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Why EastEnders is the soap that makes you smile

One of the easiest and laziest observations about EastEnders is that it’s just unrelentingly miserable. I’m as guilty of saying this as anyone, and they certainly make it easy for us at times.

Christmas on Albert Square this year was as grim as any they’ve ever had. Like many others, I thought the tone of Fatboy’s exit storyline – in which the unfortunate Mr Chubb was locked in Vincent’s car boot, taken to a scrapyard and crushed – was seriously misjudged. A bit of blackly comic tragedy is one thing, but this was gruesome and unpleasant.

Ironically, I may have been partly to blame, having been greatly amused by all the “CRUSH HIM INTO A CUBE” jokes on Twitter whenever Ronnie Mitchell was wronged by one of the men of Albert Square. Ronnie had already dispatched one enemy in the same way, so it somehow became “a thing”. When she decided to bump off her nemesis/one true love, Vincent, the idea of having her use the same RIDICULOUS method must have been irresistible.

But it’s a new year, and since The Very Long Night Of Great Unhappiness finally ended after eight tortuous episodes, things have been much better. Here’s why tonight’s episode went a long way to cheering me right up.

Phil hitting even rocker bottom than the last rock bottom he hit

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I know this is a strange thing to feel cheerful about, but there’s a reason. I’ve seen the horrendous consequences of alcoholism from about as close as it’s possible to see them, so I’m pleased that EastEnders aren’t pulling any punches when it comes to Phil’s condition. If he drinks, he’ll die. It’s pretty simple, and horribly inevitable.

Steve McFadden plays Drunk Phil absolutely brilliantly, too. The moment tonight when he wondered what had happened to the lovely old plasterwork on the ceiling was just spot-on. Phil’s in such a state he probably barely remembers that it’s gone because he burnt the gaff to the ground in 2010 when he set light to a load of booze he had drunkenly dropped on the floor.

Could they actually kill Phil? It surely has to be a possibility. Just as long as there isn’t some miracle cure when he remembers he’s got a load of hooky livers stashed at the back of the refrigerated section of that bottomless safe in his living room wall.

They’re finally sorting out the Kathy “issue”

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There have been few more thrilling moments in the history of the show than Kathy stepping out of that black cab to face Phil during the 30th anniversary live episode last year. But since Kathy’s proper return, I’ve felt that something’s not quite right. They said at the time that we’d meet Kathy again as a broken, damaged woman, and that it would take time for her true self to re-emerge. At bloody last, it seems like the wait is over. We’ve seen more flashes of the “real” Kathy more recently – never more than this week, when she’s been asserting herself as the matriarch of the Beale and Fowler clans – and keeping a close eye on those Mitchells, too. She’s even been trying to sort out wayward (gayward) son Ben. Speaking of whom…

The remaking of Ben

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When Ben first returned, he found himself slap-bang in the middle of the Who Killed Lucy storyline, and I always felt we hadn’t seen enough of him as a character in his own right. Who would he be after years in prison for killing Heather, and how would his old friends and family react to him coming back?

It’s a shame that Johnny Carter left the show as quickly as he did – the current storylines must surely have been devised with him in mind, and there would have been extra drama with Shirley having to watch her grandson slowly fall in love with the man who murdered her best mate.

Now Paul Coker is the “lucky” object of Ben’s affections. I’m sure I’m not the only viewer who’s been utterly baffled as to why the happy, sorted Paul would ever be attracted to a massive fuck-up like Ben. My best guess so far would have been that Ben has the biggest cock in Walford, but this week Paul has revealed it’s because he’s actually really sweet, sensitive and funny when they’re alone together.

I can just about swallow that (even if Paul, erm, can’t), especially as they’ve actually been showing us some of that stuff for the first time. Ben’s still conflicted, but when Paul’s around he’s flirty, funny and charming. This finally seems like a relationship that could actually happen.

Aunt Babe’s many faces

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It’s pretty impressive that the writers have managed to make so many people fall in love with as vile a character as the scheming, plotting, selfish, manipulative, baby-trafficking Aunt Babe. But fall we have, and it’s been a joy to see her in the Queen Vic on a more regular basis. And the best bit is, her every thought is written all over that amazing face of hers.

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She’s sneaky! If there’s something to be overheard or a secret to be revealed, Babe will be there.

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She’s dirty! Her frankly filthy cackle at the sight of a hot young man in a towel was glorious.

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She’s vulnerable! I haven’t felt such dread about a romantic misunderstanding like the one between her and Patrick last week since that time in TOWIE when Gemma thought Mick was bringing her the champagne.

And of course, it’s always nice to see the surprise return of a much-loved old character, such as Whatsisname

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Hi Ryan! Have you been working out?

So, erm, yes, where were we?

Yes. Well, what I think I was trying to say is that although EastEnders can sometimes be a bit too downbeat, violent, dark or just plain bloody depressing at times, there are still a lot of warm, funny character moments in amongst the crashes, bangs and ENDLESS BLOODY SHOUTING.

And there’s plenty more to come. Peggy’s death is sure to be a major focus for 2016, but it will also be great to see more of Denise this year. We’re also told that there’s a lot more to come for Jay, who hasn’t had much to do lately. And don’t think I didn’t notice Carmel casually namedropping her other sons, Darius and Shakky, the other week. Let’s hope Ronnie isn’t crushing either of them into a cube come Christmas 2018.

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