The highs and lows of Jon Sen's tenure as he leaves EastEnders

It’s the end of an era for EastEnders, as Jon Sen leaves his role as the show’s Executive Producer.

Alexa, play Julia’s Theme!

It was revealed earlier today that Jon had decided to depart the long-running soap, moving to fellow serial drama Casualty, of which he will now take the reins.

‘The time has come to bid my farewell to Walford,’ he said in a statement. ‘It has been the honour of a lifetime to helm this amazing show for three years.

‘I want to give a heartfelt thanks to Kate [Oates] and rest of the wonderful team at Elstree for the brilliant work we’ve achieved together. I wish Chris every success in his new role.’

Throughout his time on EastEnders, Jon has overseen many a huge development, and did the impossible by devising new ways to produce a show during a pandemic.

Like all producers, there were highlights and lowlights during his tenure, and as it comes to an end, we thought it only fitting that, in the wake of today’s news, we look back at the last three-ish years.

The Highs…

Linda Carter’s alcoholism

Linda found herself battling an addiction to alcohol in late 2019, shortly after Jon was appointed producer.

The storyline in question came about at just the right time for the Carter clan, who had been stuck in something of a loop of repeating the same stories over an over.

Both John Yorke and Kate Oates had done some stellar character work in re-capturing the light of Mick and Linda’s earlier years, repositioning the couple at the heart of the community, making them fresh and exciting once more.

The alcoholism narrative furthered this significantly, providing the couple with what was undoubtedly their finest storyline since at least 2016, allowing Kellie Bright the opportunity to once again showcase her incredible acting chops.

Linda’s battle with the booze reached a dramatic peak on New Year’s Eve 2019, in a special episode told from the landlady’s perspective, which was quite possibly the best singular outing produced across Jon’s years as producer.

The boat crash

We all had high hopes for EastEnders’ 35th anniversary, and the episodes in question certainly did NOT disappoint.

To mark the occasion, the residents of Walford boarded a party boat on the Thames, and chaos ensued.

With stunning direction, cinematography and writing, the four special episodes were littered with nods to the past, and celebrated everything we love most about the BBC One soap.

In true EastEnders fashion, the event was an ensemble piece, as several stories collided, and it provided us with some truly incredible character-driven moments, such as Mick’s refusal to leave Linda to die.

Though it did come at the expense of legacy character Dennis Rickman, who perished in the tragedy. It was undoubtedly a bold move, one that we thought could’ve been a good one at time, but for many, the aftermath did not justify such a big loss to the show’s future. More on that, later.

Whitney and Leo

Whitney Dean was another Walford favourite stuck in a loop prior to Jon’s arrival, and while the Leo King arc bore similarities to several of her previous storylines, it was compelling enough to set it apart in its own right.

Leo’s connection to Tony made the storyline more chilling, and it allowed actress Shona McGarty ample material to dazzle audiences with her talent.

Leo’s reign of terror would’ve been the perfect conclusion to Whitney’s never-ending bad luck, but unfortunately it set the scene for her to be tethered to Gray for almost two years, which was by comparison a weaker storyline.

Mick Carter’s historic abuse story

Mick Carter’s world was turned upside down last year, when he discovered that he had been sexually abused at 12 years of age by carer Katy Lewis.

The Queen Vic landlord struggled to process the news, pushed wife Linda and sister Tina away, and attempted to take his own life.

It was a powerful storyline, the kind that EastEnders has a reputation for, and it allowed Danny Dyer to blow audiences away with his award-worthy performances.

Bad Girls star Simone Lahbib joined the show as abuser Katy, and she was nothing short of superb in the role.

The storyline came to a head with some remarkable scenes, as Mick told Linda the truth, before Katy was sentenced for her crime several months later.

The greatest thing to come out of this story, however, was Frankie Lewis…

Frankie Lewis

Frankie arrived in the Square after crossing paths with Ben Mitchell and Callum Highway, and her introduction proved to be the catalyst in kicking off Mick’s historic abuse storyline.

Mick struggled to accept that he had a daughter outside of his little family with Linda, but he soon fell in love with Frankie, declaring himself her dad in a truly touching moment.

Frankie’s excellent characterisation won over viewers quite quickly, with actress Rose Ayling-Ellis proving to be one of the best casting decisions the show has made in years.

The Carter dynamic is undoubtedly one of the greatest in EastEnders history, and tampering with Mick and Linda’s detailed backstory could’ve backfired dramatically.

But careful storytelling to honour what came before ensured that this was not the case.

It’s hard to remember a time before Frankie was a part of the Carter clan, and quite frankly, we don’t want to!

Bringing back Janine

EastEnders fans have made no secret of how much they wanted iconic super soapbitch Janine Butcher back on the Square.

It’s a request many have had for years, and yet it’s something that – for the longest time – seemed nearly an impossibility.

But Jon, however, managed to accomplish the impossible!

Janine waltzed back into Walford in style several months ago, and has slotted back into the show incredibly well.

The character is every bit the schemer she was in the past, albeit a bit more bold these days, and we couldn’t be happier to have her back where she belongs.

