This week there was a lot of hype created online, when EastEnders’ official social media accounts all began to tease a new arrival in Walford. That arrival turned out to be Melanie Owen, a character who hasn’t been in EastEnders for over fifteen years. While some people online, who were expecting returns from big names like Kat and Alfie Moon or Janine Butcher were disappointed, there was a lot of positivity about new Executive Producer John Yorke’s first character introduction. Melanie who is billed as a strong and feisty free spirit, had several big storylines centered around her relationships with the likes of Ian Beale and Steve Owen and in my eyes represents a pretty solid start to John Yorke’s tenure as Executive Producer in the arrivals department but it’s a shame that the same can’t be said about his handling of departures so far.
I wasn’t exactly heartbroken at the recent news of Abi and Lauren’s upcoming Christmas exit, so long as they’re not murdered and written out permanently but the news that Harry Reid, who has played Ben Mitchell for the last three years, will be leaving EastEnders when his contract runs out, left a bitter taste in my mouth. Obviously I know nothing about EastEnders behind the scenes but as a character, I think Ben Mitchell adds a lot of value to the show and shouldn’t be let go of just yet. In today’s post I’m going to offer five reasons why I think Harry Reid’s Ben Mitchell should not be axed, even if I’m well aware that blog posts and fan petitions have stopped a grand total of zero soap characters from ever being axed in the history of television. Here we go:
Reason One: It Took Three Attempts To Get Casting Right
I’ll have to admit that I hadn’t been the biggest fan of Ben Mitchell until the last few years and I think a lot of that was down to the people they had playing the character. I won’t be too hard on the original actor Charlie Jones, who was only a child at the time and was also a victim of terrible writing, like so many child characters in EastEnders but the second person to play Ben, Joshua Pascoe, did a horrible job in my eyes. Yet again, Ben wasn’t written during Joshua’s stint as well as he has been recently but I constantly felt baffled by how often such a gormless and uncharasmatic character was getting put into big storylines during Pascoe’s time on the Square. It felt like every time a big mystery storyline was coming up, whether it was who was anonymously threatening Phil or who would end up killing Heather Trott, Ben ended up being the answer, usually to lukewarm and underwhelming results.
The past failure of two different actors to play Ben Mitchell as well as he should have been, meant that I groaned and dreaded the return of the character when it was announced that he would come back after yet another recast. My skepticism couldn’t have been more misplaced however when Harry Reid took to the screen as Ben. Ben still had a dark side and was tormented by the same tired issues involving his dad but under Harry Reid, the character almost instantly felt better. For the very first time, I felt natural sympathy at his inner vulnerability, instead of almost being forced to feel it begrudgingly because we were told to.
I don’t think this feeling that Harry Reid finally got Ben Mitchell right is exclusively mine either, since a lot of other people online really like the character nowadays and it would be a shame if EastEnders lost an actor who has managed to change popular opinion about a character some worried was completely unsalvageable. If Ben isn’t killed off permanently in his exit storyline, then I can guarantee there will be a point were an Executive Producer will want him back and he or she will be extremely lucky if Harry Reid is still ready and willing to return again. A fourth recast would more than likely be fatal for the character, no matter how many years they waited.
Reason Two: He’s A Legacy Character That Actually Works
I’m not sure what the official definition is but in regards to EastEnders, I consider a Legacy Character to be a child of one of the show’s long running, most popular families. These characters should be generally easier to write because their family have deep seated roots in the show’s history and are automatically more recognizable to fans but the problem is that they can sometimes end up failing for one reason or another, usually thanks to a mixture of writing that makes them far too unlikeable and bad casting.
In the Mitchell family alone, we have some good examples of Legacy Characters who currently aren’t working as well as they should be. Denny who will be a big deal some day, as the son of Dennis Rickman and Sharon Watts, has been portrayed as a selfish brat for years now and while recent attempts have been made to tone down how much of a little toerag he is, a lot of damage has been done and I feel like it will take a fair amount of hard work, if writers want to make him likeable and easier to empathise with in the future. Louise, Ben’s sister and obviously Phil Mitchell’s daughter, is also someone who I think isn’t working right now. Louise came across as extremely cruel and vicious when she allowed Alexandra and Madison to bully Bex and the fact that she only ever really decided to side with Bex when the bullying turned to being against her as well, meant that even her redemption arch was handled clumsily. Recently things haven’t got much better for Louise either, with her only storyline involvement centering around her body hang ups over some first degree burns that she received, thanks to Alexandra and Madison, which hasn’t exactly got a lot of attention or plaudits.
I fully understand at one point, Ben Mitchell was a legacy character who wasn’t working as well but axing him when he’s doing much better than he used to seems like a bad choice, especially when there’s even people in his own family who haven’t got it right. I’d sooner lose Denny or Louise for a while than Ben.
