weeks.
Another issue I had, was how quickly prominent storylines were thrown their way. Bernadette, Karen’s young daughter, being thrown into a pregnancy storyline immediately did nothing to help quell the voices of those who claimed the Taylors were way too similar to another hard done by EastEnders family from the past, the Millers, but even more ill advised was that we were expected to care about Bernadette’s pregnancy to begin with. Here is this group of characters who we have zero affinity to and yet were expected to sympathize with and feel anything other than laughably grossed out at the thought that Keanu might be the father to his own sister’s baby. Yeah, that was a thing that was actually hinted at. The belief that we would care about the Taylors, despite being given no reason to, along with how cliche it all was, makes their initial introduction a big mistake.
Positive #4: The Taylor Family
Fortunately for the Taylors, after some adjustment issues, eventually they found their niche in Walford and began to become better characters. The moment I began to warm to them was probably the moment that I realised just how good a guy Keanu is. He was the first to feel guilt over the theft of Arthur Fowler’s bench and it became clear that he was a hard worker who wanted to better himself and didn’t want to end up in the position of life that his mum did. He loves his family and also was seen to do random acts of kindness in the community, even refusing money from Ingrid after he helped her out in a recent episode, despite his family’s lack of wealth and showing this was a good idea because it caused a lot of people to start to care about him.
When Keanu started to become a valuable character, the rest of his family seemed to also see gradual improvements as well. Karen is still a little selfish and sneaky and often makes mistakes but has been shown to be misunderstood and recently was incredible during the storyline about Bernadette’s miscarriage. She’s gone from somebody I didn’t like to someone I enjoy seeing onscreen and I’m glad that actress has found her niche now as the matriarch of this family. Even Keegan, who EastEnders’ viewers have spent the entire year complaining and criticising for being a nasty little toerag, has started to show signs that behind his tough guy exterior he’s actually just a little lost. Like all of them, he loves his family but seems to feel disillusioned by his status in life and how he’s perceived by people and now we actually know why he’s been a nasty little toerag it explains a lot. It doesn’t excuse it but it does explain it.
When I first was introduced to the Taylors I found myself thinking and hoping that they would all get axed by John Yorke but their down to earth character and their love for family, show signs of a classic EastEnders family and now I’m looking forward to see them becoming long term residents of Albert Square. There’s still so much for the family to do, from Keegan continuing his redemption, to Karen beginning to strike up friendships with the likes of Shirley Carter, to what I’m thinking will continue to be a very sad depression storyline for Bernadette and the success of the Taylor Family is all on SOC’s shoulders. If their introduction had been a little more understated, then Sean would have had a completely perfect record with them.
Negative #4: The Systematic Destruction of Mick Carter’s character
Whether you love them or hate them, Danny Dyer’s character Mick Carter, along with the entire Carter Family, have been an important part of EastEnders in recent years and have brought a lot of attention to the show. From Mick finding out Shirley was his real mother, to the tragic death of Stan and Sylvie, to the harrowing rape of Linda, Mick’s wife, the Carters have always had a prominent role to play in the goings on in Walford, ever since their 2013 debut. There were long running rumours that the last Executive Producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins featured the Carters in important positions because they reminded him of his own family and if that was the case, then Sean O’Connor must have been reminded of a family he wasn’t very fond of because during his tenure he has done the family hardly any favours.
I’m going to ignore his lack of faith in and subsequent dumping of Lee Carter (an issue that even Danny-Boy Hatchard has went on record to claim existed) and focus on Sean O’Connor’s biggest Carter sin, the destruction of Mick and Linda as a couple and of Mick as a character in general. One thing that I always liked about Mick and Linda was that they were quite unique compared to most soap couples. They had a ‘no secrets,’ rule, both never cheated on each other and remained consistently strong and devoted in their love for one another, despite being tested practically as soon as they arrived in Walford.
While the no secrets rule of the couple was broken in a few aspects under DTC, it wasn’t until SOC arrived that the floodgates opened and immediately, Mick wasn’t honest about his growing feelings for Whitney, the family’s increasing financial problems and just how out of control Lee was getting, while Linda kept secret from him that she was going through a cancer battle and that her stroke inflicted mother had actually recovered a lot quicker than she had claimed. I understand that the actress who plays Linda got pregnant and had to be written off for a while but that doesn’t excuse the storyline being so weak and flimsy and the worst sin of all, Mick cheating on Linda with Whitney.