The Panesars

EastEnders’ first Sikh family has brought in an excellent dynamic of personalities; with a fascinating hierarchy of control.

From the outset, Suki was a fearful, intelligent, dominating and pretty cruel matriarch and she has maintained that fierce sharpness throughout, dishing out tongue lashings and threats, facing up to a baseball bat wielding Phil Mitchell, sending her own son Jags effectively to his death and evicting the Slaters more times than Jean slaps up a sausage surprise.

Suki heads up the clan and exerts control but we have seen a shifting power dynamic over time, with layers pulled back and Suki showing a surprise vulnerability to Honey before biting back twice as hard defensively when she thought she was rejected.

Kheerat’s love story, sadly cut short, with Chantelle was investable and it seems he is one of the few who still remembers what happened to Chantelle. With a business head on his shoulder and the odd smouldering flirt with Stacey, he has come into his own out of his mother’s shadow.

Vinny’s need to please his mum and also his humanising of Dotty and Ash’s demons coming to the fore lead to plenty of screentime for the Panesars, who can now be considered Walford mainstays.

And that’s before we even meet daddy Panesar…

Zack Hudson

Sharon was as shocked as the rest of the nation when she discovered she had a biological brother who she knew nothing about.

Zack was charming, mischievous and had a penchant for one-night-stands, but it didn’t take him long to win a passionate fanbase, and prove himself a worthy member of Sharon’s legendary clan.

The character possesses all the warmth and charm we’ve come to expect from our EastEnders faves, and has the potential to remain on the Square for many, many years.

Strong characterisation, and a superb actor in James Farrar make Zack one to watch as the soap commences a new chapter.

Rainie and Stuart

There was a time when Stuart’s vileness gave a real shelf life to his character and it could only have been a matter of time before he was given the chop. One of the most detestable characters has become someone we root for, someone we have warmed to and he can also be really funny.

Project Stuart Redemption has been one of biggest surprising successes and pairing him with Rainie was a stroke of genius. Tanya Franks can carry a scene as easily as I carry an empty carrier bag and her dynamic with Ricky Champ has created a funny, realistic couple exuding a rare and genuine love. Thankfully, both characters have maintained edges and flaws which make them unpredictable and interesting.

Chantelle’s death

The initial stages of Chantelle’s story were brave and effective for EastEnders to tell. We have seen many domestic abuse storylines in soap, most done incredibly well, but for a major soap to show the murder of a wife at her husband’s fans in an intense and graphic scene was a huge risk.

EastEnders worked with Women’s Aid to bring a chilling set of episodes which sought to grimly highlight the horrific statistics about domestic abuse murders. This story had the makings of one of the best soap has ever told.

Sadly, instead of exploring the deep grief of Chantelle’s family and loved ones as well as Gray’s unhinged psyche, it quickly moved on to an ill conceived serial killer plot, which saw characters like Tina and Kush needlessly and gruesomely sacrificed to keep the plot going in a direction that was for shock twists rather than the raw, human drama it explored so very well at the start.

Denise and Kim screen time

We will never ever turn down screentime for the Fox ladies and they have been placed at the forefront of the show where they belong. Denise is a true epitome of a strong soap woman, a tough matriarch of the Square who also has humour, loyalty, a sense of decency and is laced with flaws.

The talents of Diane Parish should never be underestimated, so bringing in Chelsea, exploring the Raymond angle with Phil, pairing her up with Jack, confronting her past with Lucas and now involving her in the Vincent strand has been brilliantly welcome.

The Lucas story in particular was great for showing the family unit as a whole, with fantastic support roles for Kim and Patrick. And what a joy to have Tameka Empson back with a vengeance, still side splittingly funny, still calling Janine Janice and still a breath of fresh air in the gloom of a year of Covid and Albert Square murders and misery.

Tameka has also been given the chance to remind us of how good she can be in serious storylines; the scene of her telling Pearl that her daddy wasn’t coming home was a true craft of writing and acting.

The Lows…

Sharon BEALE and her poisonous revenge

Killing off Dennis Rickman was a decision that did not go down too well with EastEnders fans, but the promise of a compelling aftermath kept viewers watching.

What was delivered, however, ended up becoming one of the most disliked storylines in the soap’s 36-year history.

Sharon had discovered that best friend Ian had locked son Dennis in a room on board the boat prior to his death, and thus she plotted her revenge on him, desperate to make him pay.

In bizarre scenes, the soap stalwart married Ian, who had suddenly developed feelings for her for the first time in over three decades.

After a failed attempt to kill – yes KILL – her oldest friend, she decided that she would make him pay in other ways, by tricking him into thinking that she was in love with him, before slowly poisoning him to death.

Sharon Beale Watts is a lot of things, but a murderer she is not. This storyline, while giving us many fabulous meme-worthy moments, did a lot of damage to both Sharon and her relationship with Ian, and we’re yet to find out if either can fully recover.

To complicate things further, the narrative didn’t particularly make sense, given that Sharon aligned herself with Phil, in spite of the fact that Phil played more of a role in her son’s death than Ian did!