Reason Three: Without Ben, Jay Will Feel Directionless
One of EastEnders greatest assets in recent years in my eyes, has been the relationship between Jay and Ben. Despite not actually being biologically related to each other in any way, both guys have developed a bond over the years that’s probably even stronger than the bond a lot of biological brothers have. Jay and Ben have been through lots over the years, from Ben’s conviction for the manslaughter of Heather Trott, to Jay devolving into drug dealing that put them both at risk for a while and even after everything, they’ve remained loyal to each other and have constantly reiterated that they are brothers who’ll always have each other’s back. A recent scene were they both got physical and knocked lumps out of each other, before making up and playing video games together was one of my favourite scenes of the year and summed up exactly what their relationship is all about. Brotherhood.
My fear is that when Ben goes, Jay is going to be rudderless as a character, without his partner in crime to bounce off against. I’ve always insisted that one of the most underrated actors on the entire show is Jamie Borthwick, who plays Jay and it scares me to imagine how much he’ll suffer when Ben leaves. The great scenes they’ve had recently, were they hang out in the Arches or at their flat having fun and bringing some lightness to the show, or where they support each other in their respective romantic lives. will all cease to exist and without Jay’s strongest link to the Mitchell family, I have a feeling that his connection to them will erode considerably. We’ve seen these two characters grow up in front of our eyes onscreen over several years and their entire relationship grow and flourish and it just feels like such a shame to know that it’s all coming to an end soon. I’m worried for Jay Mitchell in an EastEnders that doesn’t involve Ben.
Reason Four: Three Departures In A Year Will Hurt The Mitchells
I have a feeling that Jay isn’t the only character that is going to suffer when Ben leaves. In my opinion, the entire Mitchell family, probably the most recognisable family in EastEnders history (I know that’s ridiculously controversial but in this century at least, I do think the Mitchells have received the most prominent and biggest storylines), is going to be hurt by Ben’s departure. I’ve already touched on Denny and Louise not being the strongest characters right now but even looking at it in the long term, the loss of Ben is going to be damaging for a family, that already had to go through the losses of the popular Ronnie and Roxy at the beginning of 2017.
Without getting too involved in the debate over Ronnie and Roxy’s axing, it’s hard to argue that the Mitchells weren’t hurt when they were killed off on New Year’s Day. Characters that have been developed since the turn of the century in EastEnders, that are actually popular and well liked by the majority of fans, are somewhat of a rarity and I can only see the prominence of the Mitchells continue to tumble, if they end up losing three of these sort of characters in a single year.
EastEnders and the Mitchells can’t survive just on the popularity of Phil alone. Even though I do admit that Ben and Phil’s issues have been stretched out over the years to the point of tedium, it would be better if Ben was around to continue that angle, than Phil lost his son and only really had Louise, Denny, Billy, Sharon and Jay to have family based storylines with. I can only hope that Ronnie and Roxy’s exit will be enough to ensure John Yorke doesn’t kill off Ben but more baffling permanent axings have happened in the past. In a completely unrelated point, Rest in Peace Pat Butcher.
Reason Five: EastEnders Loses A Great LGBT Character If Ben Leaves
I’m not going to dwell on this point for long, since I’m not part of the LGBT community and don’t want to feel like I’m trying to speak on their behalf but one thing I’ve always loved about Ben is how positive a gay character he is. Quite often in soaps I’ve found gay characters can be written to be stereotypes and since in a lot of ways, Ben has always been the opposite of those stereotypes, I’ve always felt that he was a good representative for that community. With his dark past and tough guy attitude, Ben really stands out as a well written and endearing LGBT character, who’s extremely different to some of the often over the top and campy, gay soap characters of the past and it doesn’t surprise me at all that Harry Reid’s portrayal, has encouraged some viewers to actually come out to their friends and family and feel more comfortable about their own sexuality.
Even if it broke my heart to see it end, Ben’s relationship with Paul Coker was one of the sweetest and most well done romance storylines that I can ever remember and the recent content involving Ben and the older Luke Willmott-Brown has also been excellent viewing and I think that EastEnders will miss having such a great LGBT character being involved in entertaining romance storylines like those. It’s important that we see more Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transexual characters in our soaps than less and axing Ben, one of the best gay characters in all of the soaps seems like a reductive step.
As I’ve said, I fully understand that I don’t have a tight grasp on what goes on behind the scenes on EastEnders but from a character and acting standpoint alone, I can’t really understand why the bosses have decided to let Harry Reid leave his role when his contract runs out. Ultimately, with the knowledge that the recent petition to keep Harry Reid around, won’t do anything to prevent him from leaving, all I can really do is thank him for reviving a character that was dead in the water before he took the role. He might only have been on the show for three years but he’s done a wonderful job in improving the characterisation of Ben Mitchell and perhaps most importantly, has improved the lives of some viewers considerably, by giving them the confidence to be proud to be who they are. I’m not an actor but I can imagine one of the most rewarding aspects of the job, is the ability to improve the lives of the people that consume your work. Harry Reid has most definitely done that and can leave with his head held high, no matter what. I’ll miss you Ben.