Some people may claim that it’s not cheating to just share a kiss with another woman, or that the aftermath of Linda finding out was good TV but it completely killed Mick’s character. He might not have ultimately slept with Whitney but he was sorely tempted to and from then on seemed to shrink and get weaker. It’s going to be difficult for viewers to view him as a good, caring man now they’ve seen him fall for Whitney’s temptation and I don’t even blame Danny Dyer if he was turning up to the set drunk. His material at the time would drive any man to drink.
Positive #5: Billy Mitchell’s Bad Luck Reign Ends
One of the moments that made me smile most in EastEnders this year, happened when Billy Mitchell, who just recently took over from Les Coker at the Undertakers, walked into the cafe and asked Kathy for one of those new fancy lattes from their new coffee machine. Ignoring the hilarity that somehow Starbucks, Costa or Cafe Nero don’t exist in the world of Walford, it summed up a remarkable turnaround that Billy Mitchell begun under DTC and finished off under SOC. Despite always being the nicest and most kind hearted Mitchell relative, Billy for his entire tenure on EastEnders, has been plagued with incredible bad luck, suffering in a multitude of ways that are too many to list.
Thanks to SOC that has all changed and the character has flourished in an understated background role that has seen his hard work pay off in eventual ownership of the Undertakers and him reconcile his old family unit with Honey and their two children Janet and William and now it’s good to see that he’s able to treat himself and live what he probably envisions as the high life. For a character as decent as Billy I’m genuinely glad to see he’s had a mostly happy year under SOC, well, if you ignore the deaths of his close cousins Ronnie and Roxy. Sean O’Connor did, which brings me to my last, perhaps most damning negative.
Negative #5: The Deaths of Ronnie and Roxy Mitchell
Many people have and many people still will argue that Ronnie and Roxy should never have been axed or at the very least shouldn’t have been killed off and although I do mostly agree, I understand that their characters were growing a little stale. There’s better ways to cope with characters getting stuck in a rut than a final axing but if two actors are being paid too much money or whatever and an Executive Producer is adamant that they must go, then at the very least you had better make their exit stories mean a lot. Sean O’Connor dropped the ball with this one and he dropped it hard.
The way Ronnie and Roxy died was a little silly and confusing (Ronnie tried to save a drowning Roxy and got tangled up in her own wedding dress and they both drowned) but their entire final episode was shot in this beautiful and unique way that made the whole thing harrowing and I enjoyed it, as well as maybe the initial first week of aftermath. Unfortunately, from about a week later the whole thing fell apart. Unless you were Jack or to a lesser extent Billy and Honey, Ronnie was almost immediately forgotten about and Roxy was practically shunned by everyone as soon as they found out that a cocaine induced heart attack probably led to her death. At one point even, just a few months later, Sharon exclaimed that Phil had experienced a great time over the last year or so, as if to suggest that Phil finding out that he had a secret son with Denise was potentially more damaging to him, than him losing two ladies he was very close to was. The whole thing was very poorly done and it almost felt like Ronnie and Roxy were forgotten about as quickly as possible by the show, with the fans continuing to remember them for a lot longer than their own family even.
I guess my point here is, that perhaps axing two popular characters almost immediately into your tenure as Executive Producer isn’t a good idea and if you’re going to do it then you had better do it well or else nobody will support you. I’m sure John Yorke has learned a lesson and isn’t going to kill off Abi and Lauren Branning over Christmas. Right?
To summarise, I think in hindsight a lot of people will view Sean O Connor’s time as Executive Producer of EastEnders as a tenure of two distinct halves, one that was crawling and dreary with a lot of inexplicable decisions and a later one that involved regularly captivating television, bolstered by mostly strong characters, new and old, that were easy to get invested in. Originally I was glad to see him leave but now part of me feels it’s appropriate to mourn what could have been instead. Like all of them or not, the changes implemented during Sean O’Connor’s brief period in charge of EastEnders will be felt for a long time and for that I can only offer my thanks.