Linda and Max

Linda’s alcoholism story might have restored the Carters to their former glory, but the landlady’s affair with Max Branning the following year would ultimately render it all undone, leaving them in arguably the most frustrating position they’ve ever been in.

Mick and Linda were incredibly unique upon their introduction. It was made clear from the outset that they would never so much as look at another person romantically, given their life-long love for each other.

But Linda’s sudden desire for Max – of all people, Max – was a bafflingly out-of-character short-term story that resulted in significant long-term damage.

To make matters worse, Linda subsequently fell pregnant with Max’s baby, a plot development which will now serve as a constant reminder of a storyline we’d all rather forget.

That is, unless a last-minute ‘retcon’ sees the baby revealed to be Mick’s, which we would certainly be here for!

Gray’s killing spree – and the deaths of Tina and Kush

Gray’s transformation from domestic abuser to serial killer took us all by surprise, given the excellent work done during the domestic violence storyline.

But, as noted earlier, what made it more upsetting was that we lost a number of incredibly valuable mainstays to further the arc.

Tina Carter and Kush Kazemi were two very popular characters, who would’ve likely remained on the Square for years to come, and their loss continues to be felt to this day.

Though, not necessarily on screen…

Not enough consequence or aftermath

EastEnders, as we all know, is a continuing drama. By definition, the drama is continues, long after the initial catalyst in a particular story.

In other words, there is aftermath.

When a huge event happens – such as a crash or a death – it’s not just the huge event itself that’s important, but also what happens after.

The effect that said event will have on the respective characters and the community as a whole, which some would argue is the best part, as it can provide months worth of storylines.

Fans, however, have claimed that EastEnders has been lacking a little in this department as of late, in comparison to previous years.

Chantelle’s death is a prime example. The episode immediately following her demise shifted focus to Stacey’s return, not allowing the viewer or the soap’s fictional community the time required to come to terms with this shocking development.

Kush’s death was the same. Viewers were given no time to mourn. We learned little of the effect it had on anyone other than Whitney, and even that was wrapped up rather quickly.

Linda’s alcoholism, while an excellent storyline in its own right, had little long-term effects either, as after being heavily cited as the reason to remove the Carters from the Vic, it was barely referenced again – even when they returned to the pub the following year.

Sound effects and incidental music

EastEnders has made use of sound effects and incidental music over the years, during particularly big episodes, anniversaries or sad goodbyes.

But the soap has been employing background tracks more readily over the past two years, and fans have claimed that it just doesn’t fit with the tone of the show.

Hollyoaks, for example, uses incidental music incredibly well. It’s always been the norm to hear songs and sound effects on the Channel 4 soap. EastEnders, however, only uses such things on rare occasions, and thus it’s quite jarring when it occurs in day-to-day episodes.

Regular incidental music is not in EastEnders’ DNA. It has survived 35-ish years without it, and can easily continue to do so.

Kat and Phil

Much like Max and Linda, Kat and Phil are two characters who would never so much as look at each other in a romantic light, let alone embark on a proper relationship.

The duo raised a few eyebrows when they were first paired up this summer for the purposes of a steamy fling. The fling was questionable at best, but as a full-blown relationship, it just isn’t working.

Primarily because there’s just too much history there.

In 2019, for example, Phil attempted to intimidate Kat in The Arches, all the while threatening various members of her family.

There is simply no way Kat would willingly put her kids – or any of her nearest and dearest – at risk by getting together with Phil.

Shorter episodes

The decision around this obviously lands higher up and so much has largely been out of control because of Covid. The past two years have been the most challenging faced by TV production and no-one could envy the extra work that had to go in to producing a show which was already extremely busy.

But there can be no denying that the shorter episodes have had a huge hack into the quality of the show. Perhaps too much ‘event’ has been attempted to be shoved in to 20 minutes and then we lose the lower key human dialogue and characterisation.

Episodes have just become a ‘this happens and then this happens and then this happens then end’ format. Storylines needed to have been streamlined more to adapt to what is effectively the loss of a whole episode a week almost.

Of course, the timings have not been healthy for the show’s ratings either and a huge stepping stone for shifting things into a better gear will be the episodes returning to a normal length.

Episodes are more than just rushing to cram everything in needed for the cliffhanger. Extra time means extra heart and soul and the rest should be easier to get into place. Pre pandemic, EastEnders had been running very strongly and while there has been some stand out storylines and episodes, it has yet to quite recover from being Covid ravaged; the correct pacing and level of aftermath is still missing and needs restored. The fundamentals need to be fixed and the remaining touches will follow.

That said, in this climate where BBC budgets have been slashed, we live in a Covid world and every single scene risks shutting production down if measures aren’t adhered to, whether you enjoyed the work of Jon Sen or not, it can’t be underestimated how much he has done to keep the show alive during uncertain times in which Holby proved that no programme is safe.

The executive producer role inevitably became one that was less based on story and character and more based on technical aspects and distancing tricks, rules and laws to keep people safe and, well, alive. That isn’t what anyone signed on the dotted line to tackle, but across all soaps, tackle they have. And that is a huge job that many would have run from, let alone managed.

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